Always watching: why I wasn’t really alone on my first local solo flight

My first solo was at Paso Robles Municipal Airport (PRB), approximately 26 miles north of San Luis County Regional Airport (SBP). My instructor, Kevin, related the winds were better there for touch and goes that day. This was my first time at an uncontrolled airport, and I felt a little uncomfortable. Everything went fine even with a Cub in the pattern without a radio.

Upon returning to San Luis, Kevin endorsed my logbook and admonished me that I could only land in San Luis. Paso Robles was a mile too far and he had not landed with me in Santa Maria (SMX) yet.

Due to weather, I did not fly for a couple weeks. I had scheduled a two-hour block from 1000 to 1200, and the coastal fog usually cleared around 0930. I texted Kevin the day prior to let him know I was planning to fly. He replied that was fine, and he had noticed my name on the schedule. Kevin related he would not be there and wanted me to talk with Steven before the flight. I was planning just a big loop with nothing new – a nice easy flight.

I arrived about an hour prior to my time block and noticed someone pre-flighting the plane I had reserved. Steven advised me the other person had the 0800 to 1000 block. I had printed out the weather and the TAF and we went over it. I told Steven I planned to make a big loop around the area and stay north of Santa Maria’s airspace.

At about 0940 the fog was clearing. Steven walked out to the plane and at the end of an exchange and came back in with the plane’s binder and keys.

I noticed the gentleman unloading his flight bag and a suitcase. Steven then told me the gentleman had planned to fly to Monterey and not return until tomorrow even though the plane was booked throughout the day and the next as well.

As the gentleman was walking back in, I was walking out, and he said to me, “I guess you get some of my flight time.”

The flaps were already down as I started my preflight and, by the time I was done, the skies were clear. I listened to the weather and pulled the plane into position prior to the taxiway.

SBP chart
When an airliner decides to taxi to runway 29 without a clearance, what can you do?

I thought everything should go as usual from here. I called ground to request to taxi via Alpha for 29. I was advised to switch to tower frequency and call up again. I called the tower and instead of the usual Alpha to 29, I was advised to turn right on Alpha, left on Charlie and back-taxi on 29 to Echo. I stumbled through my read-back to the tower and cleared the taxiway prior to proceeding. I stopped prior to the runway and the tower advised I was clear to back-taxi on 29. I then noticed an airliner had been pushed back onto taxiway Alpha. The tower then called the airliner and asked, “Who cleared you to taxi?” There was no response from the airliner.

I cleared both directions of the runway and began to back-taxi to Echo. I noticed the airliner had begun to taxi as well. The tower advised the airliner they were not cleared to taxi and to stop. As I turned onto Echo, the airliner continued to taxi. I stopped just clear of the runway as the airliner taxied by. I had no intention of getting near the back of the airliner and just waited there.

The tower called me again, clearing me for a mid-field takeoff from Foxtrot. I knew that gave me about 3000 feet of runway, but I had not performed a mid-field takeoff before. I advised I was a student pilot and was unable.

Meanwhile the airliner continued to taxi for 29. I could see a Piper in the run-up area ahead of the airliner and thought I had plenty of time to slowly taxi up Alpha. I stayed well clear of the airliner. The airliner turned in front of the Piper, blocking its access to the runway. The tower then said, “I guess we are all going to wait eleven minutes for your clearance.”

By the time I was ready to take off, the wind had come up just a touch, but it was right down the runway. I requested a straight out toward Morro Bay. The only fog remaining was now out over the ocean. I made my turn around Morro Rock. I flew back toward Avila Beach and over Diablo Canyon. I began to scan Oceano’s frequency and then switched to Santa Maria’s frequency as I approached Guadalupe.

I heard the Santa Maria Tower advise a plane taking off of my presence, so I called the tower and advised I would be heading toward Twitchell Reservoir and should stay clear of their airspace. When I reached Twitchell, I turned back toward Avila and switched back to San Luis Tower while still scanning Oceano.

Once I reached Avila, I got the weather and called San Luis Tower to enter the pattern. I was cleared to enter the pattern at mid-field and told to advise when I reached the numbers. I was thinking to myself that I was at the right altitude, just the right distance from the runway, and the right airspeed. I advised I was at the numbers. The tower advised that I was number two to land and the tower would call my base.

The tower cleared a straight in for a Piper over Lopez Lake. I continued downwind and added a little power to increase my altitude due to raising terrain. By the time I observed the Piper Cub, I was halfway to Lopez. The Cub was flying quite slowly (at approximately 45 to 50 mph), so I advised the tower I was just passing the Piper. There was no response and I continued toward Lopez. I advised the tower again that the Piper had gone by and the tower then called my base. I turned to base and then approximately to final.

I was thinking, all I have to do is straighten out my normal downwind to base to final and my altitude should be about right. When I reached my usual base to final, I was just a little high. My landing was just barely better than an arrival, but at least I was near the centerline. I taxied off at Foxtrot and advised the tower of my location. The tower advised to stay on tower frequency and cleared me via Alpha to SunWest.

After securing the airplane, I texted my instructor that I was back, and the airplane was safe and sound. I thought it had been pretty much a normal day flying, always something new. I talked with Steven about the flight and he reminded me to schedule my next flight.

As I was walking out to my car, I received a text from Kevin. The message was: “Good call not taking the mid-field and to remember just a little more back pressure on landing.” As I was leaving the parking lot, I noticed Kevin’s car. He was there the whole time.

Those CFIs are always watching and seem to see everything.

4 Comments

  • Chuck Good job- it’s so important to stay vigilant. Even though the airliner pilot has many more hours it doesn’t necessarily spell common sense. It sounds like you have a good instructor. Remember your training if you get in a tough situation. FLY THE AIRPLANE. Keep it up !!

  • Great read Chuck. Sounds like your calm under pressure instilled in the CHP continues to flow in those veins of yours. Best wishes for many more years of flying my friend.

  • Good story, As a fellow student I can share that I’m often surprised by how ‘eventful’ seemingly simple flights can turn out to be ! But I always look on it as critical lessons.

    Sounds like you have good decision making skills and can stay unrattled. Starting with the experience you had with the inconsiderate so-and-so in front of you that could have been the beginning of a chain (i.e. injecting stress), especially for low-time pilots like us.

    Good luck Chuck !

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