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Hop #24 (Flight record)

Today I went to the airport half an hour early, because my CFI and I were scheduled to do a cross-country flight. Note: this term is misleading. In the context of pilot training, it basically just means 'far enough away that you actually have to, you know, navigate and stuff.' Generally it is used to refer to flights further than around 50 NM. I went early because doing X-C training means you go through full flight planning and prep, and I haven't done that in...oh man, years and years and years. Even though I know the operations involved (thanks written exam!) that's not the same as actually doing them to plan a flight.

Got to the airport, took out my iPad (ForeFlight ftw) and my paper VFR sectional chart and various tools - protractor, E6B flight computer, etc. First thing I did is look at the course - I was to fly from 7B2 (Northampton, home base) to KSFZ - North Central Regional Airport in Pawtucket, RI. A straight course was possible, but it seemed better to detour around the Westover ARB traffic area and instead head just south of east to the bottom of the Quabbin Reservoir - a very conspicuous landmark indeed - before angling to the south. My CFI wandered in as I was doing this, and before I could put marks on the map said "Yeah, let's fly from your first fix direct to the Putnam VOR; it's easier to fly the needle, and that's almost directly in line with the airport."

Okay then. Made the marks, measured the distances, wrote 'em down on the nav planning sheet. Then I called up a weather briefer and got a standard briefing for my flight, managing as usual to screw up the conversion to Zulu time for my departure which caused him to ask "You're leaving tomorrow?" DERP. Nope. Didn't say 'student pilot', figured it was better to just face up to the error. Anyhow, things were very nice out - a few scattered clouds, but nothing really below 12,000 feet - but it was windy. At Northampton the winds were around 14 knots, across the active. Enroute...I checked 3,500 and 5,500 feet (NEODD and SWEVEN) and found the winds were 30-35kt at 5,500 but 20-25kt at 3,500. Friction, gotta love it (wind generally moves slower lower down because, yep, friction as it moves along the surface). Decided on 3,500.

Having done that, I proceeded to sigh, bite the bullet, and pull out the E6B to determine my WCA and ground speed for each leg of the flight. First I had to steal a pencil; the E6B holds on to ink really well, so you don't want to use a pen on it. Then I worked out the headings for each of my legs as follows: true course (as read from the map) +/- wind correction angle (calculated) +/- magnetic deviation (read off the chart) = magnetic heading to fly. The same E6B operation also gives the ground speed, or GS. This lets you determine how long each leg will take you - and that in turn will tell you how much fuel you're going to use.

Things were made a bit more annoying by the fact that our airplane's instruments display in MPH (and, thus, so do its reference performance numbers from the handbook which you use when planning) whereas the winds are all given in knots. So throw a conversion step in there.

Eventually, I came up with approximately 57 NM of flight plan, which would take approximately 35 minutes in the air. 12732 burns around 9 gallons per hour at cruise; that meant I'd use 5.5 (round up) 6 gallons in flight, plus a gallon and a half for startup, taxi and climb out. So assuming landing and taxiing at both ends, that meant 9 gallons. This 172 holds 42 gallons total with 38 usable; I'm required to have a 30 minute reserve (or 5 gallons, rounded up) which means I have 33 usable gallons. The 9 gallons I'd burn would put me on the ramp at SFZ with 24 usable gallons, so I wouldn't need to fuel up (obviously, for a 57NM trip, but this whole thing is about Doing The Math).

Finally, I went through and wrote out all the various frequencies I'd need - Northampton I know by now has a CTAF of 122.7. I'd need the SFZ CTAF (it's an uncontrolled airport) which is 123.075. I wrote down the CTAF for Southbridge (3B0) since we'd pass pretty much directly over it. As I was doing this, my CFI said "Oh, we're gonna get flight following, so we'll need Bradley Approach freq too - the one on the chart is almost always wrong, so get it out of the AFD (Airport / Facilities Directory, a newsprint book published regularly by the FAA). I did that, and wrote it down.

The weather briefer had told me (helpfully) that a NOTAM was in effect which indicated that runway 05/23 at SFZ (the big one) was closed; that left 15/33 which was about the same size as the runway we'd be leaving from at Northampton. I wrote down the field altitude of SFZ - 441 feet - even though it's clearly on the sectional, it's sometimes hard to find information on those things in the air because they're pretty dense.

I tried to use ForeFlight, but it was behaving unbelievably badly on my original iPad - slow as heck. I know Apple wants me to buy a new one, but come on. I decided it was just too slow to trust, so I put the iPad back in my bag. We went out to the plane, I preflighted it (it needed a quart of oil, but my CFI had fueled it while I was flight planning in my ploddingly slow fashion). Then we stuffed our gear in and I stuffed my fat ass into the airplane and we started up and taxied out.

The runup was fine. I set my flight instruments, did the pre-takeoff check (fuel, trim, flaps, mixture, carb heat, magnetos, primer) and turned onto the active. The wind was still heavy and cross from the right, so I rolled in full right yoke to compensate during the takeoff roll. We lifted off and immediately started drifting to the left, so I put in 15 degrees or so of crab angle to the right and maintained the climb. We droned on up and out. Turning to the east in a normal pattern crosswind, I announced that I was departing Northampton and frobbed frequencies until I had the Bradley approach freq up on COM1. "Bradley approach, Cessna 12732."

"Cessna 12732, Bradley approach."

"Bradley, 12732 is with you at one thousand six hundred climbing to three thousand five hundred, VFR to North Central Sierra Foxtrot Zulu via Putnam VOR, requesting flight following."

"12732, squawk five two two one."

Set the transponder to 5221. "12732 squawking five two two one."

"12732, say altitude leaving and climbing to."

"12732 is leaving two thousand three hundred, climbing to three thousand five hundred."

"12732, roger."

We made the south end of the reservoir. My CFI had noted that since I was on flight following, I could pass closer to Westover's traffic area without worrying about a C-5 Galaxy not seeing me and swatting me out of the sky - the controllers knew where I was. I altered course to the south somewhat to 'cut the corner' and frobbed NAV1 until I had the Putnam VOR centered. 125 TO, so I banked to 125 and threw in 15° of wind correction to the right. We droned on southeastward, able to see for at least 20 miles in any direction before haze obstructed details. I could see Westover off to the right (south). Reaching 3,500 I leaned the mixture - pulled out until the RPMs started to drop, then three clicks back in.

It was pretty bumpy- since climbing out, we'd been hit with moderate gusts and what I'll call very light turbulence. While it was very light, we were in a small airplane and I was flying, so I was paying it a lot of attention. I was spending a fair amount of time holding the airplane in a level attitude (when dealing with turbulence, don't try to maintain altitude or course; instead, maintain aircraft attitude until you're in the clear and then correct as necessary - this minimizes stress on the airplane). I was doing pretty well at holding altitude modulo those gusts, however. I couldn't dial in trim and leave it, there was too much movement in the air, so i was having to fly it by eye on the needle, but I was doing OK.

"Hey, do we need to talk to Southbridge traffic?"

"Nah, we're over 3,000 and if there's anyone up we'll get told by Bradley approach."

Made sense. I fiddled with the DME and wonder of wonders, it was working; 24 miles to the Putnam VOR. We flew on. I noted landmarks; the Massachusetts Turnpike, the town of Southbridge and its airport (3B0) just north of it. My CFI pointed out a wandering trail of light color across the wooded ground where a tornado touched down last year - it moved west to east and hit 3B0 before ending a half-mile past it. "Those houses are fixed, looks like - nothing but blue tarps on those roofs for six months afterwards, and it hit every airplane on the ramp at Southbridge…"

I entertained myself listening to aircraft large and small talk to Bradley. After a time, Bradley handed us off to Providence approach; I thanked him and changed frequencies, announcing myself to the Providence controller. "Providence Approach, Cessna 12732 with you level at three thousand five hundred."

"Cessna 12732, Providence approach, Providence altimeter is three zero one six, say destination."

"12732 is going VFR to North Central, Pawtucket."

"12732, roger, and ah, verify you have the current NOTAMs at North Central."

Ah, right. "12732 has current NOTAMs, runway 05/23 out of service."

"12732, thank you."

At this point we started to hunt for the Putnam VOR. VORs are (generally) white structures that sort of look like a fruit juicer - a round base, usually with a stubby conic tower on top. I saw something I thought was the VOR but turned out to be too tall - it was a church steeple. My CFI found it, telling me it was at one end of a field (local knowledge, I'd never seen it). With that information, I too found it and altered course to head for it directly. I wasn't too far off, but I'd been S-turning a bit as the wind correction made it difficult to stay on the radial.

Just before I passed over, I looked at my nav plan and it said that the true course from the Putnam VOR to SFZ was 107°. Adding magnetic deviation in, I got 122 degrees (VOR radials are in magnetic) so I dialled 122 into the VOR. As we approached and then passed the VOR itself, the indicator wobbled before shooting out to one side; the status indicator flipped from 'TO' to 'OFF' and then to 'FROM'. Once I was a mile or so from the VOR according to the DME (outbound) I started chasing the needle to the right and intercepted the 122 radial outbound.

We remarked on landmarks for a while - we could see Providence in the distance, as well as Newport if we looked carefully - and then I squinted over the nose. "Hey, I have the airport." I pointed over the panel.

"Yep, sure looks like it." Whenever my CFI is that terse, it's because he's waiting for something. I gave it to him.

"Okay, pattern altitude is fourteen hundred. I have to lose two thousand feet; at five hundred feet per minute that's four minutes. We've got a ground speed of roughly 105 MPH, so that's around seven miles. I make us ten miles from the field. Oh, right-" I got on the mic. "Providence approach, 12732 has Sierra Foxtrot Zulu in sight and would like to terminate flight following."

"12732, radar services terminated, squawk VFR, frequency change approved."

"12732 squawking VFR, thank you, good day." I set the transponder back to 1200, flipped to the STANDBY freq - I'd dialled in SFZ's CTAF near the VOR. "Pawtucket? North Central?"

"North Central. Which runway are you gonna use?"

"Let's see, wind is from 230°; One Five or Three Three...I'm going to use One Five, and -" I checked the page from the AFD I'd torn out and clipped to my clipboard - "left hand pattern." Established descent, set mixture back to rich, added carb heat.

"I'd use three three, keep the crosswind further to the nose..."

Thought. Sighed. "Yep." Click: "North Central traffic, Cessna 12732 is ten miles northwest of the field, inbound. Will enter a left downwind for three three."

"They have weather, right?"

"DERP. Yeah..." fiddled with the sectional, found the AWOS freq and dialed that in. Tried to use COM2 but I couldn't get anything out of it. My CFI tried too, and gave up, nodded me towards COM1, so I used that and got weather. Winds were as I'd thought in terms of direction, but the weather recording was reporting them as seventeen knots gusting to three zero at the surface - wow. "Well, huh. I'm going to give it a try."

"Okay. Shouldn't you be turning downwind?"

Yeah, I should, too much time wasted diddling with radios. "North Central traffic, Cessna 12732 is turning left downwind for three three North Central." As I did just that, I watched the runway and found that I had to maintain around a 25° crab angle on downwind to keep the proper distance. As I came roughly abeam the numbers, I pulled power to fifteen and added carb heat and ten degrees of flaps. As we came around base, it was clear I was being blown towards the runway; I made a fast turn to final and found myself high and already having to maintain that same 25° crab angle (now to the left) to hold the runway centerline. I added more flaps, but was still high and fast, and we came in a bit high. "Okay, I'm too high, I'm going around." I announced this, but just as I did so a nasty gust of wind hit us, and we bounced up fifty feet and a hundred feet to the left. "Whoa!" I juggled the yoke, adding power back in and taking carb heat out. I was having to use a lot of forward pressure on the yoke as the flaps were still fully in, but I didn't want to start taking them out, I felt I was still too close to the ground and there was a lot going on. We started to climb slowly back out; as we got above 300 feet AGL I started taking flaps out. "Whoo, fun!"

"You know what, let's not even land."

"Seriously?"

"Yeah. You found the airport, and you made the right decision about that landing, and that is, actually, a thirty-knot gust down there. Screw it, let's go home, we did what we came to do now that we scared everybody down on the ground with that pass."

Gave him a dirty look mit hurt feelings and got a grin in response. I turned back to the airplane and concentrated on establishing a steady climb as the wind continued to jolt us around. I still had Providence approach on my secondary frequency, so as soon as we hit one thousand five hundred feet I called them up. "Providence, Cessna 12732."

"Cessna 12732, Providence."

"Providence, 12732 is with you at, uh- " checked- "two thousand seven hundred going to four thousand five hundred; requesting direct to Northampton, Seven Bravo Two."

"732, say your position."

"12732 is...uh..." craned my neck frantically - "five miles northeast of North Central..." My CFI shook his head, mouthed northwest - "...northwest, my apologies."

"12732, roger, squawk zero four five seven, you're in radar contact, altimeter three zero one six."

"Thank you, 12732."

My CFI waved. "When you say 'direct' they assume you're going direct, so they're not going to know we're going via Putnam VOR. It's okay, it's close enough it won't make any difference, but remember to tell them exactly what you want and don't throw in extra words unless you mean it."

"Right. Right."

The trip back was pretty much the same as the trip out. Found Putnam VOR, this time from the other side; made one error and sat there like a jerk staring at a right-deflected needle after passing over it until my instructor said "Uh, you gonna make your turn?" at which point I banked right and gave him a shamefaced grin. We got handed back off to Bradley approach halfway, and by the time I could see the Quabbin, I was feeling pretty good - I knew where I was! I know, it's not that far, but I have to tell you that not knowing where you are when you can't just stop and ask (pretty much can't stop) is a bit nerve-wracking. When we got up to the reservoir, Bradley warned us of some traffic near Westover and then warned us there were two aircraft near Northampton. "Bradley Approach, 12732 - I have traffic at ten o'clock in sight, requesting termination of flight following."

"12732, ah, I'll hold on and watch you until you have the field in sight, no worry."

Oh right. "Bradley, 12732 has the field in sight, thank you much; my apologies."

"12732, Bradley; squawk VFR, altitude and course your discretion, frequency change approved and good day."

"12732 squawking VFR, altitude and course my discretion. Thank you Bradley and good day." Flipped freqs. I was over the ridgeline now, and could see Amherst off to the north and the river bend where I knew the airport was (even if I couldn't actually see the runway). "Okay, I need to lose three thousand four hundred feet, that's around seven minutes; at this speed, that's nine miles. I'm ten miles from the field now." Clicked the mic: "Northampton traffic, Cessna 12732 is ten miles east of the field inbound, will join a left downwind for One Four Northampton." Pulled power out to seventeen hundred, added carb heat and pushed the mixture in to full rich; we started a nice slide down at right around 95 MPH IAS and five hundred FPM descent rate. As I got close enough, I announced my pattern entry and rode the pattern around, aware the crosswind was still there.

Turning final, I was holding a crab angle. "Sideslip. Bank into the wind, use the rudder to hold course- yep, like that. Touch down on upwind gear first."

Did that; much easier than holding a large correction angle as I could use the rudder to directly yaw for the runway centerline. Came over the threshold right around fifty feet up - floated a little long, as I'd held some speed in case of wind gusts, but still touched down smoothly on the upwind main gear, then the downwind main gear, then the nose. I held the yoke back, and although we missed the turnoff, we only did so by perhaps a hundred feet. As I swung the plane around, my CFI reminded me to position the yoke to correct for the crosswind - in a high-wing plane, gusty winds on the ground can lift a wing and hence one of the wheels, and even in relatively low wind you can start sliding around. In higher winds or sharp gusts the airplane can flip over. I pushed the yoke forward and away (dive away from a quartering tailwind) and we taxied back in to the ramp.

We shut down the airplane, tied it up and noted the Hobbs time. We got inside and I filled out my logbook - 1.6 hours dual received, cross-country. He signed it. "Okay! So, next week, let's do a night cross-country to New Bedford - they got a decent restaurant on the airfield there, we can get dinner. After that, I think you can do a solo cross-country, and then we'll settle into prep for the check ride."

Woohoo! Progress!

Oh yeah. I was introduced to a cool website called CloudAhoy which can be used to track your flights so that folks can 'replay' them and debrief them online. My flight from today is here! Check it out, it's kind of neat. Disclaimer: I look like I'm flying a really wobbly course in that. This is for two reasons - one, well, yeah, I sort of was since it was really windy and gusty, but also I was using the internal GPS of my iPhone to track us and my iPhone was in my pocket. The iPhone internal GPS doesn't understand flying very well - I think the code that supports it was hardcoded to correct and assume you are on the surface at all times, so the record wobbles quite a bit. Also, the website LiveATC not only maintains live feeds of air traffic control all over the place, they archive them! So if you go to the archives for KBDL (Bradley Approach) on 9/25/2012, and get the 1930-2000Z archive, you'll hear me right near the start ("12732") sounding all stressed as I finish checking in the first time. Some of the conversation is missing, the feed has several channels simultaneous and I got stepped on, but it's also possible they missed it, because they ask me for clarification. You'll hear him tell me to squawk 5221 and me confirm. Around 1948Z, I switch to the Providence approach feed (KPVD) and remain with them until handed back to Bradley on the way home.

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure - I've tried to put all my screwups here as well as just giving a travelogue. I probably missed a few. One thing I'd forgotten about flying - the information flow is noticeably faster than doing 'normal life' things (although if I was a race car driver I probably wouldn't think so). In addition to having to keep situational awareness while moving at a hundred knots or so over the countryside, there are all kinds of things you need to keep track of in flight - where you are, where your nearest landmarks are, what radio frequency you're using and which you're likely to need in the near future both COM and NAV, whether you're on course, whether your instruments are correct (my directional gyro drifted at one point during the flight back, and it took me ten minutes to figure out why I was having such trouble intercepting the VOR radial - I thought I was holding a decent wind correction angle, but my heading indicator had drifted and I wasn't holding any! I had to fly straight and level enough to steady the magnetic compass so I could reset my DG.

I'm not good at this stuff. Not yet. I'm functional, as I hope is clear - my CFI thinks I should be OK doing a solo cross-country after we do our dual night X-C, and that gives me some confidence. But the consequences for getting it wrong or just not having done your prep work or even just losing track of what you're doing are very, very glaringly obvious when you're flying an airplane, and it's easy to let stress build up. The key, as far as I can tell, is to remain calm, and concentrate on flying the airplane - hold your attitude and course, avoid traffic. Once you are confident the airplane is stable, then start taking time to work on the problem - find the chart that fell onto the floor, reach back for the flight computer you left on the back seat like an idiot, peer around you looking for landmarks to compare with the sectional chart. Remember, too, that you're talking to people - if you get lost, especially flying like I was, you can always ask Air Traffic Control - after all, you asked them to keep track of you! Sure it might be embarrassing, but a pilot who can admit he or she is lost and ask for help early is a pilot who will likely make it home safe and sound. ATC will help you, and they would really rather know as soon as possible if you're having trouble, because a pilot who is confused is one they'll need to pay more attention to and perhaps keep farther from other airplanes. Telling them you're having difficulty is the first step to getting out of it.

My CFI keeps saying "Fix it sooner, fix it smaller." The sooner you realize something is going wrong, the smaller the correction you'll have to make. This is called staying ahead of the airplane. Always make sure that you know what's happening and what is going to happen before the airplane gets there or starts to do it - and you're ahead of the airplane, your corrections can be small and gentle, and everything is better. It's like looking out to the next corner when driving, not just a hundred feet in front of you. Know the future as best you can, and you won't be surprised by it. The smaller your corrections need to be, the more time and reserve capability you have to deal with anything else that might happen. If you leave a correction too long on landing, for example, you might find yourself having to make steep banks and lose a lot of height to get onto the runway, whereas if you'd seen early on that you were close in and pulled out power a little earlier, you might have been able to avoid those more severe corrections. (I've had to do that. I still do sometimes. Slowly, we improve).

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