Joining the brotherhood – a student pilot’s first cross country

I sat in the complex glass cockpit and looked over an array of instruments which I had no idea how to interpret. This was the most advanced and expensive aircraft I had ever been in, but I was not the pilot. In fact, to reach this point, I had flown in an aircraft many consider the archetype of simplicity…

It was a warm summer day, August 10, 2013, and I walked around the fuselage of N70739 as I preflighted the Cessna 152 for my first solo cross country flight. I had prepared with my instructor for weeks to complete my requirements and to move one step closer to becoming a licensed pilot. The lessons of dead reckoning and pilotage remained fresh in my mind as I created a flight plan.

I would be heading north following Interstate 39 to Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. There, I would turn over the forests of northwest Wisconsin towards my destination. Today’s flight would also be special because I had the opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of one of my favorite places on Earth, my grandparents’ lake home in northern Wisconsin.

Lake in Wisconsin.
The lakes of northern Wisconsin make pilotage a lot more interesting.

Blueberry Lake, a beautiful haven of nature near Hayward, Wisconsin, has been the backdrop of some of my most beloved family memories, and I was very excited to see the splendor of the lake from a whole new perspective. As an added bonus, I would also get to fly over my family’s hunting land and be able to spend time with my grandparents, my aunt, and my uncle. So, after I packed a quart of oil and a few snacks, I took off into a sky dotted with cumulus clouds.

The runway gave way to the roadway as I followed the Interstate north through the golden farmland of Wisconsin. The cars below me reminded me of the special opportunity I had as a pilot to experience a third dimension of travel. Nevertheless, I did feel a little sorry for the drivers below who had to adhere to the speed limit, while I passed them in the relatively unhindered sky above.

I flew by all my checkpoints and got to see a part of the state I had never seen before. I also witnessed another fellow pilot flying over the farms below in a crop duster. I was impressed at his ability to maintain control and spatial awareness at such a low altitude. Higher up, I was trying my best to do the same, as I kept myself occupied double-checking my location, looking over my instruments, and considering possible landing spots in case my engine went out.

Those landing strips became few and far between as I passed Steven’s Point and entered the Northwoods. Fields and farms turned into endless forests, where any landing would be treacherous. I tried to stay high up to avoid this unlikely eventuality, but the clouds made it so I had to travel a little closer to the Earth than I wanted. On the bright side, by flying a little lower, I was able to appreciate the beauty of the forests below me, which were only interrupted by crystal-colored lakes, the occasional dirt road, and the even more infrequent small town.

HYR runway
Looking for an airport among all the trees.

Shortly after I flew over my mother’s hometown of Ladysmith, Wisconsin, I approached my grandparents’ lake home. The familiar roads of the area revealed themselves to me until my Cessna finally soared over the lake. I looked down on the waters and was reminded of the memories I made during my youth. I saw the shoreline of the beach where my cousins and I swam, looked over the trails where my dad had taken me on our ATV, and rocked my wings in salute to the house where some of my most cherished family memories were made. A bald eagle has called the lake home for many years, and I had always felt jealous of its ability to see nature from above. Now, as I circled Blueberry from the sky, it was my turn.

After snapping a few pictures from this new perspective, I continued my flight and approached Sawyer County Airport (KHYR). I checked the wind and came in for an approach, but something was wrong. A quick check of my altimeter confirmed my fears: I was several hundred feet above pattern altitude! After flying during my training at an airport which was less than 1000ft above sea level, I was caught off guard by KSYR’s field elevation of 1216 feet. In retrospect, I don’t really know what happened for sure, all I know is that my inattentiveness left me far too high. Fortunately, I still had enough time to descend, with the help of a slip, and to land. Hayward’s longer runway helped me out too.

I taxied to the FBO and parked. After an awkward exchange where I asked a Jimmy John’s delivery man (who looked like an airport worker, I swear) to fuel the plane, I walked in to greet my grandparents, who had traveled to town to meet me. When we got to the airport, I was also met by a surprise. The largest airplane to ever land at Hayward Airport had just touched down. The aircraft was a Bombardier Global 6000, which, with 13 seats and a full complement of luxurious features, must have been a challenge to set down on the 5000ft runway.

Bombardier cockpit
Quite a difference from a Cessna.

Even more surprising was that the pilot of this aircraft wanted me to come aboard and take a tour of the plane. I walked up the steps and into a whole new world. Gone were the steam gauges that had guided me to Hayward as I stared at the glowing screens of the airplane’s advanced glass cockpit. Sure, the leather seats and wood trim of the private jet’s cabin were impressive, but the cockpit was where all my attention was devoted. To an aviation nut, it was a dream come true; I felt like I’d just sat down inside of a fighter jet.

The pilot told me the functions of the dials and switches, but he also shared stories of his transcontinental travel. It seemed so surreal to be sitting in this jet when, minutes earlier, I had been flying in a plane that was older than me and struggled to reach 100 knots.

Unfortunately, my time in the left seat had to end, as the crew of the jet needed to prepare for their upcoming flight to New York. I snapped a few pictures in front of the airplane with my grandpa and watched the Bombardier take off. It was now time for me to prepare for my own, slightly slower, journey. I re-fueled my Cessna and called in my flight plan to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. After hugs and goodbyes, my airplane followed the jet into the air. I headed south over the same dense forests and blue lakes that had been the backdrop of my journey north.

I approached another of my own special waypoints, my family’s hunting land. These few hundred acres of pristine natural beauty hold a special place in my heart, and like my grandparents’ lake home, I relished in the opportunity to see “The Land” (as we call it) from above. I practiced turns around a point, the point being one of the lakes on our land, before turning back towards my destination. The tower of Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (KEAU) cleared me to land a short time later, and my plane touched down in Eau Claire.

The stop here was a little shorter, but I did get the opportunity to spend some time with my aunt and uncle in the airport restaurant, where I showed them some of the pictures I had taken over the course of the trip. My stops to visit family were some of the highlights of my trip, as I got to share my experiences with those I love most. Soon enough, I would learn that flying with my family members would be a far more incredible experience, but that’s a story for another time.

Alec Helmke with grandfather
The author with his grandfather – and a beautiful airplane.

Although my leg from KHYR to KEAU was short, I fueled up again (the only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire, I’ve heard) before taking off for home. The forests gave way to farms as I followed a different road, Interstate 94, back towards central Wisconsin. I passed by Volk Air Force Base, where years earlier a nuclear war had almost been started by accident, before seeing the wind turbines that guided me to my home airport, C29. My 152 touched down on the runway, and I pulled off onto the taxiway, relieved and happy to have completed my cross country requirements, and more importantly, to have had a great flight!

During this flight, I was especially impressed with the pilots and crew of the jet that landed in Hayward. They welcomed me onto their aiplane and allowed me to get a glimpse of technology that very few people, even very few pilots, get to see in person. It does seem true that pilots share a certain kind of brotherhood, and I am glad that these individuals were willing to share their knowledge with a young student.

One of the pilots even followed up on my progress as I moved farther along in my flight training, and his support was great motivation towards my ultimately earning my license. I hope I can model this same friendly attitude towards those I meet while flying as, although I don’t have much experience, I can still be a mentor and inspire a new generation of pilots. Likewise, I entreat all other pilots to consider how they treat their peers and other aviation enthusiasts, for one never knows how great the impact of one kind action may be.

19 Comments

    • Thank you so much for you kind comments, and I appreciate your willingness to share my story with your students! It means a lot that you think so highly of my article, and I am humbled to be considered a “mentor.” Please, tell your students to write down their experiences too; it is a great way to reflect and to keep one’s head in the cockpit!

  • Alec,

    Your excellent article reminded all of us of our early days and cross countries. Though few of us got to tour a big biz jet then, we all loved the excitement & preparing for that adventure! Here’s hoping you have along and safe career!

    However as you noted in this case, we all need to keep our focus on what we and our plane are doing rather than what we’re seeing. Especially with your low hours, I’d have advised you to do a go around and get your procedures and altitude right before you attempted that final.

    Remember, bad habits can pop up way too fast on all of us. We need to be careful or they’ll become part of our regular routine.

    • Thank you for your comments Rubert, and yes, preparing for and flying my cross-country was a very exciting journey for me! As to the landing, I do agree that I probably made an error in continuing with it, rather than going around. This was the result of poor planning on my part. I was unsure about which runway the wind was favoring and while I attempted to figure that out, I neglected to ensure my descent was proceeding correctly. In my haste, I had made a mistake, but I took that mistake as a lesson and now I always make sure my secondary duties (such as checking the wind) are taken care of before I enter the pattern.

  • Alec,

    Not only are you enjoying the act of “flight”, you also take the time to enjoy life as it passes under your wing – landmarks, memories, family and the scenery in general. Trust me, there will be many more to come, enjoy them all!

    Scott

    • Thanks for the comment Scott! I try to treat every flight as its own unique experience by considering the beautiful sights I see. This attitude makes every time I get into the cockpit feel like a new adventure! I look forward immensely to the many memories that will be made during the remainder of my flying career!

  • Great article Alec. Stories like these make me smile. I too have found the aviation community very welcoming thus far. I hope to have such flying experiences myself in the future once I become a pilot.

    • I appreciate your support Stefan and I am glad my article was able to make you smile! Best of luck with your flight training, and I hope you capitalize on the experience of the aviation community, as you will find many people willing to impart their knowledge!

  • That sounds like it was an amazing experience, especially considering all of the history embedded in those landmarks. I’ve been waiting for years (I’m now 17) to begin my flight training, unfortunately I’ve been too involved with school and extracurriculars to have the time, but I’ll finally start this June and I hope that I too get the opportunity to fly over my grandparents’ lake house, in Waupaca. Thanks for the inspiring article.

    • Thank you Matt, and I am glad to welcome another young pilot to the community! I agree, learning to fly with a high-schooler’s schedule is quite a challenge, but it is also incredibly rewarding. Make sure you regularly study for the written test; that was probably the most difficult aspect of flight training to me. Best of luck, and let me know if you have any questions about the process, as I was in your shoes only a year or two ago! I look forward to reading your stories soon!

  • Hi Alec,
    I recognized the Global 6000 right away, as I fly one for a living. While flying the jet is a very cool thing, and an interesting way to earn a living, I much more enjoy flying a small plane because it goes where, when, and how I want to go. The jet flies where and when its owner says, at an altitude and route that is optimized by performance. The pilots who invited you aboard that plane were likely quite envious of you: Building time, seeing sights that you want to see, visiting people and places that interest you. This was a trip that you will cherish for the rest of your life!

    • I appreciate your comments Bill and, likewise, agree that flying small aircraft offers one a great degree of independence that those who fly commercial planes may lack. I look forward to the day when I can buy my own aircraft and can go, like you said, “where, when, and how I want to go.” For now, I will enjoy the beautiful sights and learning opportunities a young pilot can discover during every flight. Happy flying!

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