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

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 workout boredom by talking about airplanes and when I found out he had apilot’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 walkedinto a sort of dilapidated building and announced my intentions tolearn to fly. I was assigned an instructor and off we went for a demoride in a Cessna 152. I was surprised when he put me in the leftseat. The flight thankfully was uneventful because I was a bitnervous. 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, Ifound myself answering yes and I made an appointment for the firstlesson.

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

Lesson two had me a little more confident but still a triflenervous and I was even more so when on the takeoff roll the airspeedjust would not get to 50 knots, and my instructor took over. Theairspeed indicator was reading low and we squawked it on landing. Wegot the same airplane on lesson three and the squawk resolution inthe book said, “found spider in pitot tube.”

So off we go to the practice area to do stalls and slow flight andall those things they make a student do. We called the tower justbefore entering the airspace and requested permission to land but gotno response. Try again, nothing. “I think we’ve lost the radio,” saysmy CFI looking a bit anxious. “What’s the morse code for SOS?,” heasks me. I tell him and he keys the mike like sending morse code. Hesquawks 7600 on the transponder and begins doing 360s near the tower.Finally the tower gives us a green light and we land safely. There isa little switch on the comm radio that has a 5 in the up position anda 0 in the down position. Evidently the switch got bumped and was upto 5 meaning that the last digit of the frequency you dial in on theradio is 5 instead of zero thus making it impossible to contact thetower if you dial in the correct frequency.

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

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

First cross-country time approached and I selected Fox Field inLancaster 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 weatherwas beautiful. I climbed out of CMA heading for the Filmore VOR and7500 feet. Everything went great and I got the to-from switch rightwhere 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 toland.”

Nothing is sweeter to my ears than the phrase “cleared to land.” Remaining on the 041 radial, I spied an airfield off in the distanceand headed for it. Fox tower asked me to ident, which I did and hetold me I was headed for Palmdale airport and to turn to a heading of300 for WJF. I did and finally spotted the correct airport and landedthere a little high on final but acceptable. I still can’t figure outhow, 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 planand took right off again for home on the 220 FIM radial. One must beairborne before receiving Filmore VOR at WJF since the mountains arein the way. Everything went well with all the checkpoints arriving onschedule. When I passed over the Filmore VOR I began to descendpreparing to land at CMA. I reported in at the Saticoy Bridge,”Camarillo tower, Cessna 5514Bravo over Saticoy Bridge inbound forlanding with victor.” “14Bravo make right traffic for runway 26. Report downwind.”

Great. Everything would be a piece of cake from here on in, Ithought. I sighted the 101 freeway and began turning downwind and Icalled the tower, “Camarillo tower, 14Bravo entering downwind.”Silence. I tired again and still silence. Maybe they are busy, I’llwait 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 0-5switch was in the correct position and checked all the headsetconnections but nothing worked. By this time I’m three miles east ofthe airport so I did a 180 to the left to get back in the downwindpattern and squawked 7600 on the transponder which indicatescommunication loss. At this point I decided I was just going to land,clearance or no so, after checking for inbound traffic I entered baseand final a little high and landed a little long but OK.

Considering my state of mind it was a good landing. As I’m parkingthe airplane the chief pilot comes out and says, “I hear you had acommunications problem.” He looks at the comm radio and right awayspots that the three- position switch for speaker-off-phones is inthe 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 nowrealize that I should know what every switch in the cockpit does without having to go through something like this to find out whathappens if one ends up in the wrong position. I call that thecross-country from hell. I am now busy planning for the next longerone to Santa Maria and hoping it goes smoother.