I've been anxious to try flying to a new airport without an instructor along. You'd think that flying to an airport would be like driving to a new town -- read the map, make a few turns, and show up, right? Sadly, aviation is a little different. Each airport has characteristic landmarks that you use when you report in on the radio, and airports often have specific procedures that aren't immediately obvious (or documented). You kind of have to fly with someone there to figure out what's going on. (This is known in the literary trade as foreshadowing, I'm told.)
Anyway, I carefully prepared for this flight, driving by El Monte Airport, checking the satellite photos on Google, and even visualizing ("chair flying") the flight. I had no trouble getting the plane, requesting flight following (so the controllers look out for other traffic for me), and boppin' on up into the air. The old Cherokee just zipped up to 4,500 feet, and then, as requested, pretty much fell out of the air right away to get back down to 1,400 feet to land at El Monte.
Unfortunately (as I'd been warned by the Flight Service folks on the phone), there was a bunch of haze in the LA basin that came right up to El Monte. It was beautiful at Chino, but I had trouble seeing even five miles to El Monte as I came up on it. The controller kind of vectored me towards the airport ("southwest of you") and suggested I come in on a "modified straight-in". I naively turned towards the airport and acknowledged I'd come in on the modified straight-in. Fortunately, the controller figured out that I had no idea what he meant by "modified" (I should've said that I was unfamiliar with the airport[*]), set me right, resequenced the guy he was trying to work in front of me (by giving the poor bastard a 360 for spacing) and I made it down with no further problems.
I apologized as I was handed off to ground control, but the tower seemed to think that it was no big deal. That's probably more a testimony to the lame-ass flying that private pilots seem to get away with every day, than because it didn't matter. Argh, hopefully I'll learn from this and do better next time.
I had a great trip back to Chino, did a few touch and goes, and dropped in for an absolute greaser at the end. I'd been trying to remember to keep pulling back on the yoke as I flare (so that I touch down softly and with the nose wheel high), and I finally managed it perfectly, with the tires barely chirping as I set the plane down with nary a bump. Woo hoo!
[*] Reviewing the Pilot's Guide to California Airports
at home, ummm, yeah, they listed that modified straight-in, and mentioned that I should've come in over the drainage canal next to the airport. This was totally due to sloppiness on my part. I'll make sure it goes down differently next time. :-(