The tricky triangle – my ill-fated solo cross country

“If you don’t like the weather in the Midwest, wait 30 minutes,” they say. I guess there is some truth in that, a truth that I now consider to be a substantial part of my flight preparations. In early summer 2017, I was still a student pilot, preparing for the 150 NM cross country flight, which was one of the last things I had to cross off my list for meeting the requirements for taking the private pilot checkride.

Because of my tiny budget, I had stretched my flight training over almost two years, and I was eager to complete it. I was training at St. Louis Flight training, based at St. Louis Downtown Airport (KCPS), flying a C-152, N53398, a perfect little plane for my budget.

Route of flight
An easy little flight, right?

On May 2, 2017, I took the first attempt to complete the flight. The plan was to fly the triangle KCPS (St. Louis Downtown) – KVLA (Vandalia) – KPJY (Pinckneyville) – back to KCPS. With an overall distance of only 164 NM, and with my having visited all three airports before, the flight seemed straightforward.

The plan was to depart around noon local time, so around 11:00 am I called WX BRIEF for a standard briefing. There were no adverse conditions, but the wind was a bit concerning, as the current conditions at CPS were 15 knots from 280 degrees with gusts of up to 24 knots. Since CPS had runways 30 L/R and VLA runway 27,  I figured I should be fine. PJY has only runways 18/36, so the plan was to stop at VLA and then check the weather again and see if the conditions at PJY would allow for a safe landing. Since the maximally demonstrated crosswind component of the Cessna 152 is just 12 knots (which was also what my instructor signed me off for), I had low expectations for being able to actually make it, but decided to give it a try anyway.

By the time I departed, ATIS Whiskey was current, and the announced wind conditions were 15 knots from 290 degrees with 20 knot gusts. I was assigned runway 30L for departure, and after a very bumpy ride and one go-around at runway 27 at VLA (I was too high), I finally touched down, taxied into the ramp and shut down the engine.

A phone call to the ASOS of Carbondale KMDH, which is just 13 NM south east of PJY, confirmed that I would not be able to safely land there, and I decided to abort the flight and head straight back to KCPS. I texted my instructor: Just landed at vla. Checked wx at mdh and decided to go back to cps. I filed a new flight plan and I will depart from here in 30 mins. I used those 30 minutes to build up some courage and did not check my phone for any messages my instructor may have sent. So I missed his message, saying, Lotta wind use less flap higher final airspeed.

View from Cessna
With rough air, there wasn’t much time to enjoy the view.

Because of the strong gusts, even the takeoff was a challenge, and I was glad to gain some altitude and leap into safety. The ride was even bumpier than before, and I had no time to enjoy the flight as I was busy trying to keep the plane more or less level.

It was then that I started to get a bit worried about the upcoming landing at KCPS. As I approached the airport, ATIS Yankee was current, with wind conditions 290@18G24. Calling Downtown Tower, I was told to report on entering right base for 30R, the smaller of the two parallel runways. Since the wind was pretty much head on, I thought I should be OK.

Having experimented with different flap settings in gusty conditions with my instructor, I decided to up the final approach speed to about 70 knots and use only two notches of flaps. Apparently my instructor had trained me well, given that I had not read his text message but drew the same conclusions from the prevailing conditions. I reported in on right base, got my clearance, turned final, and descended down to what I hoped would be an uneventful landing. And it appeared to be, until, on short final, the little 152 started to drop. And I mean really drop.

Intuitively, I pushed the throttle all the way in while maintaining the attitude of the plane, but to no avail. It just kept dropping. I was already very close to the edge of the runway, but by now I was coming in so low, that I was at a point where I was about to accept the fact that I will touch down a few yards short of the runway. At that point, I started to raise the nose gently, which finally did the trick, and I touched down smoothly on the runway. My instructor was waiting for me on the ramp. It was the first time in my life as a pilot that I was glad to peel myself out of the small 152, standing on firm ground.

I have flown in gusty conditions after this event, but at a big airport like CPS with long runways, I would now fly the approach higher to add some safety margins.

After several training flights in May and early June, where I did maneuver practice, short field landings and instrument training, on June 14, 2017, I finally took another attempt of the long solo cross country flight using the same route I planned out in May. The friendly briefer from WX BRIEF told me that there were thunderstorms expected in the late afternoon, but since my plan was to depart CPS around 10:00 am, I did not expect any problems. Plus, the wind was very calm, visibility good, and ceilings high.

At 10:38 am I completed the point ‘Note time’ on the check list, and departed from 12L from CPS, heading straight for VLA. After a calm, uneventful flight, I landed at VLA, stopped at the ramp and entered the VFR code into the keypad to gain access to the nice pilot lounge. After signing my name and N53398, along with a statement that I stopped here on a solo cross country on the white board in the briefing room, I departed for Pinckneyville KPJY.

Carlyle Lake IL
Cruising along the eastern shore of Carlyle Lake.

I was looking forward to this leg of the flight, because it was following the eastern shoreline of Carlyle Lake, according to Wikipedia the largest lake wholly contained in Illinois.

After the short flight along the lake, which was very nice, I touched down in PJY, parked the Cessna on the ramp, and checked my phone. This time it was the owner of the flight school who had tried to reach me and left a message on voice mail. It turned out that the thunderstorms that were forecast to reach the St. Louis area late that afternoon arrived much earlier, so I had to stay where I was.

After a short phone call, where we agreed that I would just have to wait it out, I hung up and explored my surroundings. Emptiness. The hangars and the office were closed, not a soul around, and no nearby settlement I could go to. No source of food or water. It was almost 90 degrees by now, and the three bottles of water that I brought were empty. I was getting worried about my physical ability to continue the flight, since I was thirsty, my blood sugar levels were getting low, and I had nothing I could do about it (just imagine what Antoine de Saint-Exupery must have endured, crashing in the desert!)

After another short conversation on the phone, where we discussed whether I should fly to KSAR, which is closer to St. Louis and has facilities, I decided against it, because that would have meant that the conditions for the cross country flight would not have been met, since, between each point of landing, there must be at least 50 NM, which was not the case for KSAR. After also calling my wife and telling her that I would be coming home late, I tried to entertain myself. Here are my top three activities.

Searching for the pen I lost after noting down the Hobbs time after parking. Honestly, I spent a full 15 minutes trying to find the pen, which, I figured, must be still in the plane. Despite the smallness of the 152, I did not find it, but only discovered what I believe was the lost pen more than a month later somewhere between the carpet and the rails of the co-pilot’s seat (the whole thing reminded me a bit about Frank Borman’s lost toothbrush throughout the Gemini VII mission that was never recovered). However, throughout the thorough search of the depths of the 152’s cabin I found a full, sealed bottle of water that somebody left there, which was like a gift from heaven.

Fueling the plane. Even though I still had plenty of fuel on board to make the short flight to CPS after the passage of the thunderstorm, I decided to fuel to plane. With just a single occupant, the 152 can be topped off easily. This killed another 20 minutes or so. After that, I did another, very thorough preflight check, to kill even more time.

Pilot by wheel
What else can you do while you wait out weather at a deserted airport?

Finally, I decided to get some rest and lay down in the shade of the left wing, but it was way too hot to actually sleep.

After having spent several hours in the burning heat of Pinckneyville, Illinois (which, in terms of temperature and population density started to remind me of Furnace Creek in Death Valley),  the long expected call came that opened a window to complete the flight. I departed right away, and flight following took good care of me, making sure that I arrived safely at KCPS, where I was rewarded with the successful completion of the solo cross country. On July 29, 2017, (one day after my birthday), I finally got my license.

I guess to an experienced pilot both flights may have been just like any other. However, I sure learned my lessons, and I consider these two flights as the ones where I really started to learn what it means to be a pilot. I don’t fly in conditions with more than 20 knots of gusts anymore, which, in a small plane like the C152, isn’t fun anyway. I now also do plan ahead for long, unforeseen stops at remote places and bring enough water and some food so I can stay comfortable. I also factor the possibility of the weather deteriorating much faster than expected into my flight planning.

Being a non-U.S. citizen, I am very grateful that I could earn my certificate here in the States. I dedicate this article to those who helped me become a pilot, despite my very slim budget. Apart from my wife and my family, I would thus like to thank Corey Tomczak, Michael Pettinger, Josh Oberg, John Padua, Josh Vinson and Robert Frankovich for making my dream come true.

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