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Editor’s Note: Recently, Air Facts launched its Summer Writing Challenge, which encourages young pilots to share their aviation story. In many ways, the inspiration for this series was Kyle Libby, a 17-year old private pilot who shares part two of his story in this article.

Aviate, navigate, communicate

“Cessna N6525P, Victorville Tower, report left base and follow the aircraft on right base.”

“Uh… roger tower, Cessna 25P will… follow… and report left… follow in… uh…25P”

Radios, communication, and fluidity in both, is something that is essential to safety in aviation. That little, opening excerpt came from my first solo at a towered field. It wasn’t my brightest day to be sure, but I learned. When I was coming in on the forty-five, I ended up lining up for the wrong runway–no idea what I was thinking. If something like that happened at a busy tower when it wasn’t just me and three miles of runway, it could have been much more disastrous. Once the controller corrected me and the above read back, or failure to, happened, I can’t say I was feeling too excited. I always thought that you read back everything. But I had to keep flying the plane. That day, while debriefing with my CFI, I learned the purpose of roger and wilco.

King transponder

The transponder quit – so what?

My first solo cross country was to William J. Fox Airport (KWJF). I took off running a tad late, (I was scheduled to take my written when I got there, two birds one stone) but no rush really. I had to get fuel, oil, and air in the tires. It was awesome, being able to go somewhere alone, just me. Upon takeoff and transition through Victorville’s airspace, I had my first equipment failure. Keep in mind that I still wasn’t 100% on confidence or terminology, but the conversation went something like this.

“Cessna 6525P, Victorville Tower, are you transponder equipped?”

“Affirmative Tower, 25P is transponder equipped.”

“Ok, 25P we’re not reading it here”

“…Ah… Tower… uhm… standby…”

I clicked off for a second and thought, not sure what to do.

“…So…Tower…what do you recommend?”

“[Silence] Well, you’re VFR, and you don’t need it in Class D… so just continue.”

“Ah… roger that tower, 25P.”

Duh, Kyle. Of course I didn’t need it, I was fine! Given, I couldn’t get Flight Following now, but that wasn’t the point. I looked out at the desert around me and chastised myself for wasting ATC’s time. I sat there with my thoughts and began to realize that it wasn’t a big deal, at all. I had to keep flying the plane and not let it get to me. They were there to help: I was unsure, and I asked them, which was the correct thing to do in that situation, especially since I was the only one in the airspace.

As young and low hour pilots, we don’t know everything, which is why the Private is called a license to learn. We’re not expected to know everything. I knew enough to keep me and others safe, and to ask for assistance when I needed it. It is something I keep in mind today: ask for help when you think something may be an issue or you are unsure. Better to ask and not need the info than need it and not ask.

Mojave Desert

The Mojave Desert makes it hard to navigate by pilotage. (photo credit: Smoke and Music Optional)

With the first solo cross-country done, I covered diversions, more class D ops, and then set off on my long cross country. My long cross country was when I can say that I actually saw what a license could do. The 150 nautical mile, three- (initially four-) stop journey took place in early November; which, for southern California, meant perfect temperatures and weather. I left early, taking off around nine in a 172, an airplane I had just recently been checked out in. My mission, which I obviously accepted, was to fly from Apple Valley, to Laughlin (KIFP), then Searchlight (1L3), followed by Dagget (KDAG), then home. I decided on the four stops because 1L3 was on the way, looked interesting, and I had seen it in a video game, so I figured, why not?

Taking an easterly heading, I quickly realized my timing for my checkpoints was going to crap. Still not sure why, but I messed up somewhere.

“Alright,” I said, talking to myself. “I’ll just… keep going then, check with the VORs and dead reckoning.”

I really learned how to use a map that day.

Flying over pure desert is nothing like flying over a populated area. The Mojave Desert is prettier in my opinion, and more isolated, but it is really hard to navigate visually. There were multiple times when I thought something along the lines of, “Didn’t I pass that cactus/dry lake/rock/mountain already?”

I tried my best to track myself using the Dagget and Hector VORs, using my recently learned triangulation skills, flying over DAG as a checkpoint even, but about an hour in I discovered I was slightly off. I remember looking at my compass, then looking at my heading indicator, seeing the 15 degree difference and feeling my heart skip a beat. At this point I could determine my position visually and almost make out the twisting Colorado River in the distance, but I still had a sinking feeling.

Upon landing at Laughlin-Bullhead’s wavy runway, I taxied in between the hills that they have midfield and parked at the FBO. I was greeted by a man in a golf cart who assisted with the tie downs and called me a shuttle. I recall looking around at the sleek, clean looking aircraft around me and thinking, “Sure am glad I brought the pretty 172.”

After exercising my newfound freedoms of walking through the casinos of Laughlin to find food, I called for the shuttle, untied, and rolled out. Turning to the west, I reached altitude and followed my set course homeward.

Well, kind of.

Again my timing, by my not being vigilant or something, was off. I remember looking out the right window of the Cessna and thinking, “Wow that sure does look a lot like Stateline!”

I looked at my chart.

“Nah, can’t be! I’m almost 10 miles south!”


When in doubt, match the highways to the sectional chart.

I looked outside at the freeway below

“Yeah… that looks a lot like where the I-15 curves towards Vegas… but… I’m south of there.”

I looked at my sectional one more time, then back out. I groaned audibly. I sat there in the cockpit of the 172 and thought. “Ok, Kyle, fly the plane, pinpoint your location, and then get to Dagget.”

Don’t let the mistakes hinder you from accomplishing Rule #1: Fly the plane.

I was flustered, I admit that. I had gone from the highest level of independence that I had experienced to an off course student pilot! Fly the plane, put the mistake behind you and address it in your debrief. If we’re too busy focusing on a past mistake, it can cause more. Fly the plane. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. Do what you have to do to fly the plane. So I did.

I went IFR even. You may be asking, “Kyle, how does a student pilot fly instruments?” Well I don’t mean Instrument Flying Rules; I mean that I Follow Roads. With that logic in mind, I lined myself up with the I-15, checked my position four times with VORs, and followed the freeway into Barstow, landed at KDAG, and then went home.

I never really thanked my parents after that flight for the road trip vacations to Vegas, but without those I don’t think I would have recognized that turn in the 15, which, now that I think about it, was rather close to Edward Air Force Base’s restricted airspace and MOA.

I walked away from each of these experiences a bit more experienced, a bit more informed, and a bit more prepared for the next situation. They added up to make me a safer pilot, little by little. Now though, it was time for the checkride.

In the third and final part of License to Learn, Kyle takes his checkride, utilizing what he has learned to try to bring his Private Pilot Certificate training to a close. He also reflects back on the experience as a whole, from ground to ticket.

3 replies
  1. Peter T
    Peter T says:

    Great story Kyle! Takes me back to my student pilot days. The high desert sure is beautiful country, but navigating it is a special art! I’ll never forget the time many years ago when my dad and I were trundling along over some forlorn country somewhere through mid-Nevada – we had convinced each other “we’re following this valley … see here are the railroad tracks and there’s that peak in the distance and we just crossed that dry lake”. We both cross checked the Sectional several times. Then Salt Lake Center asked “uh Cherokee 227 are you planning on flying straight into the restricted area?”. Needless to say, “that” valley wasn’t “that” valley after all!

  2. Joel Godston
    Joel Godston says:

    Amen, AMEN, and AMEN Kyle. As a pilot trained in the Air Force to become a pilot flying Piper Cubs, T-28s, and T-Birds in 57H class; then flying B-47s in SAC on ‘Alert’ in US, England, and Spain; then in the Mass ANG flying T-Birds. F-84s, and F-86Hs; then owning and flying a Cessna 182… total of 50+ years of flying…. Aviate, Navigate, and most important COMMUNICATE…… Your life and the LIFE of OTHERS may, can, and WILL depend on it! VERY fine article that everyone planning to become a pilot, in pilot training, and a pilot flying by yourself and/or with any other people…. youngsters and ‘oldsters’!

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