Lesson Fifty
21 April
2 hours

My first solo cross-country.  Back to Charlottsville--so it ought to be easy.

I walk into the terminal and head straight to the men's room and take care of the first item on my checklist for today's flight.

Bladder empty.  Check.

Zipper u--what the hell?!  The zipper handle breaks off with the slide halfway up.  Great.  That's just great.  There's a little U of handle left, just enough to get my finger tips on ...  Okay.  Whew!  It's up.  Check.

But will I dare to go again in Charlottesville?  What if that little U falls off.  It'd be just my luck to get stuck in the john with my zipper gaping.

Here's a brand new insight into the word "fly."

Fortunately, this was the worst part of the day's flyght.  I had already gotten the weather, filed my flight plan, and used the wind aloft info to calculate the headings.  Adam checked my work and signed it off in my logbook--and that was about it.

A clear, sunny day, with light wind right down the runway.  Took off and turned to heading 334 as I left the pattern, climbing to 2500 feet.  Called Leesburg Radio and activated my flight plan.  (Well, first I called Leesburg Radio on the Chesterfield frequency and felt stupid.  Changed to the right freq and got through fine.)

Pretty soon I could see the first checkpoint ahead, but a bit to the left, meaning that winds aloft report--which claimed 070 at 18--didn't seem to be accurate.  After double checking my drift, or lack of it, I turned to 320, only 5 degrees right of the actual magnetic heading to Charlottesville.  That heading brought me to my second checkpoint, so I kept to it for the rest of the flight.

Most of the trip is over territory with good landmarks.  But there's a stretch of about 15 miles, between where the river bends away to the south and the interstate bends in from the north, that has plenty of things to look at, but not many that agree with what's on the chart.  In that stretch I had to just plug along, trusting that my corrected heading really was correct.

Also I discovered that with the leaves out on all the trees, even the broad interstate was invisible when the vision angle was less than 30 or 40 degrees, meaning that you have to be within about twice your altitude of it before you can pick it out from the side.

After what seemed a loooong time the VOR needle swung over to indicate that I was on the 240 degree radial of the Gordonsville VOR, and sure enough, there was the next checkpoint, right on schedule.

The next thing was to get the Charlttesville ATIS information.  Tune to 128.625 and listen hard.  Set the altimeter, wind is light, runway 3 is active.  It's "information x-ray" today; write that down on my nav log.

Here comes the ridge 7 nm east of the airport.  And there's the powerline running up it, so I'm still on course.  Call the tower.  This is the guy with the fast drawl that makes Chuch Yeager sound like an elocution expert, and I wimp out and say "Four seven two five bravo, student pilot," and so on.  I remember to say "... with information x-ray."  He comes back slow and clear with instructions I actually understand, ending with "Report two miles right base."  Right base is convenient, since I'm already on that line, but it's only the second time I've flown a right-hand pattern, and besides it doesn't give me the leisure of setting up a full approach pattern.  I'm still looking for the airport, and I've heard another plane already on downwind.  Finally I see the runway for sure and turn slightly south to enter on right base.  I'm already well past the ridge, so I start descending to 1600 feet, the pattern altitude.

This runway is only slightly longer than the one at Chesterfield, but it's about four miles wide--well, about twice as wide--which makes it look from the side as though I'm a lot lower than I really am.  I know that, but naturally I get nervous and add some power--and then almost immediately realize I'm high.  I turn final in a turn so wide, I'm sure it makes the tower operator BELIEVE I'm a student pilot.  Get lined up, put in the last ten degrees of  flaps, and--whew!--down smoothly enough, but float past the first turn off.  No problem, though.  The pilot on final behind me has no doubt heard that "student pilot" bit and is taking his time coming in, so I'm off the runway well before he crosses the boundary.

Tower operator says to switch to ground frequency--this is the one time he lapses into his fastdrawl, and all I hear is "blubbity wun," but I've got it in my nav log: 122.1.  Planning matters!

Taxi toward the Piedmont ramp.  Whoops!  There's a little car or tug or something, heading right at me.  Ah.  It's the ground guy.  He waves me to a tiedown and gets me parked, waiting patiently while I take a deep breath and work through the shutdown checklist.

Inside the Piedmont terminal I close my flight plan and file one for the return trip.  I have to laugh when we get to the number on board part and the briefer asks, "One soul?"  Yyyes--but it sounds just a bit ominous.

I have to go to the john.  The little U is still there, and all seems to be right with  world--so far.  But I have to walk past a flock of professional-looking pilots and flight crews, all in black uniform suits and white shirts.  Here I am, carrying my day-glo Wal-Mart clipboard with chart and messy nav logs flapping in the breeze, and they pointedly look away with just the slightest trace of pain on their faces.

The flight back to Chesterfield goes smoothly.  I trust my wind correction correction now, so even the part with no good landmarks goes comfortably, and I'm able to look around now and then, and enjoy the drive.  I hit the airport right on  course and get into the pattern.  Now I'm back at the comparatively narrow runway--and of course it looks like I'm high.  Whoops! I AM high.  Dump in full flaps, pull the throttle to idle,  and manage to get down smoothly but fast and float along farther than is cool.   No matter this time:  I've done my first solo cross country--and enjoyed it.  (Burned more adrenalin than gasoline, though.)

Thursday, if the forecasted rain lets up in time, I go to Newport News, easy enough navigation, right along the river all the way, but a little trickier because it's a bigger, busier airport with a confusing maze of runways and taxiways.

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