Stranded In The Southland

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Flying Across LA Solo!

Soloing was a big step in learning to fly. To my surprise, though, doing my first cross-country solo was nearly as exciting. The first solo was just a few touch-and-goes, making laps around the airport, which we'd be doing for weeks. Going cross-country was a chance for me to be up in the air, like a real pilot, navigating by myself to a real destination. It was an incredible experience.

The idea is to fly to an airport that's at least 50 Nautical Miles (NM) from my home airport, stopping at two or more airports on the way, going at least 150 NM round-trip. My instructor is pretty conservative, so he had me going to the same place we'd gone for our dual and night cross-countries. The navigation is dead easy (even without navigational instruments) as there are plenty of dramatic landmarks (and I've done it twice before).

I'd prefer more of a navigational challenge, but working the radios and watching out for other traffic in one of the nation's most crowded airspace is probably challenge enough. As it was, I was definitely out of practice, and made a few mistakes.

Firing up the radio on the ground at my home airport, I managed to request flight following back to my home airport, which they gamely offered. I sheepishly apologized, and got set up for flight following to my destination. The idea of flight following is that the air traffic controller will watch you on radar, warning you about traffic and providing you with compass headings (vectors) towards you destination if necessary.

For a long flight near LA, you get switched through a whole set of controllers one after the other, each one giving you the frequency of the next. You say goodbye to the old controller, switch over the radio to the new one, and say hello.

I managed to make the frequency transition from tower to departure just beautifully, and headed on up. The second SoCal controller had some trouble picking me up on radar, but explained it all to me when I asked what was going on. I was cleanly handed on to the third and fourth different controllers with no problems.

Then things got a little sticky. There was another aircraft on the frequency with a similar callsign; if I'm "CHEROKEE FOUR-THREE-TWO-ONE-BRAVO", the controller will shorten this to "TWO-ONE-BRAVO"; this can be problematic if there's another aircraft on the frequence with a similar callsign. This controller was working "THREE-ONE-BRAVO" as they practiced some complex maneuvers, and I think that they acknowledged my handoff message (instead of me). Thus, the controller thought I was gone, and I thought that the message had been for the other guy.

I kept right on cruising, descending for the destination airport, waiting for the handoff. I even asked on frequency whether I was still supposed to be there, but didn't get a response, as I'd probably gotten beyond the range of the controller. Now, I probably should've just gone on to the next frequency and asked, but I persevered on the original frequency until I was nearly at my destination airport.

I wound up flying a couple miles past my destination airport while trying to raise them on the radio, then finally got them, made a quick 270, slid into the pattern, and made a decent landing. I called my poor instructor on the cell phone, who reassured me that missing the handoff wasn't the end of the world, then took off again and headed back.

I'm not sure whether I was having genuine radio troubles (my instructor had mentioned some problems with the push-to-talk button, but in the heat of the moment I totally forgot about this), or I just failed to hear calls (far more likely), but when I was headed back through the same sector where I screwed up the handoff, the controller gave me some hassle, reading out my full callsign slowly and asking for me, and asking if I was descending (when, yeah, my altitude was wandering by 50 feet or so, which shouldn't matter). Ah, well, either way, those guys have a tough job, and they almost all seemed to go out of their way to be helpful, which I sure appreciate.

I zipped on down to the airport I practiced at the day before (with the terrifying landings), had to make a go-around the first time through, then made a fine landing, stopped, caught my breath, and made an uneventful flight back to my home airport.

It was an amazing feeling to realize that I'd just flown 150 NM, navigating all over, using the radios, landing at distant airports, without any assistance. After all of the training and hard work, this was the payoff.

I'm frustrated that I had some minor radio troubles, and bummed that I had to make a go-around, but I think that this is just the side effect of not flying frequently enough, and switching aircraft at the last minute like that. I really can't complain too much -- lots of folks have identical troubles trying to learn to fly.

Now I just need to buckle down, improve my landings and instrument flying, and take the practical test to finish this whole thing up! Woo hoo!