It had been just four months since I climbed out of the plane with the beaming smile on my face that proved I was certified private pilot. At age 17, it truly seemed unreal to me. Nevertheless, today was the day, and a beautiful day at that, for the longest cross country flight of my young career. I vowed to put my license to good use and discovered a great opportunity. I was in the process of deciding which college I wanted to attend at the time and had yet to visit two schools on my list: Notre Dame and Michigan. Considering my home base is in central Wisconsin, my father and I could have driven, but with my new license burning a hole in my pocket, I had a better idea.
Rather than driving a circuitous route around the lake, which would have taken a few days and been fairly costly, I suggested we fly over Lake Michigan to Ann Arbor and South Bend, a route I’d never attempted before. My father, apparently up for an adventure, decided to give it shot.
Relying on all the fresh knowledge I had gained from my training, I began planning. I religiously checked the extended forecast (and when I say extended, I mean really extended). I was so excited for this trip that I was fussing over the weather several weeks beforehand (when one can hardly get a reliable forecast two days in advance). As the date approached though, I was happy to see the (much more accurate) outlook looked good. I scheduled the campus visits, filled out a flight plan, and arranged the plane rental.
Now it was the day of the flight, and I finally had the opportunity to do some real exploring with my new license. There was not a single cloud in the sky. As I loaded my sectional charts, flight bag, luggage, and life jackets into the 172, I thought to myself, “Wow, everything seems just perfect.” I should have taken the lifejackets as a cue though – a cue that I was entering into the new and unfamiliar realm of flying across “the Lake.”
After an in-depth pre-flight and the customary send-off Facebook photos, we took off. In the hot July air, the Cessna struggled to reach its planned altitude of 9,500 feet, but somewhere over Eastern Wisconsin, we were in a stable cruise. The air at “high” altitude (I know 9,500 feet is nothing to those turbocharged types, but for me, it’s an accomplishment) was smooth as General Mitchell Airport passed beneath us, and we flew out over the vast expanse of cold water.
Having been an ideal trip thus far, we were faced with our first concern. On the horizon and hanging over the coast of Michigan was a layer of clouds. From far away, I couldn’t tell how extensive this cloud cover was, so I continued flying. Even so, as the coast approached, I could tell this wasn’t a scattered layer; it was overcast. I descended, hoping to fly under the overcast and to avoid being trapped on top, which was a VFR pilot’s horror story I’d heard far too many times. When I was 1,500 feet or so above the lake and had yet to reach the bottom of the cloud layer, I could tell scud running underneath wasn’t going to be an option.
Now a decision loomed. This decision was made all the poignant when the controller I contacted for flight following made the remark, “You have dropped below my radar coverage. Radar services terminated. Squawk VFR. Frequency changed approved.” I was alone, and after months of always having the support of an instructor, it was now my decision. I could turn back over the lake, where skies were clear, and forfeit our mission. Or, I could head over the top of the clouds and hope to find a break in the overcast. I decided since I always had the option to turn back to clearer skies, I would look for the hole in the clouds. I left my course and headed for the nearby airports, thinking it might be a safe idea to land and reassess the weather before continuing. As luck would have it, a break in the clouds hovered just above West Michigan Regional Airport in Holland, Michigan. I descended between the clouds, entered the pattern, and landed.
Now in retrospect, I consider my actions, which were not inherently unsafe, but were affected by an unsafe mindset. As I mulled over my options, I did have the attitude, like I commented earlier, that I was on a “mission” and that turning back would be a failure. I’d been preparing for weeks, and a diversion would surely trash some of my college tour plans. Additionally, although I know my father would have been okay with whatever decision I made, I still felt I’d be letting him down by cancelling our flight. After another year of experience and learning, as well as the reading of numerous articles in flight magazines which warned against this attitude, I now sense the danger in which I could have put myself.
Nevertheless, this flight was a learning experience, and I was safely on the ground in Michigan. In the FBO at KBIV, I checked the weather and was disheartened to discover that many of the airports on our intended route showed weather suitable only for marginal VFR and IFR flight. We were already behind schedule, but one of the greatest lessons I learned from this flight was that schedules for a VFR pilot have to be flexible. With slightly more promising weather forecast, I decided to wait for a while before determining the next step I wanted to take. My dad and I used that time to borrow the courtesy car and grab a delicious breakfast. With our spirits lifted by the food, it was now time to figure out whether our plane would lift off as well.
The weather was, in fact, looking a little better. MVFR and IFR had turned into VFR and MVFR, and that forecast only improved over time. We were clear to continue our journey, albeit a little later than we had planned. N75706 lifted into the air under a gray sky, in stark contrast to its takeoff a few hours earlier.
Cruising altitude was drastically lower for this phase of the flight, and we flew over the farms, forests, and lakes of Michigan at around 2,500 feet. I felt envious of the people below who were enjoying their day at the lake, while I was battling low altitude thermals and turbulence above them. As Ann Arbor approached, the weather lifted, as had been forecast, and it remained solid VFR for the rest of the day. The wheels touched down on the runway at KARB, and my father and I rushed out to make our information session at Michigan.
We made it to campus a few minutes late, but just in time to hear more about diversity (with pictures of a multiracial group walking with their handicapped friend), or maybe it was student life (it seemed like every school had its own quidditch team), or holistic applications (please, just get to the point and tell me what ACT score I need). My mind was still in the cockpit though, as I contemplated the next leg of our flight. After the campus tour, which (my apologies to Wolverine fans) wasn’t my favorite, we went back to the airport.
Under the same gray sky, we took off to head for South Bend. The flight was uneventful as the farmland of Michiana gave way beneath us. We touched down in KSBN, which, in case you were curious, has a great FBO with very comfortable chairs in the pilots’ lounge. After a quick nap in said chairs, we got dinner and retired from a very busy day.
We awoke the next morning to beautiful weather like the kind we had upon our departure from Wisconsin. After a similar information session, but a much better tour at Notre Dame, we made our way back to the airport to prepare for our departure. After further investigation, it seemed like this same great weather was in store for the whole flight. On this leg though, weather was not going to be the biggest problem. The problem was something I’d discovered earlier when I looked at the Chicago sectional chart. On it, in an inconspicuous box on the lake, I had seen a small note, which states “CAUTION, Be prepared for loss of horizontal reference at low altitude over lake during hazy conditions and at night.” This small warning went unheralded by me and would result in a surprising experience
The plane lifted off the runway at South Bend, and we ascended to a cruise altitude of 8,500 ft. As we approached the lake, the strange phenomenon of horizonal blindness made itself apparent. The sky and the lake were completely impossible to differentiate in an effect I could only equate to that of a blizzard blending the sky with the snow. For a short while, I had the coast of Indiana to reference, but then, I was flying in a complete gray void.
Although this effect caught me off guard, my training prepared me. With the horizon no longer visible, I relied on my attitude, altitude, and airspeed indicators to maintain safe, stable flight. While I sat in the left seat and focused on my instruments, my father sat in the right seat in complete silence, obviously very disquieted by the lack of exterior reference and the vertigo it may have caused. It probably hadn’t helped that, as we flew over the coast, I made the comment “Oh, so this is what horizontal blindness looks like.” Bringing up blindness while flying with an inexperienced passenger probably doesn’t instill confidence.
Yet another lesson for me. Keeping passengers in the loop, despite being a secondary responsibility, is still important. When my father sat there thinking his son was “flying blind,” I failed to reassure him that instrument flying is a safe technique that is often practiced during private pilot training. A simple comment such as this could have made my dad far more comfortable and saved him a few gray hairs.
The coast of Illinois did ultimately emerge from the void, and the skyline of Chicago was visible in the distance. A few nautical miles later, I was calling my final at Morey Airport in Wisconsin, my home base. The tires kissed the pavement, I taxied to the ramp, and I pulled the mixture to idle. The faithful Cessna’s engine sputtered and died. We were done, and I’d safely flown farther than I ever had before. We had visited both schools and also had the opportunity for an enjoyable adventure.
What was most important about this flight, and in fact, any flight, is the lessons the pilot learns from it. This flight helped me to discover that no matter how much planning and scheduling one does, there will be surprises, and one can’t let their goals overshadow their safety. Ultimately, my mindset did not cause problems for this flight, but in the future, when the chips are not stacked in my favor, I don’t want my attitude to foster unsafe decisions. Like the adage goes, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” Confidence is great, but it should not eclipse the experiential learning that keeps us all safe.
Similarly, the flight over the lake also established how important a proper passenger briefing can be. As a pilot in command, it is our responsibility to know the state of our aircraft and of our flight status, but non-pilots cannot be held to this same standard. Accordingly, being unaware, passengers will often be nervous about flying. This nervousness could turn an excellent experience into a terrifying one. As ambassadors to general aviation, we want people to enjoy flying with us, so continuous passenger briefings, aside from ensuring a higher standard of safety, can also help to guarantee that your flight is a fun experience for the passengers.
With only 7.2 new hours in my logbook, but many more memories and lessons to look back upon, my cross country college tour was an amazing success. I’m happy to say this flight also helped me to find the college I wanted to call home. The Golden Dome spoke to me, and now I’m a proud student at the University of Notre Dame (Go Irish!). Despite my newly-packed schedule as a college freshman, I still aspire to continue my journey as a pilot, because by building on lessons of the past and by reaching for new goals, I will grow into a more confident and knowledgeable aviator.
This is the first time I’ve ever written out my story, so I hope I did okay, and likewise, I hope you enjoyed reading of my experiences. I am eager to hear what opinions you may have, as a continued commentary will help us all grow to be better pilots.