Over the course of earning a private pilot’s license, many students experience great excitement after two major events: the first solo, and the first solo cross-country. The cross-country is a milestone that combines all of the elements that students have been learning up to that point, namely airmanship, navigation, communications, and flight planning. There is a great deal of satisfaction that comes from a well-planned flight that goes according to that plan. However, it’s fair to say that many students, me included, never experience a true cross-country flight during their training. Instead, finding the balance of cost vs. flight time requirements leads to pilots selecting routes that consist of a 51nm leg that will keep the costs low but still meet the requirements. I had such a training experience, and did not have a chance to fly a true long-distance cross country until six months after I passed my checkride.
I work for a great FBO in Wisconsin, and I’ve occasionally had some cool opportunities come up through the job. This flight was no exception. A friend and her husband were given tickets at the last minute to the Big 10 Championship football game in Indianapolis. From where I am based in Watertown, Wisconsin, that would have been about an eight-hour drive (possibly more with traffic) each direction, which would then have necessitated getting a hotel and incurring further expenses.
Instead, my friend started asking around at the FBO if anyone would be willing to fly down with them and split the flight costs. I, of course, wasn’t about to turn down a chance for a real cross-country flight of some distance, and volunteered to fly. The FBO’s trusty rental Cessna 172N was secured and I began the flight planning. The weight and balance requirements combined with the distance to require some careful calculations, which ended up with us taking off right at gross takeoff weight, without the tanks topped.
I am, by principle, the type of pilot who likes to have every last possible drop of fuel in the tanks for any cross-country flight, but my calculated fuel amount put us safely within the weight and balance envelope, while providing an hour of fuel reserve. In my neck of the woods, a major route consideration is the Chicago Class B airspace around O’Hare. There are two options: one is to go to the east and fly low over the coast of Lake Michigan, staying under the Class B shelf. The other option (which I chose) was to stay to the west of Chicago and navigate around it, using the Joliet VOR (JOT) as a navaid to keep me clear of O’Hare and Midway on my way to Indianapolis International.
I had toyed with the idea of going to Indy Exec, because I assumed it would be less busy to get into and out of, but my 18,000-hour pilot boss/owner of the FBO recommended going straight into Indy International and using Million Air. This turned out to be an excellent recommendation, and I cannot say enough good things about the folks there and their excellent Mercedes crew car (although I will say that if the roles were reversed, I don’t know that I would have handed over the keys to a brand new Mercedes to a 22-year old pilot who had just parked a 1979 Cessna 172 among Falcons, Learjets, King Airs, the odd Citation, and a Piaggio Avanti). My boss, of course, was flying a CJ2 full of passengers to the game and certainly was seeing a cruise speed much better than my 105 kts at 5,500 ft. I was greeted at the door to the ramp with something akin to, “What took you so long?”
One of the most valuable lessons that I learned from my flight instructors (four of them over the course of my private license) was to use my resources. On a cross-country flight, this means getting VFR flight following from ATC all the way there and back. I have always had great experiences with the air traffic controllers in my area, and this trip was no different. We departed Watertown (KRYV) and headed south where, after a bit of confusion over whose sector I was flying in, I was put with Rockford Approach. We made decent time, even picking up a bit of a tailwind, which resulted in a 2.5 hour flight time.
I found myself wishing for that tailwind on our flight back, but more about that later.
As we neared Chicago, I was passed off to Chicago Center, Approach, back to Center, and then repeated that whole process with Indianapolis. In both directions, the Chicago controllers could not have been more helpful, and even cleared me through a slice of the Class B to expedite my route. Luckily for me, most of the traffic arrived before me and Indy Tower offered me my choice of runways. I selected Runway 14 because there were negligible wind considerations and that runway was closest to Million Air, which would limit my taxiing in the dark (think 5pm in the middle of winter in the Midwest) on a large, unfamiliar airport.
The landing was uneventful, as was the taxi. A friendly line tech parked us and proceeded with probably their only 100LL service of the night – a whopping eight gallons per side. We were parked with a Piaggio Avanti on one side and a Challenger 300 on the other side, as well as tail-to-tail with a King Air 200. Not bad company for a 38-year old piston single!
My brother (who rode along with me) and I enjoyed our time at Million Air, drinking coffee, taking the Mercedes to McDonalds, and doing homework on the excellent WiFi. When the game finished, I, like most of the other pilots hanging around waiting for passengers, went out and pre-flighted the airplane so that we could go as soon as the passengers showed up. Several crews found their passengers trickling in, and mine walked through the door shortly thereafter. As we walked out to the airplane, several airplanes were already started on the ramp.
Unfortunately, one of those airplanes that was started was the King Air that was parked tail-to tail with us. I watched as our poor 172 was rocking back and forth with the rudder bouncing from side to side. This sight prompted a (probably ill-advised) sprint across the ramp between a King Air and a Lear 45 to grab the tail of my airplane and hold on for dear life as it was bounced around by the wash coming off the PT-6s of the King Air.
My passengers and I, along with one of the excellent Million Air line techs, managed to pull the plane out of the prop wash enough to jump in and get started, standing on the brakes the whole time as if my life depended on it. A hasty run-up later, and I was calling a frazzled Clearance controller to get my VFR clearance out of Indy back to Wisconsin. He hastily provided my clearance, informing me that he was automatically giving me flight following all the way back to my destination, so I wouldn’t have to request it on a busy frequency. He also made a remark to the effect of, “You’re number five of 20 plus departures, so please expedite the taxi.”
What he didn’t need to say is that numbers six through 20 were jets who were burning too much fuel to have much patience with a 172. I did the world’s fastest run-up as I held short before receiving clearance and an almost immediate turn to get me out of the way of the fast movers. The flight back was both peaceful and uneventful, hindered only by a nasty headwind that resulted in an over three-hour flight time. My passengers slept most of the way, tired out by the festivities at the game. I enjoyed the view and noted in my logbook that it was a beautiful night to be out flying.
An educator by trade, I habitually look for what lessons can be taken from any significant experience. I found several that I still think back on as I fly:
- Use your resources. This sounds obvious, but many pilots elect not to use the tools that they have available to them at no cost. I was lucky enough to have flight instructors that pushed this. I called the briefer for a full weather briefing. (Yes, calling them and speaking to a real, live briefer is still a thing). I asked ATC for flight following, which was invaluable flying through the busy environments of Chicago and Indianapolis. I used my brother as a resource to hold my iPad, tune frequencies, find the next frequency, and so on. All of these things combined to enable us to have a smooth, uneventful trip.
- Plan well. Double check that weight and balance. Study your route for any terrain, airspace, or other considerations. Call the briefer for the most accurate, current weather to take into account. Study the airport diagram for that busy, large, international airport you’ve never flown into before. That last part alone can save you from irritated, overworked ground controllers who expect you to have a taxi diagram and know how to use it when you’re one of 20-30 airplanes that all want to taxi to the runway and leave at the same time. Do your homework.
- Enjoy the experience. This should go without saying, but a flight such as this is a big deal for any young pilot with relatively little experience. It pushed me past my comfort zone, and made me work hard to stay on top of everything I needed to do and be ready for. It’s easy in these situations to get stressed and focus too much on getting all the technical details just right and missing the elements that make us all want to fly in the first place. The peacefulness of a night flight. The view out the window passing Lake Michigan. Enjoy the journey.