A trip down memory lane
It was a cold winter day- sunny, but cold. The preflight briefer warned that it was going to be clear, but cold, with headwinds all the way up the Sacramento Valley. Lower is better he reiterated. Decision time was nearing. Go or no go? It has been so long since I had flown alone, I racked my brain to remember when last I had flown solo. Since getting my instrument rating, I have always had another pilot along, so I could fly an approach and stay instrument current. This flight though had to be done solo.
The FAA requires that the whole trip cover a total of 300 NM, with the first stop at an airport 250 NM straight line distance from the airport of origin. It also requires a landing at three different airports. Most importantly it has to be performed solo. The last time there was a solo requirement was way back during my private training. I still remember my long solo cross country for my private pilot license. Those days were different. I remember navigating by following the 101 highway. I relied so much on being able to recognize the area; and the slight nervousness of crossing over the mountains, cross checking charts to assure myself that the altitude I was flying would safely get me over the mountains ( I even remember asking the controller just to double check).
There was not much humidity in the air. Not a cloud in sight. I would be flying low at 6500 ft. Temperatures would be negative, would icing be a problem? I reviewed Aviation Digital Data Service for pilot reports of icing and turbulence. Although there were no PIREPs for icing and turbulence, AIRMET Tango was in effect covering all of California for slight to moderate turbulence. A quick call to my instructor to assure myself I was not missing anything and I made a decision to go. After all, if there was turbulence or icing, I could land at the nearest airport as it was a perfect day with unlimited visibility.
After a delay, waiting to have the aircraft refueled and the tires inflated, I finally setoff after 11:00 am. Paso Robles HIWAS was indicating icing probability from Bakersfield all the way to Seal Beach. I kept my eyes peeled on the wing leading edge, the outside air temperature and the engine instruments, ready to react and turn the pitot heat on if there was any sign of icing. At 6500 ft the outside air temperature read -6 degree Celsius. Brrr, it was cold up there. What I needed was gloves and my comforter. I was glad I had worn my socks. My instructor had warned me to dress warmly.
I descended lower once past the Priest VOR and crossing the mountains to the San Joaquin Valley. I remembered the time, when Grace and I had crept through here at 1200 ft past Sacramento Mather airport, as we flew to Redmond during the Palms to Pines Air Race. At least here I knew, I could go low and not worry about safe altitudes.
After almost three hours of solo flying, trying to stay warm, I arrived at Willows Glenn County Airport. It was past 2:00 pm and not enough time to have lunch as I wanted to return before it got dark. I still had to make another landing to fulfill the FAA requirement for commercial license before heading back home.
A quick pit stop to refuel both the aircraft and myself with a candy bar, I was off again in the air. I intended to return at 5500 ft. As I almost reached my final altitude, I thought why not finish my second landing close by, after all there were so many airports nearby, then I could just head home. Looking through my chart I found Colusa, a mere 10 NM away. Seeing the dimensions of the small narrow runway, brought back memories of my last landing at Woodlake, where I needed three attempts before I finally landed. Rather that being intimidated, I headed that way. I needed to prove to myself, I could do a good landing first time around on a small runway. Gently skimming the runway as on a feather bed pat on the numbers, I applauded myself as I came to a stop, and taxied back for immediate takeoff.
The last leg was incident free. The sun was slowly making its way down in the west. I had decided to fly towards Salinas, and head down the Salinas valley to SBP. As I crossed the mountains at 5500 ft, I could feel slight turbulence. I was barely a few hundred feet above the mountains. Time to play spot a landing field game I thought. For safety measure, I climbed to 7500ft. Whoa! Ground speed read 153 Knots, a jump in almost 20-30 knots. Of course, higher was better. How could I have forgotten with all the headwind I had experienced on the way up north? I laughed as I remembered the preflight briefing in the morning. Higher was better, if only it wasn’t as cold!
I flew the return, lost in reflection. I remembered my solo cross country flights after obtaining my private license. I always enjoyed flying solo those days. There is certain peacefulness to flying alone. On such a perfect day, the properly trimmed aircraft almost flew itself. I thought back on that solo cross country that now seems aeons ago. My task then had been similar- to land at two different airports covering 150 NM. I had lacked the confidence I had now, but I also have more than 300 hours since then. I had chosen an easy airport then – South county airport, easy to find, running parallel to 101 freeway. I had driven past it so many times, during my trips to the bay area. There was no way I could miss it. I smiled as I remembered my attempts at landing, the confusion at the non towered busy airport, the short runway and as usual my two failed attempts before landing.
It is quite true what people say about flying – the real learning starts after you get your private license. My initial steps had been timid. Short hops to nearby airports- airports I recognized easily. I thought back about my trip to Bakersfield, my first flight east in the Cessna 152, with one radio, a non functional transponder and my fear of getting lost, for not knowing the airport. My one consolation was that there was approach radar at Bakersfield. I also remembered my first trip down south to Camarillo, the initial hesitation to go past Santa Ynez and finally getting there after three attempts. I realized too that this sense of hesitation was largely due to the minimal avionics equipment on board the aircraft I flew back then and lack of sufficient experience on my part to feel confident on finding my way in case of spatial disorientation solely based on a single VOR. Newer aircraft carry more sophisticated avionics such as GPS and autopilot, and simplify navigation to a great extent. But too much reliance on this hi-tech avionics can also be a disadvantage in case of electric failure. While it is best to utilize all resources at our disposal, it is also necessary to be prepared for the worst case scenario. My instrument rating, certainly boosted my confidence ten fold in cross country navigation not only under instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) but also during visual meteorological conditions (VMC) flying without having to rely on seeing where I am going and knowing the geographical area. It is all these and other small experiences that have added to my experience base and given me then sense of calm and confidence I experience now. I recollected the famous Amelia Earhart quotation:
Courage is the price that life extracts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not knows no release from little things.
The soul that knows it not knows no release from little things.
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights, where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.
I could almost retrace the whole path from where I had been to where I am now. It is all these and much more that have made me a better pilot. But before we can achieve this sense of peace and joy, what is first needed is courage- courage to take those initial steps, to dare to take wings and rise above one-self.
All too soon, I arrived back in SBP as the sun set. There was still light out there, not yet time for a night flight, I would have to save that adventure of night solo flying for another day. It had been another perfect day of flying, a milestone reached, logged and recorded in memory to retrieve and cherish another time, another place.