Sometimes we forget how much knowledge we've acquired over the years and hours in the air. What's obvious to us can be pretty bewildering to a newbie pilot just starting out. But Linda Pendleton, a 10,000-hour ATP type-rated in Citations and Lears, recalls one stressful moment from her first solo cross-country flight 25 years ago as vividly as the day it happened. Whether you've logged 30 hours or 30,000, we're sure you'll get as big a kick out of reading this delightful reminiscence as we did.
It was a glorious July day in Northwest Indiana. I woke with the sun, eager to be on my mission — actually a dual mission that day. I was to complete my first solo cross country flight AND take my private pilot written test at the South Bend GADO. They were written tests in those days and the FAA gave them for free. At a place called the GADO — General Aviation District Office. There were no FSDOs then. They put you in a little room with a paper test book and answer sheet to fill in the little blobs for your hopeful answer selections. No nobler purpose hath e'er filled the soul of an intrepid aviator than my purpose that day.
I needed only get a final weather briefing and update my flight planning. I felt I was fairly well prepared.
I had spent hours the night before plotting out my course and selecting appropriate and frequent checkpoints. (Check a chart someday when you've a mind to — it's all of 44 NM between the Hobart Skyranch, 3HO, and the South Bend airport — and an expressway goes directly past one to the other.)
I had calculated airspeed, ground speed, wind drift and wind correction angle. I knew fuel burn, fuel consumption and reserves — down to the teacup.
I had checked out the airport of departure, the destination, all alternates and emergency landing sites. I knew runway numbers and lengths. I knew the grade and brand of fuel, oil and soft drinks available.
I had charts and airport guides and an Amoco road map.
My flight bag contained an E6B circular slide rule and an as yet unwarped plotter. (Electronic calculators hadn't hit aviation yet. In fact, I had just gotten my first "Bowmar Brain" for work use — a handheld electronic calculator that did basic math functions and cost almost $200.)
I had noted the frequency and location and bearing from my course of everything transmitting a radio signal east of the Mississippi.
I was ready!
(Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking good planning. I encourage it. It's pretty cheap insurance and you can never know too much. But, sheesh! The invasion plans for Normandy probably weren't as detailed as this plan for a flight between two airports separated by a distance more appropriate to travel by bicycle than airplane.)
I called Flight Service one last time and recalculated my time, speed and on course heading. Good thing I did, too! The winds aloft forecast had changed and my estimated ground speed was now a half-knot slower!
I arrived at the airport shortly after 7 am. There she was — my wonderful magic carpet — N8236N. I owned her and a wonderful little Cherokee she was, with a loaded panel. Two Narco comm radios — a 90 channel and a new 360-channel beauty. Two VOR receivers (one was called a VOR-LOC for some mysterious reason unknown to me at the time) an ADF and one of those newfangled transponder thingies. I knew to put 1-2-0-0 in the box, turn it on and leave it alone.
'36N had been washed and polished and fueled. I was taking the full 50 gallons on this mission. The oil was up to 8 and the tires were plump and full.
I completed the preflight. I looked at so many things so thoroughly that an AI could have followed me and signed off an annual. My CFI taught me to do this incredibly detailed and complete preflight. Unfortunately, I was only taught the how — not the why — so one must wonder how valuable it was. I looked at it all. I hadn't a clue what I was seeing, but I looked at it all!
It was time to load the stuff up and go. The charts. The flight log, which in itself weighed several pounds. (I had developed a painfully detailed one. I tend to do this. When I decide to do something it has to be thorough! This has not always been an asset.)
I ran through the before-start checklist. Master off. Mags off. All switches off. Radios off. Breakers in. Fuel on fullest tank. Mixture idle cutoff. Throttle closed. Carb heat off. Primer closed and locked.
Next, the engine start. Throttle open a half-inch. Master on. No prime needed. Mixture full rich. Mag switch to start. Oh, she starts sooo easily. That wonderful, powerful O-360 roars to life!
Oh, uh, throttle to idle. Oops, sorry!
Ready for Launch
I taxied to Runway 36 and did my runup. Everything was just perfect. Mag drop a piddly 50 RPM each. Carb heat checks. Vacuum fine.
Here we go! The announcement is made on 122.9 — "Hobart traffic, Cherokee 8-2-3-6-November departing runway 36, left turn out of traffic." Pretty good, you could hardly notice that slight temor in my voice.
Final check of trim and DG and push the throttle in and watch the acceleration. 60 mph and raise the nose. Lift off. I'm off on my first solo cross country!! Uhmmm...note the time. Yeah. Gotta do that in a minute.
Climbing straight ahead now to 500 feet. Just enough right rudder. Oh, this is going so well. I really love this!
Okay, 500 feet. Time to make the left turn out of traffic. Just a glance to the left to check for traffic, and there it was — THE CLOUD.
You could have called it a beautiful little puff ball. A summer fair weather cu. You could have noticed how peacefully it floated there, right where I had to turn. Omigosh! Why didn't I see it before I took off?
I was struck dumb, the mic in my hand ready to announce my left turn.
Everybody knows you gotta turn left out of traffic. It's an FAA rule. You just can't break it. It's a rule ... you gotta do it.
Everybody knows you can't fly into a cloud. It's another rule. Besides, you'll die and your airplane will come falling out of the bottom of the cloud in little bent pieces. You can't fly into a cloud.
You gotta turn left. You can't fly into a cloud. You gotta turn left. You can't fly into the cloud. You gotta ... you can't ... arrrgggghhhhh!
I found my voice. "36 November turning right." Terse and clipped. Now I'd not only violated the rule, but I'd announced it to the world.
Then it came to me that this could be my last flight. The FAA would surely tear up my student ticket. I'd be banned from the skies forever. The good ol' boys that sat on the porch at the airport and drank coffee would be proven right: "She'll never get her ticket." I'd go home in ignominious defeat. My dream would die.
But...I hadn't died and the Cherokee was still running fine. So I'd just have to enjoy this one last flight.
Getting It Together
Oh, rats. What was my takeoff time? Now my calculations are going to be off by at least ... a minute! Okay, okay, get yourself together. Turn on course. Note the checkpoints. Ahhh ... the beauty of the day and the freedom of actually going someplace in my little airplane started to win out. Perhaps it would all turn out all right.
I called flight service and opened my flight plan. I checked the checkpoints and calculated and recalculated my groundspeed. I was on course. I was on time. This one last flight was going to be well executed.
Okay, SBN coming up. Wow, that was fast! Call the tower. Get directions. Enter the airport traffic area and a right downwind for 27.
Okay, before-landing checklist. Reduce power. 80 mph here on the airspeed. A notch of flaps. Check carb heat.
Okay, base. Now final. Adjust trim. Full flaps. Adjust trim. Okay. Take it easy. Don't blow this one. Okay. Slow a little bit. Okay.
Just hold it off. Easy now ... easy ... easy ...
Oh, well, they can't all be beautiful, but ... I'd completed the first leg of my first solo cross country! Yesss! Oh, wait. Call FSS and close the flight plan. Okay, that's done. Secure the airplane.
Facing the Music
Then it hit me. I was going to have to walk into that GADO. The home of the FAA. Surely it would all end there. Little 36N would be impounded and I would be a civilian again. Doomed to calling Delta if I ever wanted to be in an airplane again. Well, it couldn't be helped. I'd just walk in with confidence and take whatever came. Yup. I'd be adult about this.
I walked in and the lady behind the counter asked if she could help me. Privately, I doubted that anyone could really help now, but I asked to take the private pilot written. She checked my student pilot certificate (no picture IDs in those days) and handed me the paperwork.
I finished the exam and felt pretty good about it. I took it back out to the counter and handed it in. Now it'll happen. Now they'll lower the boom.
The lady thanked me and wished me a pleasant flight home.
I walked out the door. They didn't know! They didn't know about the cloud. They didn't know about the turn. I was getting away Scot free! They didn't know!!
Wait a minute. Maybe the news will come in the mail with the results of the written. "Nice job. You passed the test, but you see, we know about the cloud and we know about the turn. Sorry. You're busted."
I flew home. I never told anybody about the cloud. The results of the written came: I scored 96. They still didn't know!
Coming Clean at Last
That was almost 25 years ago. I've learned a lot and flown a lot of different airplanes on many different trips. I've crisscrossed this country from east to west and from north to south. I've flown freight and mail and people and pigs. I've landed at O'Hare and LAX and Fresno and Mogadishu. I've flown day and night, rain and snow, fog and fair, and I've enjoyed every minute of it, because, you see, I know how close it came to being over before it really started. I savor each minute and am addicted to the exhilaration of every takeoff and I know I am lucky because ... THEY DIDN'T KNOW!
I hope they understand.