Flight 39: Long Solo Cross Country

One of the last training requirements I needed to satisfy was to do a solo flight of at least 300 miles, and today was the day. I had the plane booked from 12:00 to 5:00, and got in earlier to plan the flight and get signed off.

I normally would have done all the planning yesterday and figured in the current weather, but I had some questions about the route, so I ended up doing most of the work today. By the time I left it was 1:00, and since nobody else had the plane scheduled after me, I extended my time for the rest of the day. (Lesson: add a couple hours for a long trip.)

My first destination was Vero Beach Regional Airport (VRB), a class D airport on the Atlantic coast, over 100 miles ESE. (See my Cross Country Map.) I couldn’t fly straight there due to a restricted area (bombing range).

I called Tampa to request flight following, but they declined, and suggested I try Orlando. I like to tune the radio to the nearest airport to monitor the traffic and weather, and I was too far away to try Orlando, so I listened to Lakeland (LAL), whose airspace was below me. They don’t have radar, so they have to direct traffic by sight and by relying on accurate position reports from the pilots.

Somebody thought he was in the pattern there, but the tower told him he must be at another airport, because they don’t have the runway layout he described. The controller guessed that the pilot could be looking at Bartow (BOW), which was amusing since the skies were clear and those two airports are at least ten miles apart.

A bit farther along, I called Orlando Approach for flight following. I got a squawk code but not much else. I was hoping they’d help route me around the restricted area, but all I heard was “Radar service terminated” when I got past their airspace. (They probably saw that I was on course to avoid the area and saw no need to tell me that.)

I had a strong headwind to fight, and by then the air was pretty bumpy. I kept hitting drafts that pushed me up or down 100-200 feet at a time. I couldn’t find my last couple of checkpoints, but I did spot the airport in time. Traffic was very light.

I called ten miles out and was made second to land, straight in, since I was already lined up with the runway. I needed a break after the rough air, so I made it an unplanned full stop, just long enough to taxi back to the end of the runway and wait a couple minutes for clearance to take off. I needed to rearrange my paperwork and review how to get out of there anyway.

I took off from Vero Beach to the east, but needed to head southwest for my next stop, Naples Municipal Airport (APF), on the Gulf Coast. I asked for a southwest departure, but the tower didn’t say anything about turning, so I climbed straight out until I was a mile or so over the ocean, well outside Vero Beach’s airspace.

There’s another class D airport (St Lucie County (FPR)) directly south of Vero Beach, so I turned due south and followed the beach, climbing until I was higher than the class D ceiling.

Then I turned southwest, flew over FPR, and aimed for my first checkpoint, a major bend in the Florida Turnpike. There I got on my planned heading and continued on to Naples. The route took me over the western edge of Lake Okeechobee and a large part of the Everglades.

Nearing Naples, I listened to the ATIS (automated weather), and heard that the visibility was down to four miles due to smoke. It’s hard to report my position without being able to see the airport. Naples has airline traffic but no radar, and it was busy. People were stepping over each other on the tower frequency. The tower finally saw me and cleared me to land.

I headed over to order fuel, and caught a ride to the terminal on the other side of the airport to eat. It was a regular but small airline terminal, and it was great to walk in there past the people waiting at baggage claim and the ticket counters with the plane key in my pocket, not having to rely on someone else to fly me home.

After the meal I got another ride back to the fueling area and was not pleased to find that my airplane had still not been filled although I’d been there over an hour.

I called my home airport to let them know I’d have the plane back late, maybe after they closed. By the time I had received an updated weather briefing and filed my flight plan, the plane was ready. (Two lessons: 1. In a hurry? Don’t stop for fuel in Naples. 2. Don’t fly cross country without a phone card.)

I left Naples and headed northwest over the Gulf of Mexico to avoid Fort Myers’ Class C airspace, then almost due north back to Tampa. I got to see sun set over the Gulf during that leg; I hadn’t planned on doing my first night solo flying today, but that’s what happened. Good thing I’d had some night training and had started carrying a flashlight in my flight bag.

Looking for checkpoints was futile in the dark. I navigated by keeping the lights of Tampa on my left and the 1600-foot TV towers south of there on my right. I spotted the rotating beacon about ten miles out, which was good considering that I’ve had trouble spotting our airport in broad daylight. (There’s nothing like solo time to improve your ability to do what has to be done.)

One nice thing about night flying is that the air is usually smooth, a break from earlier in the day. I got near the airport, turned on the runway lights with my mike, entered the pattern, and made a pretty good landing with a direct crosswind.

By then it was half an hour past closing, and I was not looking forward to trying to tie down the plane in the dark by myself. (Usually I park it by the fuel pump when I get back.) Luckily, some of the people were working late, so I didn’t have to try tying any fancy knots.

It was a really good day overall. I got a lot of flying done, and I experienced a lot of different conditions, finding my way to two unfamiliar controlled airports and back home in the dark.

My original time estimates were not bad; I was off by 4 minutes on the first leg, 12 on the second. The winds aloft on the third leg were not at all what I was told, so that leg was off by 18 minutes. I was really close on the fuel burn estimate. Assuming the amount of fuel I bought was what I burned, since I started with full tanks, I was off by 0.2 gallons, about one percent.

Today: 4.8 hours
Total: 57.8 hours
Total Solo: 21.1 hours

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