How I Learned to Fly: The Cross-Country from Hell

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The cross-country from hell helped me learn that the devil is in the details.

TrainingA friend of mine at the YMCA did it. We always relieved the work out boredom by talking about airplanes and when I found out he had a pilot's license, I decided if he could do it, so could I.

I went to the same airport and FBO he was flying out of and walked into a sort of dilapidated building and announced my intentions to learn to fly. I was assigned an instructor and off we went for a demo ride in a Cessna 152. I was surprised when he put me in the left seat. The flight thankfully was uneventful because I was a bit nervous. On final it seemed to me we were just floating down until we got near the ground when it felt like we were doing at least 200. When they asked me if I liked it and would I like to continue, I found myself answering yes and I made an appointment for the first lesson.

I preflighted the airplane on lesson one and he let me do the takeoff which is really pretty easy and hard to mess up. At about 200 feet my door came open scaring me more than I already was. I just shut the door and the rest of the flight was uneventful.

Lesson two had me a little more confident but still a trifle nervous and I was even more so when on the takeoff roll the airspeed just would not get to 50 knots, and my instructor took over. The airspeed indicator was reading low and we squawked it on landing. We got the same airplane on lesson three and the squawk resolution in the book said, "found spider in pitot tube."

So off we go to the practice area to do stalls and slow flight and all those things they make a student do. We called the tower just before entering the airspace and requested permission to land but got no response. Try again, nothing. "I think we've lost the radio," says my CFI looking a bit anxious. "What's the morse code for SOS?," he asks me. I tell him and he keys the mike like sending morse code. He squawks 7600 on the transponder and begins doing 360s near the tower. Finally the tower gives us a green light and we land safely. There is a little switch on the comm radio that has a 5 in the up position and a 0 in the down position. Evidently the switch got bumped and was up to 5 meaning that the last digit of the frequency you dial in on the radio is 5 instead of zero thus making it impossible to contact the tower if you dial in the correct frequency.

About this time I began to wonder if I should really go through with this since something bad seemed to happen on every lesson.

I decided to try it one more time and see if the spell would be broken. Thankfully it was and the next twenty or so lessons went without a hitch except for my rotten landings. I finally got the hang of landings and soloed after thirty hours which I thought was a long time since I was used to hearing people brag about soloing in ten hours or so.

First cross-country time approached and I selected Fox Field in Lancaster as my destination. I carefully planned the trip from Camarillo Airport and tried two mornings to go only to be forced to cancel due to high winds. The third time was a charm and the weather was beautiful. I climbed out of CMA heading for the Filmore VOR and 7500 feet. Everything went great and I got the to-from switch right where I expected.

I followed the 041 radial from FIM and passed over Lake Piru, Castaic Lake and bouquet reservoir right on schedule. Passing over the ridge and still on the 041 radial I began descending toward the pattern altitude of 3147 feet. About ten miles from Fox I called the tower, "Fox tower, 5514B ten miles southwest inbound for landing with yankee" "14Bravo make right traffic for runway 24. Cleared to land."

Nothing is sweeter to my ears than the phrase "cleared to land." Remaining on the 041 radial, I spied an airfield off in the distance and headed for it. Fox tower asked me to ident, which I did and he told me I was headed for Palmdale airport and to turn to a heading of 300 for WJF. I did and finally spotted the correct airport and landed there a little high on final but acceptable. I still can't figure out how, since I remained on the 041 radial, I missed Fox the first time. Palmdale is nine miles south east of Fox.

I parked at the transient area, went in and closed my flight plan and took right off again for home on the 220 FIM radial. One must be airborne before receiving Filmore VOR at WJF since the mountains are in the way. Everything went well with all the checkpoints arriving on schedule. When I passed over the Filmore VOR I began to descend preparing to land at CMA. I reported in at the Saticoy Bridge, "Camarillo tower, Cessna 5514Bravo over Saticoy Bridge inbound for landing with victor." "14Bravo make right traffic for runway 26. Report downwind."

Great. Everything would be a piece of cake from here on in, I thought. I sighted the 101 freeway and began turning downwind and I called the tower, "Camarillo tower, 14Bravo entering downwind." Silence. I tired again and still silence. Maybe they are busy, I'll wait until I'm abeam of the tower and give them another call, I thought. This call also resulted in silence from the tower.

Panicking, I tuned in ATIS to see if I could hear it to no avail. I had now to face it: I had lost communications. I made sure the 0-5 switch was in the correct position and checked all the headset connections but nothing worked. By this time I'm three miles east of the airport so I did a 180 to the left to get back in the downwind pattern and squawked 7600 on the transponder which indicates communication loss. At this point I decided I was just going to land, clearance or no so, after checking for inbound traffic I entered base and final a little high and landed a little long but OK.

Considering my state of mind it was a good landing. As I'm parking the airplane the chief pilot comes out and says, "I hear you had a communications problem." He looks at the comm radio and right away spots that the three- position switch for speaker-off-phones is in the off position. I must have bumped it when messing with the radio. "Happens all the time," he says trying to make me feel better. I now realize that I should know what every switch in the cockpit does without having to go through something like this to find out what happens if one ends up in the wrong position. I call that the cross-country from hell. I am now busy planning for the next longer one to Santa Maria and hoping it goes smoother.