I really felt like a pilot when…

Mountains from the air
Welcome to mountain flying.

The 172 touched down at I69, just another Cessna making a landing at this busy flight training airport. But this flight was different, and this Cessna hadn’t come from the practice area. In fact, as I taxied N51766 to the ramp, I felt a sense of accomplishment I had never experienced before. This was the end of a 1600 mile journey from California to Cincinnati–and I really felt like a pilot. Ten years later, this is still a memorable trip, one that taught me more about flying than 100 hours of dual.

The mission was simple: fly the Sporty’s Sweepstakes airplane (a new Cessna 172) from the AOPA Expo trade show in Palm Springs, CA back to Sporty’s headquarters in Batavia, OH. As a relatively new employee at Sporty’s, I was told to get the airplane back in one piece and have some fun. The rest was up to me (and my co-pilot Jerry). So with a bag full of charts–this was way back in the dark ages before the iPad–we loaded up and blasted off.

PSP-SDL

The first leg took us from Palm Springs to Scottsdale, AZ, and provided some of the most spectacular scenery of the entire trip. Departing to the southeast from Palm Springs, we could simultaneously see the below-sea level airport at Bermuda Dunes and the towering 11,000 ft. mountain peaks to the west of Palm Springs. This was my first introduction to mountain flying, and it was quite a place to start.

As we followed I-10 east towards Arizona, the mountain flying lesson began in earnest, as we encountered a healthy dose of mountain wave. It wasn’t particularly rough air, just alternating updrafts that required almost idle power and downdrafts that called for full power. The 172 was maintaining altitude, so we pressed on and soon flew out of the worst. I had never flown an airplane west of the Mississippi, and it was obvious.

First lesson for the logbook: read the winds aloft forecast closely, even if you’re VFR and the skies are clear.

SDL-ABQ

Before long we were on the ground at Scottsdale getting a top off and planning our next leg. The big decision was whether to head southeast towards El Paso and fly the southerly route, or save some time and head northeast towards Albuquerque. The weather looked fairly benign, so we decided to go high (we needed to make it to 11,500) and head for ABQ.

Leaving the Phoenix sprawl behind, we quickly entered a landscape that can only be described as moon-like. There was simply nothing to look at for hundreds of miles but desert and rocks. It was a wonder anyone could live in this environment, but occasionally we caught sight of a lonely cabin in the desert. A hardy soul, no doubt.

The little Lycoming engine was working as hard as it could, and we eventually did make it to 11,500. This was the highest I had ever been in a 172, but somehow it felt strangely low. While the altimeter said we were over two miles above sea level, the ground was less than 2,000 ft. below us. It felt a little like the piston pilot’s version of the “coffin corner,” with rocks below and no ability to climb any higher. Not many options if things went south.

Lesson: that red mixture knob really does work!

The view from a 172
Beautiful scenery at 120 knots.

ABQ-AMA

After a quick stop for fuel and food in Albuquerque, we took off for Amarillo, hoping to make Texas by nightfall. And what a takeoff it was. We were right at max gross weight with two pilots, full fuel and a plenty of bags, and the combination of Albuquerque’s 5,300 ft. elevation and the high temperature made for some density altitude numbers I had never seen before. We rolled and rolled down runway 8 for thousands of feet (or so it seemed). We did finally lift off, and with a sharp focus on flying exactly Vy, the 172 made it over the mountains east of the airport. It was going to be another slow climb to altitude.

Except Mother Nature had other plans. What looked like very scattered clouds and the occasional rain shower had developed into a more organized front. While we were IFR equipped and rated, it was clear that icing was a real threat in the clouds. So we made the decision to stay VFR and stay low (relatively speaking). We dodged snow showers as we wove our way over the high desert and into Texas.

It was exciting flying, but it was also very lonely. We were out of radar coverage, with no airports or even highways in sight. We certainly couldn’t complain about our well-equipped airplane, but for the first time in my flying career, I really did feel like it was me against Mother Nature.

An hour later, the weather was behind us and we were back in ATC’s loving care. It was nice to have a friend again, but I almost missed the freedom and independence of our last hour. It was cross-country flying, pure and simple.

The reward for our long day of flying was The Big Texan Steak Ranch and Motel in Amarillo, home of the 72 oz. steak (eat the whole steak in one hour and it’s free). Our appetites weren’t quite up for 72 oz. of steak, but we did want to try a local specialty, so we opted for the delicately-named “cattle fries.” What are those, exactly? You can probably guess, and as the menu says, “if you think it’s seafood, go with the shrimp.” Much like ground school, it was worth doing once, but not worth repeating.

Lesson: there’s no point in flying to exotic locations just to eat at Applebee’s, so soak up the local color.

AMA-SGF

The next day’s goal was to get home, hopefully in two long legs. Drawing a line from Amarillo to Cincinnati went right over Springfield, MO, which instantly made it a great fuel stop. Reading the weather reports made it sound even better–low ceilings and fog throughout Kansas and Missouri suggested an ILS was a must-have this morning, and Springfield has two.

We lifted off into perfectly blue skies and enjoyed a weather-free start to the day. With nothing to do but watch the ground pass by, it soon became clear that all those jokes about the size of Texas were true. We seemed to stay over the state forever, and we were just skimming across the panhandle. Finally some green started to appear on the ground below, and Jerry and I began to feel like we were getting closer to home.

The green didn’t last long, though, as a solid undercast emerged. We converted our flight plan to IFR and started briefing the ILS 14 into SGF. Conditions were just above minimums and didn’t seem to be improving much. The strong wind at the surface, unusual for such low conditions, didn’t make things any easier. I had done plenty of instrument flying, but there’s always something about a brand new airport that makes you sit up straight and pay attention. So I was intently focused as we turned onto the localizer, and I asked my co-pilot to watch for runway lights. They appeared 100 ft. above minimums, just as advertised, and we touched down right on centerline. It was absolutely exhilarating, as any instrument approach is.

Lesson: stay current on instruments–you never know when you’ll need it.

Sporty's sweepstakes plane
The airplane was eventually given away to a Sporty's customer in Arkansas.

SGF-I69

The last leg was, as expected, the least exciting. The terrain was flat and familiar and we were both ready to get home. After climbing back through the overcast layer in Missouri, the clouds began to break and we arrived home in beautiful VFR conditions.  All in all, Jerry and I had logged 14.2 hours on the trip, with 1.4 hours of actual IFR. The airplane performed flawlessly, from hot and high mountain flying to hard IFR, without a squawk (I thought the pilots had done OK too).

Mission accomplished.

What was different?

I had 631.2 hours when I made this flight and had passed my Commercial Pilot checkride two months before. I had flown a Cessna 210 to many different places and had a lot of fun in airplanes. But this was the trip that really made me feel like a pilot, one who could use a small airplane for serious transportation.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a short flight on a pretty weekend, and I make those flights often. But I got into flying to go places, and this was really going places–we didn’t even need a fast airplane to do it. We may not have beat the airlines, but we had gone where we wanted, when we wanted, across almost the entire country. The variety of terrain, airports and weather conditions was fascinating, beautiful and educational. It’s a flight that every pilot should have on his bucket list.

I’ve since done the same flight again in a 172, plus a few more California flights in other airplanes. Each one has been memorable, but none more so than this first one.

Have you ever had a flight like that? When did you really feel like a pilot for the first time?

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21 Comments

  • 25 yrs ago my wife and I made a long trip from Akron, OH to Evansville, IN then to the Twin Cities. This was the longest trip we ever made. More recently we made a short (90 min) flight to visit family the day after Christmas in Ashland, KY. It was great to make the trip that we would not have done by car (5 hrs).

    Being a VFR pilot, we do cancel trips because of weather, but when it works out, it is a great way to go!

  • I flew a Piper PA 22-20 from Fort Collins, CO, to Chapel Hill, NC, a couple of months ago. It was a great trip that took me 2 full days but was a ton of fun. I agree that the long cross countries, and not just the 250 mile commercial cross country, but actually flying multiple long legs to get to a destination far, far away, is a great challenge.

  • I have 28.5 hours in two different planes. I’m currently not flying because of a lack of cash to do it. Reading this story and others like it keep me going. I don’t know when, but I WILL get that certificate! Thanks for the inspiration John.

    • Stick with it, Danny. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it’s true: learning to fly is worth it.

      • I bought my books in 2002! Then had to wait until Memorial Day 2011 to get the discovery flight. In 28.5 I soloed the first plane, could have soloed the second and passed the written exam. Flying is worth it in many ways. I’ll get there.

  • What a great article. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had about 10 flights between KFCM (in the Twin Cities, MN, to KSMX) Santa Maria, California, in a Cessna C210. For a flat-lander like me, it was amazing to see the mountains rise up when you got west of Goodland, KS, or to see the desert go on and on. Seeing the ocean once past the LA Basin was a real treat.

    • Hey, John: We had some awesome flights to and from SMX together! What I learned from those flights has given me the confidence to start planning a three week trip from MN to CA, up the coast, and then back home solo. I’ll be flying my C182 and will be taking the month of September off for my trip.

  • I have flown my airplane from Olympia, WA to Indiana, from Indiana to Key West, Texas, New Mexico, South Dakota, Virginia, Maryland, Canada, etc. About the time I start to think I might be a pilot I think about guys like Richard Collins, Chuck Yeager and the like and realize I am only a lowly student in a school that so very few ever actually graduate.

  • I really felt like a pilot when I was invited to show my 1946 Ercoupe at the Travis AFB Airshow. It was about a 20 min flight from my base at Lincoln, CA. I was vectored to the 13,000 foot runway with the wind right down the runway at about 10k. Like a good pilot I landed right on the numbers which left over a mile of runway to taxi before there was a turn off. Well at the turn off a car was waiting that said “follow me”. It took me past the C-5’s, F-15’s, F-18’s and the Thunderbirds to my parking spot. There were two Airmen there to put chocks in the wheels and help me out of the cockpit. The Airforce was very gracious to us civilian pilots. The best part was during the show when a boy about 10 years old came up to me and asked if I was the pilot of the Ercoupe. I said I was and he asked me to sign his program. I had been flying for over 20 years but that made me feel like a pilot.

  • Every flight is memorable and affirms that I “feel like a pilot” I have made similar flights to/from California -Ohio, but recently the one flight that provided me with a great sense “being a pilot” was when I was able to fly again after a 1 1/2 year break due to a catastrophic illness from which I have now fully recovered. This short 2hr flight to reposition my turbo Arrow (in the accompaniment of a CFI) was flawless and the best gift I could ever have received. The experience reinforced my impression of how fortunate we are to have the privilege to have “slipped the surly bonds of earth….”

    “High Flight

    Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
    I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

    Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
    I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
    Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
    And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

    — John Gillespie Magee, Jr

  • Every flight is memorable and affirms that I “feel like a pilot” I have made similar flights to/from California -Ohio, but recently the one flight that provided me with a great sense “being a pilot” was when I was able to fly again after a 1 1/2 year break due to a catastrophic illness from which I have now fully recovered. This short 2hr flight to reposition my turbo Arrow (in the accompaniment of a CFI) was flawless and the best gift I could ever have received. The experience reinforced my impression of how fortunate we are to have the privilege to have “slipped the surly bonds of earth….”

  • We just returned home (Pensacola, FL) from our 4th trip to San Diego. Wind, heat, clouds and such–but as I noted im my article (“Lets go Cross country,” Sport Pilot 2009)it really satisfying to complete such a trip. People you meet along the way the glorious scenery, and the sense of freedom are incalcuable joys. Keep it up and don’t listen to the naysayers!

  • I just returned from a flight from Atlanta -Albuquerque – Las Vegas in a C182RG. The flying experience is invaluable when covering over 1500 miles in 3 days below 10000 ft. You can talk about mountain flying, crosswinds, and t-storms but there’s nothing like being there. I propose a trans-continental flight be a part of the private or commercial rating. People need to know what is outside of the 250 nm box.

  • Just achieved my private license a couple weeks ago, and have been dreaming of making a trip like this since long before I even started my training; but I’ll probably wait until I’m done with IFR training to venture that far west. Thanks for the good read! It’s just the kind of thing I need to keep me from getting lazy and content with where I’m at.

  • I wonder wether my planned tandem winged fleagle* *trademark– will ever wave over these wonders of nature, me being just another sick joke of Her, Mother Nature.

    ciao, *)_.

  • Nice story, should remind us all that the quest to go faster and faster is not all that necessary. I have just flown a C152 from Mississippi to Davis/Woodland/ Winters near Sacramento CA. That was 1800 NM taking the more southerly route via El Paso, 20 hrs flying over 3 days all VFR. You can read my story, https://dl-web.dropbox.com/get/Public/Getting%20Inky.pdf?w=ad73e268
    Coming from Australia I was impressed with your beautiful country, excellent ATC services and great country airports. I especially liked the “courtesy cars” that most allowed me to use.
    I can’t wait to get back and enjoy your wonderful people and airspace.
    I highly recommend a long distance journey in a small slow aeroplane to get to know your country.

  • Great article, John! Thanks!
    Being a West Coast pilot, your mountain flying experiences are second nature to me, but I loved your account of this trip and your lessons learned are so true! They remind me of many a long cross country (and cross-the-country) trips.
    Just one thing astounds me: CA to OH in 2 days, wow!

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