August 24, 2014
Total Hours: 53.5
The big news this week was my cross-country solo flight. I talked a little bit about the preparation for this flight in last week’s blog and now I’ll fill in the details. In comparison to my initial solo flights hovering and flying the pattern the solo cross-country had a distinctly different feel. Those first solos were filled with nervous excitement. I felt much calmer preparing for the cross-country solo. By this point I had every confidence that I could handle the flying and everything that would go with it. The real test is to consistently make good decisions and maintain situational awareness of the big picture. While I “passed the test” I still made a few bad decisions…but more about that later.
Here’s a quick recap of what a cross-country flight means according to the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). For a private pilot certificate a student needs a solo cross-country flight of 100nm with takeoffs and landings at three points and at least one continuous leg of 25nm. Here on the Big Island we fly from our base in Kona north along the coast up to Upolu point where there is a small airport. From Upolu the trip takes us back south along the coast, skirts the Kohala Mountains, and then arrives at the Waimea-Kohala airport. The final leg flies back over Kona Intl. and continues south before backtracking to Kona. The reason for bypassing Kona and then turning back around are to make the final leg 25nm, thereby meeting the FAR requirements. Here’s a map that shows the basic line of flight.
It was a bit wet with some light sprinkles at Kona airport but I was really looking forward to my flight. After the pre-flight and getting fueled up I taxied out, took off, and headed northeast. The flight initially goes over desiccated yellow grasses and dark black lava flows interspersed with alien green golf courses. Flying as a solo student pilot I followed the highway directly instead of the coastline. The main reason for this is that in the very unlikely even of an emergency there is a good landing area directly below at all times. There are a few highlights along the coast heading north. The first is Kiholo Bay, which looks lovely from the air. It is easy to see the immense coral fields that eventually give way to deep blue ocean. Two other impressive bays along the way are Anaehoomalu Bay (nicknamed A-bay for some reason) and Puako Bay.
Just after Puako Bay the course jogs to the left and flies in the lee of the Kohala Mountains. This narrow range of mountains is exposed to the nearly continuous trade winds. Flying in the lee I had a bit of bumpy air and a lot of headwind. The R22 is not a fast machine by any stretch of the imagination. Top speed under ideal conditions is around 100mph but with a strong headwind, like the one I experienced, the ground speed can be slower than 50mph. Crawling north I eventually passed the dramatic point just before Upolu where the landscape turns green. Finally out of the lee the landscape gets plenty of moisture from the wet ocean air masses. The airport itself is very small, just a single strip with a few buildings. There is no tower so all aircraft use a common frequency to announce intentions and position. Normally “all aircraft” at Upolu consists of the one you arrived in and this time was no different. After my approach I was on the move straight away and headed back down the coast for Waimea.
Waimea sits at the south end of the Kohala Mountains. Just a little further south is the impressive bulk of Mauna Kea. As you might expect the wind in this low saddle is normally strong and steady. The saddle is just over 2,500 feet and it receives enough rain to turn a brilliant green. Unlike Upolu the Waimea airport gets a fair bit of traffic. As I approached up to the saddle I could hear on the CTAF (common traffic advisory frequency) that another aircraft was coming into Waimea from the other side of the saddle. I was pretty close and I thought that I might make it in before they arrived but I kept my eyes peeled. Everyone knows how hard it is to see aircraft from the ground. Well it isn’t much easier in the air! As I turned for the base leg of the pattern the pilot of the aircraft announced that she was on downwind. An airport pattern is described by a rectangle made up of five legs, upwind (takeoff), crosswind, downwind (parallel the runway), base, and then final (landing). So I was one leg ahead of her, but as I said helicopters are slow. Finally I saw her just as she called to ask exactly where I was and what I was doing. I realized that she was flying for the small air taxi that serves the islands, Mokulele Airlines. Her Caravan was much faster than my Robinson, she had official business, and most importantly according the FARs helicopters are supposed to avoid the flow of fixed wing traffic. For all of these reasons I gave way and told her I would hold my position while she finished her approach and landing.
There were a couple of things I learned from this experience. I should have been a little more familiar with the CTAF announcement procedures so that she wouldn’t have had to clarify where I was. Second, I should have planned my flight into the airport a little more carefully. I had a general idea of how I wanted to enter the pattern, but I think I could have done a better job. In the end these things weren’t critical. The CTAF worked, we found each other, communicated our intentions, and avoided any kind of conflict in the airspace. After the Mokulele pilot landed I got back in the pattern and finished my approach. It was a good learning experience and I’m glad there was some traffic to contend with in Waimea.
After Waimea I headed back west to the coast and followed the highway south toward Kona. As I entered the Kona airspace I saw that I was a little lower on fuel than I expected to be. This was due to the strong headwinds and the hold in the Waimea pattern. At this point it occurred to me that perhaps I should only transition from the airport south to town and then head back again. My original plan was to continue south from town to the Captain Cook monument at Kealakekua Bay. Let me stop and mention two things. One, running out of fuel is the number one reason that General Aviation (GA) aircraft experience engine failure. Two, I swore that this would never happen to me. Stop for a second though and think about the times you’ve been cruising in your car, probably on a road trip, and realized that you needed gas. For whatever reason you decided you could make it to the next gas station only to barely coast in on fumes. Okay, maybe this only ever happens to me. The point is running out of gas on the ground is an inconvenience; running out in the air is unacceptable.
So did I decide to heed my own warnings and cut the flight short? Of course not. How can this be explained? Most simply it is explained by the way that all humans seem to have a propensity for recognizing what needs to be done and then immediately overriding that with what they would prefer. This is so often the cause of accidents, whether at play or at work, and it is easily preventable. I will tell you now that I did not run out of gas. I did however land with less fuel than I wanted to. It was really stupid and I got lucky that I had enough left. It shocked me, but somehow didn’t surprise me, that despite my best intentions about the exact scenario I easily paved over the right decision with a poor one. Thankfully it was just another lesson learned and while I hope that I will always remember it I know that in reality I will have to be vigilant if I expect to avoid similar circumstances down the road.
This ends the story of my first cross-country solo flight. A success by all measures despite a few less than perfect decisions! The rest of the week I spent preparing for my private pilot checkride, which is coming up quickly. I can’t believe just how quickly to be honest. While it once was easy to imagine finishing my private in about a month after I actually started training that timeline seemed like a fantasy. And now, not quite two months after starting, I am preparing for a checkride. This two month pace has felt rushed at times and while there have been some negatives in attempting to finish the certificate so quickly I am very happy overall and feeling ready to move on. But first the checkride. I’ll tell all about it next week. Thanks for reading!
(Click the gear icon and switch to HD for best quality…)