Sweating it solo to Modesto 31 Aug 2013
aviation flying solo vfrstudentpilot

“Check out the photos on the camera” I told my wife as we pulled out of the California Airways parking lot.

“Did Jonathan take these while you two were flying?”

“Uh, no, I did” ellicited a somewhat puzzled response. After a brief pause, I continued “Oh, did I not tell you I was flying solo to Modesto today?”

Apparently, I neglected to tell my wife that I was actually flight planning, and preparing mentally for my first solo cross-country trip this morning.

Clear communication really is the bedrock of a successful marriage.

Waking up at 6 am on a Saturday is something I prefer not to do, but in order to prepare for this morning’s flight, I was willing to make an exception.

Flight planning the morning of

Groggily checking the more accurate and current winds aloft forecast for the route of my flight, I’m able to fill in the rest of my flight log. Performing various wind correction computations, with the goal of getting the most accurate time aloft estimate possible. Time is everything to flying cross country, time equals fuel, delays between waypoints have to be tracked meticulously to ensure the fuel in the tanks will get you where you want to go.

Once everything is put together, double-checked, I look at the weather for Hayward (KHWD) and notice that the field is IFR, i.e. clouded in.

Not unusual for a summer morning in the bay area, hoping it will burn off by my planned departure time, I head to the airport.

After arriving at the California Airways office, I file my flight plan and get my weather briefing. The voice at the other line knows what I do, but he’s unwilling to go on record saying that the clouds will burn off by my departure time.

After thorough review, my flight plan passes muster and my instructor endorses me for the solo cross country, reviews my limitations, and sends me on my way.

Today’s chariot of choice, is the venerable Ugly Duckling, the same plane that I first soloed in this past June.

Ugly Duckling

Following a detailed pre-flight inspection, I sit down in the left seat, happily tucking my mess of papers and charts into the vacant right seat. Without an instructor, I won’t have to try to keep everything crammed onto my kneeboard or side-pocket.

“Hayward Ground, Skyhawk Seven-three-seven Golf-mike at the green ramp with Charlie, request taxi to 28R”

“Skyhawk 737GM, Hayward Ground, taxi via Alpha to 28R”

A deep breath, slight opening of the throttle, and I depart the flight line.

After climbing out of Hayward, I have to fight the habit of flying straight at Mount Diablo as I’ve done a number of times on training flights. I catch myself pointed right at it, consult my flight log “Zero-six-zero, right-o.”

Over Dublin I start getting into “cross-country setup mode.” First by opening my flight plan. That complete, I switch over to NorCal Approach to hear a pretty busy channel. Waiting my turn, I finally get a chance to jump in as I close in on Livermore.

“NorCal Approach, Skyhawk Seven-three-seven Golf-Mike with a VFR request”

“Skyhawk 737GM, NorCal Approach, go ahead”

“737GM, north of Livermore at three thousand five hundred, round-robin to Modesto and back to Hayward, I’d like to request flight following.”

I realize after making the call, that I left some bits of the script out, but Approach doesn’t ask for those details, assigns me a squawk code and continues dealing with the plethora of other weekend flyers.

Headed towards the Altamont Pass

Heading towards Altamont Pass, I realize I didn’t check my watch at my first waypoint (Dublin). Cursing myself, I snap a few photos while I anxiously wait for the Ugly Duckling to putt along over my next waypoint (VPALT) so I can catch up on my time calculations.

Closing in on Modesto, I inform NorCal Approach that I have “Uniform”, the current wind and weather at Modesto, and they pass me off to Modesto Tower.

“Modesto Tower, Skyhawk Seven-three-seven Golf-Mike, 12 miles to the northwest with uniform”

Just as before, Modesto seems eager to please and asks me what I want to do. I let them know I’m just stopping in for a landing and taxi-back. Again I choose the shorter runway, and enter the traffic pattern on the downwind leg.

Left downwind 28L at KMOD

Lining up on final approach, the wind is bumping me around a little bit, but I’m maintaining “Tyler’s centerline” which is within 15ft left or right of the actual painted centerline.

A slight chirp of the mains, and I’m on the ground, almost four days exactly since I was last here.

After exiting the runway and cleaning up the plane, I request and am given a taxiback to the start of 28L.

“Modesto Tower, 737GM, is there a runup area down at the end of Delta?”

“Seven Golf-mike, yes, off to the right, stay clear for other traffic taxiing”

There’s a Piper Cub behind me as I pull off to the run-up area, depressing the breaks I let the plane idle.

“Modesto Tower, 7GM, I’m going to do some paper work over here real quick, I’ll let you know when I’m ready to go again.”

I finish all my en route calculations in my flight log, and pull out my log for the leg back to KHWD. I feel so piloty going over my work before rolling up to the hold short line.

“Modesto Tower, Skyhawk 737GM, holding short of 28L, request a straight-out departure.”

Noting my times on the climb out, and then the ground speed on the GPS unit, I’m faster than I thought I would be. After a light tail wind from Livermore to east of Tracy, the wind had shifted and was providing another nice little tail wind.

Over the Altamont Pass, I look over at the Hobbs and notice that I’ve not been out nearly long enough. I had planned to fly for a couple of hours, and damnit I was going to fly for a couple of hours, tailwind be damned.

‘NorCal Approach, Skyhawk 737GM, I’ve got some fuel to burn so I’d like to terminate and do some touch-and-go’s at Livermore”

“737GM, roger, confirm you have Whiskey”

“737GM, affirmative, we have Whiskey”

“Seven-three-seven Golf-mike, squawk VFR, contact Livermore Tower 118.1”

I bid NorCal adieu, turn the transponder over to 1200 (“squawk VFR”) and hit up Livermore Tower.

“Livermore Tower, Skyhawk 737GM, about 3 miles north of the field, with Whiskey”

At my previous cruise altitude of 4500ft, I’ve got to shed some altitude before entering pattern altitude at 1400. Over the hills east of San Ramon, I go into a number of descending spiraling turns until I come out somewhere close to 2000ft and turn towards Livermore.

Upon entering the busy pattern, Livermore Tower informs me:

“737GM, extend your downwind, you’re number 5 for 25R”

There are 4 other planes in front of me, this might be the busiest pattern I’ve ever participated in. After passing abeam the number four aircraft, I turn base, and start my approach.

Wheels down, I exit the runway, clean up the plane and taxi back.

On the ground at Livermore

I decide Livermore is too busy to perform more pattern work, and request a straight-out departure.

After a clean soft-field take-off, I’m climbing back up to 4000ft.

At 4000, the Ugly Duckling turns right heads directly towards Mount Diablo

Holding level at 4000 (a student pilot miracle!) I decide to set up for some practice steep turns. First to the left, little bit of throttle, gently pulling back on the yoke, then I throw the trim wheel downwards twice. The G-forces push me into the seat, the attitude indicator says I’m banked all the way to 45 degrees, and the altitude isn’t waivering.

Coming around on Mount Diablo again, I switch it over to the right. I exit the turn on the mountain one more time, almost at 4000 on the button.

Victorious, I decide to turn back towards Hayward.

There’s not much to say about entering Hayward’s airspace, I’ve now done it enough that I could probably have both sides of the conversation between Tower and Pilot.

Abeam Cal State, I ask for the options for 28R. I’m not done flying just yet.

A few touch and go’s later, I terminate, deciding that I’m approaching the threshold of when my love of food wins out over my love of flying.

It’s lunch time, my shirt is damp with sweat, and I think I’ve gotten enough air work in for the day.

My first solo cross-country was over.

On my list of major milestones, this is one of the last ones to get a strike-through.

  • Ground School
  • Airman Medical Exam
  • FAA Knowledge Test
  • Solo Flight
  • Solo Cross-Country Flight
  • FAA Checkride for License
A successful solo cross-country

Weather permitting, I head back up for another, longer solo cross-country tomorrow. This time to Santa Rosa, Sacramento and back.