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Hop #(idunno anymore)

Today I awoke, headed to the airport, and started flight planning. Because today was solo cross-country day.

Allow me to digressively explain. In order to receive a Private Pilot's license - actually, in order to be given a check ride/exam to determine if you can have one - you must meet a number of requirements. The list of them, if you care, can be found in the Federal Aviation Regulations, §61.109. The one that mattered to me today was paragraph 5, which says that applicants must have:

(5) 10 hours of solo flight time in a single-engine airplane, consisting of at least--

  1. 5 hours of solo cross-country time;
  2. One solo cross country flight of 150 nautical miles total distance, with full-stop landings at three points, and one segment of the flight consisting of a straight-line distance of more than 50 nautical miles between the takeoff and landing locations; and
  3. Three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop (with each landing involving a flight in the traffic pattern) at an airport with an operating control tower.

Part iii I've done; I have 6 or 7 landings at KBAF and KEWB, both control tower airports (Class D). But parts i and ii, not so much. Back a couple decades ago, during my last attempt at this license, I accrued a couple of hours of applicable cross-country time, but I never did the three-leg trip. So in an attempt to knock off the final 2.5 hrs of part i and the whole of part ii, I was to fly from Northampton (7B2) to Laconia, NH (KCLI). Returning, I was to land first at Keene, NH's Dillant-Hopkins airport (KEEN, and I saw what you did there). The first leg was about 98 nautical miles straight line, but I decided to instead fly via the EEN and CON VORs, turning it into a three-leg journey. I got to the airport a bit before eleven AM and started diligently flight planning, hoping to depart by noon. Er, well, not so much. I had my plan all set, and weather briefing information included, by around 11:45, but then I had to fuel the airplane. I was helped by the fact that it was a gorgeous day - ceiling unlimited, tons of visibility, no clouds at all - not even wisps. Winds were steady from the north-north-west, around six to ten knots on the surface, perhaps twenty knots at 3000 feet, and dropping back to 5-8 knots at 6000 feet. I chose to fly at 5500 on the way to KCLI (NEODD) and 4500 on the way home.

Fueling went auspiciously, as I managed to fill both wing tanks without backwashing avgas onto the wing or myself. Victory! My instructor looked at my plan, nodded, signed my logbook endorsing me to travel cross country solo, made sure my medical certificate was endorsed as well, and waved as I trudged out to the airplane.

12732 is, for some reason, harder to start in the winter. Perhaps I just haven't gotten the amount of priming right, but it seems to take me three or four tries. Nevertheless, eventually she fired up, so I opened up CloudAhoy on my iPhone, tossed it on the glare shield, arranged my various logs and charts, and taxied out to Three Two. The run-up showed nothing unusual; all instruments were where they should be. I'd preflighted before starting it up, and nothing looked out of place - 6.5 quarts of oil, full tanks, no water in either tank or in the drain sump, etc. etc.

Waited for some traffic, then departed Three Two. At two thousand feet, I turned on course towards the EEN VOR, and flipped the NAV1 freq from standby to active.

Nothing.

Hm.

Frobbed around with it for a while, decided I was probuably still too low - the EEN VOR is in a bit of a valley. Got to cruise altitude, 5500, and still nothing. Hm again. Tried tuning in the GARDNER VOR - nope. The 'OFF' flag (not the ILS 'OFF', the TO/FROM/OFF flag) remained stubbornly orange, and I was nowhere near the VOR. Well OK. NAV2 doesn't usually work in this airplane, so NAV1 being stroppy is a bit of an issue. Tuned it in to NAV2 - and got a normal indication on NAV2. Tried GARDNER, just to be sure, and yep, GARDNER came in fine. Okay then. Onward. Frobbed COM1 to the appropriate freq.

"Bradley Approach, Cessna 12732."

"12732, Bradley Approach."

"Bradley Approach, 12732 is at 5500 five miles north of 7B2 enroute to KCLI via KEENE and GARDNER, request flight following."

"Cessna 12732, say aircraft model please."

"Bradley Approach, apologies, 12732 is a Cessna 172."

"Roger 12732, squawk 4424."

"Roger,, 12732 is squawking 4424." Did that, leaning over to the right to twiddle archaic but reliable knobs. Bradley dealt with a couple of other aircraft.

"November 12732, radar contact." Okay! That's done. But flight following doesn't absolve me of any responsibilities (not even for traffic avoidance) so I started working with my charts and my VOR. Got on-course for the KEENE (EEN) VOR (Ch. 109.4, dot dot dash-dot) and settled back to enjoy a stupendously nice day in the air. Not a cloud nor a wisp of a cloud in sight; a high over northern New York and Canada and another down near DC with lows far off the east coast meant winds from the northeast, but steady ones. At 5500 I was getting perhaps eight to ten knots, according to the rough and hurried calc I did on my E6B. That was a nightmare - I'm not good at doing pencil and paper work in the cockpit. For one thing, there's no autopilot, so it's sort of like writing while driving (although not as much traffic) but for another, I'm about two sizes too large for a Cessna 172, so there isn't a whole lot of room to fiddle with things like pencils and slide rules.

Luckily, the DME was working, so I fed it the EEN freq and it happily started counting down. With its help, I managed to ID a bunch of landmarks including Turner's Falls (0B5) and Orange Muni (ORE) airports, and five miles out I spotted the distinctive orange-juicer white cone of the VOR in a circular clearing in the trees. With that spotted, I looked north, to see Dillant-Hopkins (Keene's airport, and a stop for later in the day) and turned right, heading for the CON (Concord) VOR as I crossed over the cone. Bradley handed me off to Boston Approach soon after, and they acknowledged my check-in and gave me a new squawk, telling me they had me in sight.

Between EEN and CON the navigation was fairly simple - there were a few distinctively-shaped lakes, and roughly halfway there I passed Hawthorne-Feather airport. Airports are pretty easy to spot from 5500 feet. I checked the time, and found that I was within two minutes of my estimated time for my position, which meant the wind numbers I'd been given and my wind correction calculations were on target.

At CON, I looked off to the right and located Concord Municipal airport on the far bank of the Merrimack river. The VOR was just on the near side of the river, also easily visible; once I crossed that, I turned left slightly to head for the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. I once went to summer camp as a sprog on Lake Ossipee, the next lake over; even though I was still some thirty miles from Laconia, I realized I could see the ski mountain next to its position and even see a slight smudge of cleared ground.

"12732, please advise on descent into Laconia."

"Roger, 12732 will advise on descent." Kept on; a huge facility hove into view just to the right of my course. I searched the chart and finally decided the small understated oval symbol on the chart must be it. It wasn't labelled. Slightly funny; the real thing was a huge racetrack, bleachers and stands and race oval and parking lots, and on the chart (which devoted lots of space to things like windmills) there was just a tiny solid blue oval.

Laconia is at 545 feet above MSL; I was at 5,500, the traffic pattern would be 1600. I had roughly 4000 feet to descend, at a standard rate of 500 feet per minute that was eight minutes. According to my DME I was doing approximately 96 knots over the ground, so that worked out to roughly twelve to fourteen nautical miles for the descent. Checked; the racetrack was...hm, fifteen miles from Laconia! "Boston Approach, 12732 is starting descent for Laconia, I have the field in sight."

"Roger 12732, I have zero traffic between you and Laconia. Squawk one two zero zero, frequency change approved, good day."

"12732 is squawking VFR, frequency change approved, thank you and good day."

Flipped to 123.0, the CTAF for Laconia, and set up the descent. I had to land on runway zero eight (as per airport instructions, if the wind was below 8 knots, runway 08 is preferred for noise abatement). Since I was approaching from the south-south-west, I could either angle left and fly a straight-in approach or circle around and use the full pattern. Since I'd never landed at Laconia and thus wasn't familiar with the local landmarks, I opted to bear right slightly, fly an upwind track and enter the pattern for zero eight in a crosswind so I would have the full pattern to recon the runway and adjust my altitude. "Laconia traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is ten miles south-south-west, inbound for a crosswind for zero eight Laconia."

Kept descending, passing to the south (right) of the airport, between it and a ski mountain higher than I was at the moment. As I got near the mountain, the winds rising of its northern slope started to bounce me around a bit, but nothing really bad. "Laconia traffic, Skyhawk 12732 is turning crosswind for zero eight Laconia." Did that.

Coming around onto the downwind, I did my checklist, GUMPS - Gas (fuel selector on both), Undercarriage (nix), Mixture (whoop, set that back to full rich, hadn't done that during the descent!), Prop (nix) and Seatbelts (check). Came around the pattern, now at 1550 feet, and noted that zero eight has a displaced threshold. Adjusted my timing, came around; felt I was a bit high on final, but realized I was headed down at a slightly steeper angle but with the proper speed - holy crap, I'd adjusted for the headwind without thinking about it! Gave myself a quick two seconds of WOOT and then settled down to landing.

Landed. It was a good one, too - rather than even a squeal, I just heard the tires start turning.

Taxied over to the ramp. It was almost empty - two airplanes in a space that would hold maybe fifty - so I parked near the FBO door. I was greeted by an elderly part-beagle mutt, who was snoozing on the warm tarmac. She was cranky I'd woken her, for maybe three seconds, then decided ear-scratching was worth it. There were two nice chaps inside who, upon my sheepishly brandishing my logbook for endorsement, said "Woohoo, long cross country! Congrats!" and signed it, directing me to the bathroom and offering me soda or water for the plane. Thanked them, thanked the dog, took a bottle of water, SMS-ed my CFI to let him know I was at Laconia, and headed back to the airplane.

The trip back was quicker, since it was with the wind. Made it to the CON VOR, contacting Boston Approach; they followed me to perhaps fifteen miles short of Keene, when they announced I was clear to switch freqs and squawk VFR. I said "Uh, roger, thanks" despite not being totally sure I had the field in sight - but it was a really nice day. I was glad I'd gotten the NOTAMs from my weather briefer - the big huge inviting runway, zero two/two zero, was closed - big lighted 'X' signs on it and everything. The (extremely short, due to a displaced threshold) runway three two was available, so I eased into the pattern and landed on that. I had a hard time finding anyone at Keene - there were a couple aircraft tied town at the terminal, but the FBO was closed. I enticed a construction supervisor into signing my logbook, took a picture of the airplane in front of the terminal sign, and headed back out after verifying my fuel situation was acceptable (it was; I had seventeen usable gallons of gas and a 37 nautical mile trip to make).

As I headed south, the sky off to the east was darkening slightly and an orange-ish layer was visible just above the horizon. The sun was sinking towards the hills the other way; I got to the EEN VOR, and from there realized I could see home - the ridgelines, Quabbin reservoir, and the Connecticut river winding towards the south. Caught myself singing, something stupid and chipper, and grinned.

There were a few airplanes coming into 7B2; I joined the queue, descending over the Amherst Towers and flying over the Route 9 bridge, coming in on a crosswind for Three Two. Landed it - another greaser, awesome, especially because two PIpers were lined up at the taxiway intersection watching me go by. "Nice one, 732."

"Thank you kindly."

Taxied in, found a pull-through parking spot (yes!) tied down the airplane, and went inside. My CFI was there, said "Welcome back. Any problems?"

I thought about it, all the things I'd done to prep and to fly, all the landmarks, all the navigation checks, all the ATC chatter. "Nah. Oh, NAV1 is down in the airplane, but NAV2 is working today, so I used that."

"Well played." He gave me a high five. "I'll see you tomorrow morning. We'll talk about the check ride."

"See ya."

Hot damn.