Solo into unfamiliar territory
I’m killing time in the California Airways office, re-re-re-reviewing my charts, going over the visual checkpoints I can expect to see today. After yesterday’s successful solo cross-country to Modesto, I had arranged to fly a longer solo cross-country today. This time around, Hayward to Santa Rosa, on to Sacramento Executive then returning home to Hayward.
My planned route of flight was over 200 nautical miles, and close to 3 hours of flight time, the longest duration I’ve flown to date. The length aside, I had also never been to either airport, adding another layer of challenge onto the mission.
I hear the door open outside the office, shortly thereafter my instructor strolls in, literally wearing his Sunday best. I somehow had managed to trick him into reviewing my flight logs before heading to church, making this flight possible today.
Everything checks out, but he highlights that my initial leg up to the Scaggs Island VOR, at my planned altitude, is a little too close to the San Francisco Class Bravo airspace shelf. Entering Bravo unauthorized is a no-no for any pilot, but even with authorization, student pilots aren’t allowed to solo in the airspace (without an endorsement).
In my normal planning process, I usually pick my route first, then some time later I decide on cruising altitudes, turns out that might not be the best idea.
Before leaving, he gives me an endorsement authorizing the today’s flight, I hit the bathroom one more time, then walk out to the airport.
Since I was dropped off this morning, I’m vehicle-less and there’s nobody to hitch-hike down to the green ramp with like I did yesterday.
My big 200+ mile solo cross-country trip was going to start with a mile long walk.
Pre-flight complete, I lock my seat in it’s position, and start going through the engine start checklist.
Prime, one, two, three, four, primer locked. Throttle open a half inch, breakers in, avionics master off, master switch on. The gyros in the panel start spinning up, I shout “clear prop!” out the window, count to three, then turn the key.
The Ugly Duckling can be a tempermental bird in the mornings. Today was going to be one of those mornings.
I hear the engine start to catch, push the throttle in a little and in my eagerness I let the key switch from “start” to “both” before I’m supposed to. As if to say “well, what the hell do you want me to do with that?!” the engine quits.
Pumping the throttle three or four times, I shout “clear prop!” one more time, and try to start the plane. Nothing, this time around it’s coughing like it’s got the black lung, probably flooded the damned engine.
With one or two expletives in the direction of the panel in front of me, I pull out the handbook and re-read the procedure for starting a flooded engine.
This time around the Duckling screams alive, forcing me to quickly yank the throttle back to 1000rpm before continuing my checklist.
With clearance from ground, I taxi to 28L. Normally I have no problem with 28R, but the VOR test spot at Hayward is in the 28L run-up area. Since I’ll be practicing a lot of VOR-mode navigation today, I better make sure the thing works before I get in the air.
Right cross-wind departure approved, I take the runway, breath in deeply, and cram the throttle to the panel. Our previous disagreements behind us, the Ugly Duckling and I leap from the runway and head towards Dublin.
En route to Dublin, I request to change from Hayward Tower’s frequency early to open my flight plan. Over Dublin I get my flight plan opened, then jump over to NorCal Approach to request flight following. The frequency is so busy I don’t get a chance to jump into the flow of things until I’m already at 4500, my cruising altitude for this leg, and over Danville.
Flight following activated, I get the Scaggs Island VOR tuned and start tracking it northward. As I write this, I’m realizing that I didn’t identify any of my VORs today. I plead student pilot, license to learn, etc.
As I pass abeam Buchanan Field in Concord, and look at my watch. Only one minute faster than estimated in my flight log. “Hot dog!” I exclaim, the Ugly Duckling is non-plussed and continues putting northwest-bound.
Approaching Santa Rosa, I pick up the weather, and something doesn’t match up.
“Oakland Center, Seven-three-seven Golf-mike with a question”
“737GM, Oakland Center, go ahead”
“Do you happen to have more current weather than India for Santa Rosa? Their ATIS says ‘Broken at one thousand one hundred’ but I’m not seeing any clouds”
Oakland Center doesn’t have any better information, but he does clear me to change frequencies to Santa Rosa to clear things up for my approach. I’m fairly certain I’m looking at Santa Rosa, and I don’t think my VOR, my pilotage, or my GPS unit is incorrect, but I might as well ask.
“Santa Rosa Tower, Seven-three-seven Golf-Mike”
“737GM, Santa Rosa Tower, go ahead”
“Is the field IFR right now? 7GM”
“737GM, the field is VFR”
“Santa Rosa Tower, alright then, the ATIS said broken at 1 thousand one hundred, just checking. 7GM”
Tower called in some time later letting me know they corrected the error, the ceiling was broken at one-one (eleven) thousand. As I neared the field, I asked for permission to fly over the field to check it out before entering the pattern. Just east of the field at 2200ft, I called Tower back.
“Santa Rosa Tower, 737GM, that’s a nice field you got there, I’m ready to land”
“737GM, enter right base for runway 14”
As I make my turn to enter the pattern, I try to make sure i keep an eye on the runway. There’s another plane landing ahead of me, and I want to make sure I line this approach up correctly. Descending towards the runway, lined up with “Tyler’s Centerline”, I throw the flaps to 30 at about 300 ft. Descending further, the sporadic winds jostle me around just before entering ground effect.
Floating while I disappate the 5-8 extra knots I carried to the runway, I manage to keep the attitude correct and the mains bump as I touch down. I’m too far down to make the Bravo taxiway, but the runway could fit a whole damn fleet of 172s on it, so I call up Tower.
“Santa Rosa Tower, 737GM, I’d like to do a 180 to to turn off at Bravo”
“737GM, approved as requested.”
A tight turn later, I’m off the runway and taxiing to the Sonoma Jet Center, home of free cookies and a bathroom, only one of which concerned me at this point.
Bladder emptied, I walk my piloty-walk back out to the plane and start prepping for the next leg, straight to Sacramento Executive. I’ve successfully navigating and landed at one unfamiliar airport, but now I need to do it again, flying over big hills and small mountains to get there.
I go through my engine start checklist, except the priming part, and the Ugly Duckling roars alive again. Ground clears me to taxi behind another plane to 14. Playing follow-the-leader to the runup area, I figure since I stopped, I should go through a full run-up again.
Cleared for takeoff, the Ugly Duckling and I jump back up into the air, climbing to abound 800ft before turning left and getting on course for Sacramento.
“Santa Rosa Tower, 737GM, I can’t seem to find the last frequency I had for Oakland Center, do you happen to have it?”
Tower Obliges, clears my frequency change and wishes me well along my way. I continue climbing to 5500ft, looking every now and again at my watch en route. Last time around I was a few minutes slow, I was anxious to see how things would turn out for this leg.
At the top of climb checkpoint, I was a minute early. I’ll take it.
Over unfamiliar territory, I start lining up landmarks on the ground that I expect to see. St. Helena is fairly easy to spot, followed by Lake Hennessey and finally a landmark so big I couldn’t possibly miss it, Lake Berryessa.
My joy isn’t that long-lived, somehow I’m two minutes late.
NorCal Approach asks me if I’m familiar with the area as I close in on the Sacramento metro area. My “negative” response is met with a subtle hint
“737GM, Sacramento Executive is straight ahead at about zero-seven-five”
I take the hint, make my turn and start my descent.
Looking at my GPS unit, I see that I’m about 3 miles closer than I wanted to be to start my descent. Pulling the throttle back, I start making sweeping descending S-turns to shed my altitude without overflying the airport. Executive Tower clears me for a right base, after confirming that he didn’t want me to enter on the 45, he suggests a deepening my base leg.
Lined up on the centerline, I putt towards runway 20. Throwing the last bit of flaps in fairly late, I manage to land around 500ft beyond the numbers with a slight chirp of the wheels.
No bladder breaks this time around, I request taxi back, get back onto runway 20 and fly my straight out departure.
Leaving Sacramento Executive’s airspace, I depart with a “y’all have a good afternoon” instead of the usual “good-day” and bounce back over to NorCal Approach.
The final leg of my navigation log was the most accurate one. KSAC to Rio Vista (O88) using the 185 radial from the Sacramento VOR. At Rio Vista, I would switch over to the Concord VOR and track the 45 radial in to Concord.
I was feeling comfortable with my heading, and the airspace was quiet enough that I requested a temporary frequency change to get some in-flight weather from Flight Watch. At this point it had been about 4 hours since my knowledge of the weather was issued, so an update couldn’t hurt.
Current winds aloft for the Sacramento Valley, and San Francisco Bay Area copied down, I bounced back to NorCal Approach just in time to be passed off to Travis Approach, who manages traffic around Travis Air Force Base.
“Travis Approach, Skyhawk Seven-three-seven Golf-Mike at five thousand five hundred”
“737GM, Travis Approach, I read your current altitude at four thousand five hundred”
“Whoops, sorry about that, I misread, we are at 4500, 737GM”
It has to happen at least once a flight, I have to be reminded that I’m still a student pilot. and that I will make mistakes. Fortunately there weren’t too many folks on the frequency to snicker at my silly mistake.
Passing over Rio Vista, the frequency is really quiet, so I take the opportunity to ask the controller from Travis a couple questions. He kindly answers them, clarifying some of the airspace rules around the base. Shortly thereafter I depart his airspace and am passed back to NorCal approach as I near Concord.
From Concord in to Hayward was largely uneventful. Just as the day before, I closed my flight plan from the air. Unlike the day before, I committed to a single landing at Hayward, a soft-field landing at that.
As one might expect when nobody is looking, I executed a pretty good soft-field and exited the runway. Rolling into the parking, I call for fuel on the radio, park and shutdown the airplane.
The Ugly Duckling takes on 17.5 gallons of avgas while I clean up the plane, breathe a deep breath of air and let my shoulders slump. I’m exhausted. Fortunately I’m able to hitch-hike a ride with the lineman back to the south end of the field, saving me a mile long walk in the heat.
I treat myself to a greasy burger back in Berkeley before heading home. In a combination of shock-exhaustion, I contemplate my day thus far.
It was only three o’clock, and I had flown over 200 miles to two unfamiliar airports all by myself and back.
I need a nap.