Flight Training Update: a solo flight to Cape May

I was happy to find that, when it came time to fly my solo “cross-country” flights, I was allowed to choose where I would go.

I decided to pick places that I would actually fly to once I get my license. In my last post I described my flight to Reading, Pennsylvania (KRDG) which has an interesting approach from the east, is a quick 30 minute flight, and has an aviation museum and a restaurant with “good buffalo chicken wings” according to my flight instructor. While I probably will not vacation in Reading, I will certainly make that flight with passengers, as a so called “$100 hamburger” flight.

The next flight had me land in Scranton, Pennsylvania at KAVP. As I mentioned, I had been to that airport several times on commercial airlines to visit family. In fact, my entire extended family on my Mom’s side meets every summer in Scranton. The drive is almost 3 hours from my house, while the flight with a moderate headwind is less than an hour. My goal is to never have to drive to Scranton again!

After those flights, I still needed just over an hour of solo cross-country flying to meet the FAA minimum. I decided I would fly to Cape May, New Jersey at the southernmost point of the state.

New_Jersey_Population_Map

Cape May is a place I would like to visit: it is one of the more iconic destinations for a romantic weekend getaway in New Jersey.

Cape May From Above

But the drive is about 2.5 hours, and I haven’t been motivated to make the trip…until I can fly there!

I took a half-day off work and reserved my favorite Cessna 172S for a few hours in the morning. Again I scheduled it the day before the forecast arrival of a winter storm, and I scoured the weather reports and forecasts in the days leading up to the flight. A few days before, the 48 hour forecast seemed promising: light winds throughout New Jersey with visibility greater than 6 miles and ceiling above 12,000 feet. Perfect.

The night before the flight I spent a few hours on the basic flight planning. It almost felt like I was back in school, feverishly cramming for a big test the next day. I plotted the course and decided on checkpoints, calculated distances, alternates, and the sequence of radio frequencies I would likely use to communicate with air traffic control.

planning2

I visualized what the descent and approach into Cape May County Airport would look like, and studied the airport diagram. Based on the forecast winds I had a good idea which runway I would be landing on. It is amazing how much it helps to go through a thorough planning routine, even for a short, simple flight. I know I can fly the airplane, but situational awareness is so key that going through a mental rehearsal while I plan a flight helps me stay ahead of the airplane during every phase of the trip. More on situational awareness in a future post…

planning1

The next morning I woke up early to that subtle sense of anticipation that soon “I GET TO GO FLYING TODAY!!” Okay…so maybe it’s not so subtle. I should say that I sprang out of bed faster than I ever do when I have to go to work.

I arrived at the airport about an hour before my flight, which left me plenty of time to call Flight Services, obtain a full weather briefing for the flight, file a VFR flight plan, and finish calculating the magnetic heading, the pressure altitude, estimated ground speeds, and time en route based on the current wind conditions.

After a quick meeting with my flight instructor I was comfortable making the “Go” decision, and once it was finalized and I picked up the keys to the airplane my heart rate ticked up just a bit from the sheer excitement. I’m no longer nervous to fly solo, it’s just so so much fun.

ramp WWD

I think my iPhone camera is no longer suitable for these pics…

The preflight inspection, engine start, taxi, and run-up were all smooth. There was barely a breath of wind as I advanced the throttle and accelerated down the runway and eased the plane off the ground at 61 knots.

As I climbed to 6,500 feet I called the Flight Service Station and opened my flight plan, then contacted McGuire Approach to obtain VFR flight following. I could already see Philadelphia and Atlantic City, and just a few minutes later the entire shape of southern New Jersey came into view. I still had some 70 miles to go but I could already see Cape May. The airspace was quiet on a Friday morning, and the controllers were pleasant. I enjoyed the view as much as I could while I scanned the instruments and maintained course.

With about 10 miles to go I advised the controller that I had the field in sight and she released me to change frequencies and descend at my discretion. During the descent I dialed in the Cape May AWOS for the latest wind information, chose the appropriate runway for landing, and began setting up for the approach. As I descended through 2000 feet there was some light turbulence, but the approach and landing went well.

Then another aircraft called over the common traffic advisory frequency for Cape May that he was taxiing to a different runway–the intersecting runway–from the one on which I had just landed. I was worried–had I made an error in choosing this runway? I rechecked the AWOS. The winds were changing somewhat, but I was sure I made the right choice. Perhaps there is some sort of local preference for that runway–and to be honest, there was a crosswind component for both runways, I could have chosen the other and accepted a slightly stronger crosswind. Just to be safe I decided to takeoff on the same runway as the other airplane, and in taxiing across the field I passed the Wildwood Naval Air Station Aviation Museum. There was a row of old, forlorn-looking military transport aircraft on the ramp.

Again, apologies for the picture quality

Again, apologies for the picture quality–it’s not foggy, it’s just a scratched iPhone camera lens

I wondered about the stories those planes could tell, and was kind of melancholy seeing how most of them were gutted of essential parts, and are now nothing more than giant paper-weights and bird nests.

The takeoff was smooth and as I climbed up to 5,500 feet I contacted the same controller at Atlantic City. A few minutes later after I leveled off at cruising altitude I heard her give a traffic advisory to a Coast Guard aircraft, and I could tell she was talking about my airplane. I looked out the windshield and just then a Coast Guard Gulfstream IV jet came into view, just 1,000 feet above me passing to the east as I was flying north. That’s the closest I’ve been to another airplane while flying, and such a cool one at that!

The flight home was smooth and uneventful, and as I said “good-day” to New York Approach after he released me from radar service, I decided to practice a short-field landing back at Princeton…

Well, the cross-country flight was extremely fun, and I can’t wait to make the same flight with a passenger (think: romantic weekend getaway…+FLYING!!!). One important thing I learned, however, is that I need more practice on short-field landings!

Thanks for reading, until next time.

Brian

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Mistakes

With just a few more flight hours left before I can take my checkride, I can’t stop thinking about my future life as a pilot. I daydream about where I will go and what I will see. And I think about my cousins and future nieces or nephews, relatives, friends. I can’t wait to see their faces as the tires lift off the ground and we fly over their house or along the Hudson River Corridor next to Manhattan or on a trip down to Cape May or to see more distant relatives down the East coast. I can’t wait to be set loose as a pilot.

But at the same time, I’ll be set loose.  There is no doubt that I will have completed all of the requirements set forth by the FAA, and generally breezed through training, and I will be legally capable of flying a single-engine land-based aircraft almost anywhere my heart desires, almost anytime, with passengers. I think back to my cousins and future nieces or nephews, relatives, and friends sitting next to me or right behind me in a 172. And the sheer joy I can imagine on their faces, and on mine, is tempered a bit by the heavy weight of responsibility placed on the pilot’s shoulders. On my shoulders.

I want to be the best pilot I can be. Of course, this involves more training and a hell of a lot more practice, which I will dive into immediately. But meanwhile, I will be set free to the skies. Although I am glad to be near the end of the FAA-mandated 40 hours of training for the PPL, I don’t think those 40 hours equip me to handle all of the situations I might face. I find myself scouring NTSB reports and evaluating how I would handle the situations in the “Aftermath” and “I Learned about Flying from that” sections of Flying magazine. Richard Collins’ book The Next Hour, which I plan to discuss in a later post, was full of situations for me to imagine myself trying to confront. I often have two immediate reactions: first, that I would never allow myself to get in a similar situation. Second, that the people in the NTSB reports probably thought that they would never allow themselves to get in that situation.

We are humans, and therefore we make mistakes. I make mistakes occasionally in my job as a biologist. Sometimes the workload is large enough and the tasks difficult enough that an error or two will creep in which sabotage a part of or a whole experiment. I’m also a very active concert violinist, and I make mistakes in music too. Sometimes the stress of performing in front of an audience or the extreme precision and technique required for certain passages of music can cause a lapse in concentration, and the error rate will start to increase. In all cases, I hate making mistakes; I am a perfectionist and always very hard on myself when it happens. But the best scientists I know and the best musicians I know make mistakes sometimes. I have to assume that even the best pilots can make mistakes. We are human.

I am forever intrigued by the human brain and how it works. I found the following video very interesting describing how our brain handles information between two “systems”.

Of particular interest to aviation was the fact that we can become “effectively blind” when we fully engage our “System 2” brain. I can imagine so many possible times during flight that we might unknowingly become focused on one problem/task/goal that we suffer from this type of effective blindness. I remember early on in flight training I often felt that I was “behind” the airplane during simulated emergencies. Once during a simulated engine out my CFI changed the Comm 1 frequency to the wrong CTAF. I was amazed when after the few seconds it took me to change it back to make the position calls, I found I had lost situational awareness for long enough to fail to turn the base leg at the proper moment, and undershot the emergency approach.

It was a mistake, if it had been a real emergency I would have been in trouble. It was a difficult lesson. But thinking about it, a lot of the NTSB accident reports are probably the result of some seemingly innocuous decision or lapse in concentration or slight fixation on a problem. It happened to me on a clear (though hazy) day with no wind. Add in clouds and darkness and I can imagine the number of mistakes can start to increase rapidly if you’re not prepared to handle the situation. Although it is a scary thought, I think for me it is also the challenge of it all that drives me to be the best pilot I can be. To train and practice and study and plan (and follow checklists) to mitigate the risks of making the right mistakes at the wrong time.