Feeling helpless on my second solo cross-country

My first solo cross-country was mostly uneventful – my instructor flew the route with me on a Monday, then the following Friday I flew it solo after my navlog and flight planning were blessed. It was a thrilling flight because I was out of the 25nm “student zone,” and I was solo!

My first airport was a small Class D (FLO) south of my home airport (EQY). I got flight following as soon as I was on my way, although the radio work was intimidating. I practiced each call before I keyed the mic and tried to anticipate the next call so I wouldn’t stammer.

After a decent landing, I told the tower that I wanted to taxi back to the end of the runway, depart VFR to the northeast, and, yes, please, I’d like flight following.

Holding short
Holding short while mixing it up with jet traffic – the big time!

I got going from runway 27 and made a right turnout over the city of Florence, South Carolina, toward my next airport – Laurinburg Maxton (MEB.) This was where the confidence set in. I climbed to 3500 ft, had the navs set and centered, marked off checkpoints, the timing was working out, and I knew exactly where I was.

By gum, this pilot thing may work out yet.

I made it over to MEB and made an OK landing. I called CTAF and announced that I was taxiing back to the runway for a VFR departure to the southwest. I got going from runway 23 and departed straight out toward the next airport (BBP), which is only 21 nm away.

I eventually saw the airport and entered the pattern. I was a bit off my game due to the short flight so I was farther behind the airplane that I allowed myself to realize. When I turned final, I knew I was fast but I didn’t do anything to fix it. I dumped full flaps and got it slowed a little bit, but, as I crossed the thousand-footers, I was still flying at around 90 knots.

I tried to put it down, but ended up skipping across the runway like a dumb stone across a lake. That stone knew better! I set the throttle to full power and went around. Even after everything I’ve read and all the sage advice from veteran pilots, including my instructor, I felt a bit of a ding in my pride at having to go around. I fought the urge to just call it a landing, head homeward, and tuck my tail between my legs. Instead, I made another circuit in the pattern and landed uneventfully. It’s funny how the runway gets bigger when you’re flying slower.

The leg back home to EQY was an easy one. I kept the river off my left wing to highway 74, then followed that west all the way home. All that was left was for me to bask in the relief and satisfaction of successfully flying my first solo cross-country.

“Great!” my instructor said. We’ll call him Ron, because that’s his name. “You need a little bit more solo cross-country time, so go do another one.”

Damn. Didn’t see that coming.

He went on. “And this time, go to at least one airport you’ve never been to before. Make it a towered field.”

What’s the word for being excited and scared at the same time? Anxious? Yeah. That’s what I was.

Departing FLO
Busier airspace means more communications training.

Six days later, I was off again. I flew the first leg down to FLO because I needed more towered field experience and I was familiar with the route. From FLO, I headed northwest to Greenville Downtown (GMU).

I was keeping I-20 off my left wing when Shaw approach asked me to deviate 30 degrees to the left because they were throwing people out of airplanes over Camden. Yet another reason to always get flight following when flying VFR – Camden (CDN) isn’t marked as a meat missile airport, yet there they were. I kept my eyes out for chutes but never saw any.

My flight planning was fairly simple. I was following I-20 west out of Florence for about 50 miles, over the south side of Lake Monticello, then I-26 west to I-385 right into GMU. I had checkpoints along the way that made it virtually impossible for me to get lost. I made my way across the lake and, instead of spotting the I-385 loop, Greer approach said, “November five-five-echo, gear red tie fact $*&#%^.”

I heard my tail number but the words that came after it didn’t make sense. I keyed the mic: “Greer approach, five-five echo, could you please repeat?”

“November five-five echo, cleared direct gobbledygook.”

A couple of things went through my mind at this point. First and foremost, I didn’t want to sound ignorant and inexperienced… like a student pilot… but I also didn’t want to die, and I didn’t want to make the nightly news. I decided pretty quickly that my pride was worth far less than my desire to have a successful cross-country. I breathed deeply, keyed the mic and said, “Greer approach, Skyhawk two-zero-five-five echo, I’m a student pilot and I have no idea what you just asked me to do.”

Obviously stifling a chuckle, I heard back, “November-five-five echo, roger, fly heading three-three-zero. Descend and maintain three thousand.”

I figured out later that what he was telling me is that I was cleared direct JUDKY, which is the Initial Approach Fix for the ILS Z Rwy 1. I could easily make that happen now, but at the time I was barely able to use the GPS to go direct to an airport.

I set my heading for 330 and descended to 3000 ft. The wind was a little gustier than I had planned and there were a few more clouds around than I was anticipating and the approach controller was pretty busy and I was a little distracted by trying to keep Donaldson airport off my left wing and I needed to enrichen the mixture and did I run the checklist and where did he say the traffic was and…

Panel
Keeping everything in order can quickly lead to task saturation.

Task saturation is very easily reached as a student pilot and is sometimes difficult to recognize. I was on a long final for runway 1 and realized that I never got the ATIS. I switched over to the ATIS frequency and wrote it all down. Back on approach, they called me and told me… something. I don’t remember what it was, but I read it back. They advised me to contact the tower so I did. Tower said, “Cleared to land runway 1. Wind is something across the runway, gusting to more across the runway.”

GULP. That wasn’t in the TAF.

“Cleared to land. One. Five-five-echo.”

I was on short final and bucking around like crazy while trying to hold the centerline.  My hands were sweating and I felt like I was just along for the ride. I made it over the numbers and was doing a decent job of tracking the centerline. I put the mains down and I must’ve neutralized the ailerons or something because the plane felt like a leaf in a fall breeze and drifted, no, bounded, toward the left side of the runway. With gusto!

I cranked the ailerons to the right and I may or may not have used rudder and/or brakes to correct to the right. I don’t remember. What I do remember, vividly, is a runway edge light passing under my wing and, thankfully, outside of the range of the left main gear, but only just. I was skidding sideways and had no control at all. Being helpless sucks. Let me rephrase that… Feeling helpless sucks. I certainly wasn’t helpless; only inexperienced and behind the airplane.

I got the airplane under control and back to the centerline. The taxi to the ramp is a bit blurry. I remember taking the wrong taxiway or intersection and ground having to help me out a bit. I taxied to the Runway Cafe on the field and shut down.

I sat down, still a bit rattled, and ate lunch.

Parked on ramp
Is that the pilot’s pride dripping off the belly?

As I was finishing up, I was still shaking my head at the memory of almost taking out a few lights. The realization hit me that I had to fly myself home, so I needed to get my head right. I analyzed what went wrong, but, more importantly, what went right. I convinced myself that yes, the crosswind approach and landing could have – should have – been better. When I realized that I was nothing more than a solo passenger on a bad approach, I should have initiated a go-around and told the tower that I’d like to try it again. Instead, I fell victim to some of the classic traps. I continued an approach that I knew wasn’t stable, and I told myself that everything would work out. Thankfully, everything did work out this time, but next time it might not.

After I finished lunch and felt that I was in the right frame of mind, I sat in the airplane for a few minutes before turning the master switch on. I wanted to make sure – really sure – that I wasn’t going to kill myself as I was heading home. I may have made a bad judgment call, but that didn’t make me a bad pilot.

I started the engine and set everything up. I was holding short at the end of the runway, running the checklist one more time. Look left, look right. Take a deep breath, chin up, key the mic, “Greenville tower, Skyhawk five-five-echo, holding short runway one, ready for departure.” And I was.

The flight home was utterly, and blissfully, uneventful.

13 Comments

  • Another great piece of writing. It’s not just that you put the words together so nicely, but that you make us feel as though we were in the cockpit with you. Many a student pilot has felt the same anxieties, a lot of us are nodding our heads saying “Yup, yup, that was me too!”

  • This is a really great story! We were all student pilots once (some readers here still are) and your description of anxiety about cross country flying and not understanding ATC over the radio is as real as it gets. Pilots and piloting an airplane are not always perfect. Being able to learn from your minor mistakes so you can prevent the big ones later on is the name of the game! Well done!

  • I still like to say I’m a student pilot when I get behind the airplane, let ATC help instead of being part of problem. A story every pilot can relate to!

  • Elliot,

    I’ll add my voice to the previous commenters who commended you on capturing the student pilot experience.

    Both FLO and GMU can be very busy and GMU is not easy to navigate on the ground. Approving these airports tells me your flight instructor had high confidence in you.

  • Your story sounds very familiar. I did just about everything you did while learning. It makes me feel much better to find out that I am not the only one. More importantly I must thank you for solving a 34 year old mystery for me. On my first solo, on the final landing, I went off the runway exactly like you did, landing light and all. It has bothered me all of this time as to exactly what did I do wrong. I bet I did just what you did. Thanks again.

  • I have been flying for almost 40 years. I went to many safety meetings with ATC speaking. I was told to put “Student Pilot” in the remarks section of the flight plan or even tell tower on call up that you are a Student Pilot if you need or expect you will need help. To this day if I’m behind the plane or unsure of the area I announce I’m a Student Pilot. As a Pilot I’m always learning, and it sounds better than “I need help” ATC can guess by your voice how comfortable you are flying. ATC want to help you, so let them, In short we never stop learning to fly.
    Going over a flight and asking yourself what could I have done better is the sign of a good Pilot. Keep up the good work, learn to look outside the plane as much as you can.

  • Great story and totally human! I recently returned to flying after 26 years. Had the worlds longest record for my BFR (10 duals) and almost world record so far for my IPC. Lots of changes in 26 years! I have several xc trips from years ago and all have the 1st leg at about 226…Thinking the regs back then were 225. Sooooo now I need the big un. 300 NM and one leg 250. I am absolutely terrified. Have not even soloed again yet! 260 hours and I am a wreck.. but I will do my xc soon and crossing fingers with flight following I will survive!
    Thanks for the great story! Headed for commercial next! If I survive my xc!

  • Great story! I just assumed ALL first cross countries turned out like this. Including my own. Chaos on the radio? Check. Almost botched landing, barely missing runway lighting? Check. Messing up the taxi instructions? Check. Etc. Etc. I’m glad I’m in good company!

  • You captured the student solo Xc experience perfectly!

    You and @Kim are correct – GMU can be challenging, partly because of the overlapping Class C from GSP added to the close proximity of Class D GYH.

    It’s actually the busiest GA airport in the state (and my home airport.)

    Side note – if you’d like one of the edge lights that you remember so vividly as a souvenir, they’ve retired a bunch of them and sell them to fund the park next to the cafe.

    • Thanks!

      I didn’t know they were selling the lights – I was just there with a couple of my kids last week playing at the park and eating lunch at the cafe. I would definitely buy one of them!

      I’ve flown into GMU quite a few times since this solo experience (I’m Commercial-Single/Multi, and Instrument rated now) and I always get a little shudder when I’m being vectored onto the final!

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