Friday, August 05, 2005


Flying Lesson #40: Dual Cross-Country

Today I had my first dual cross-country flight, from PDK to CHA then to RMG and back to PDK. It was a long day, and I'm very tired.

The instructor and I had lunch together at the Downwind restaurant at PDK. The instructor taught me a valuable rule: two pilots flying together should never eat the same thing for lunch. This reduces the possibility of both pilots simultaneously suffering some sort of food-related ailment in the air.

Another instructor joined us for the ride. He wanted to see the other airports and the route for himself before taking his students along. Takeoffs felt a lot different with the extra weight in the back seat—this is the first time I've flown with anyone back there.

The first part of the flight didn't follow the plan. We had thunderstorms north and northwest of PDK, so after studying the radar before the flight the instructor improvised a path around them. The flight to CHA was uneventful after that. Visibility wasn't bad, and I had no problems finding the checkpoints after we got around the storms.

The FBO at CHA was a pretty nice place. The instructors watched TV in the lounge while I did the planning for the return trip to PDK, using updated weather data. It took me a lot longer than it should have to finish that plan, due to fatigue and a few dumb mistakes I'd made last night when pre-filling some of the lines (some of the headings I'd written down were 90 degrees off). Radar showed a couple more lines of storms between CHA and PDK, but there was a hole that looked navigable, so we set off on the return trip. Visibility was bad (around 3-4 miles), but we didn't encounter any rain or turbulence. When we got to RMG, the instructor pulled to power to simulate a forced engine-out landing, and I didn't handle it well. So we did two more approaches to that airport, with the instructor pulling the power each time, and I kept turning too wide to make the runway without power. Finally, I just made a normal landing, and then we departed for PDK. I don't know why I screwed up so badly; it must have been fatigue.

We got back to PDK at a little before 8:30 PM. I got to see the airport's lights for the first time, which was pretty cool. However, it was still officially a "daytime" flight, because of the FAA's rules about when night really begins.

My planning worked pretty well. It was surprising how the checkpoints kept showing up right in front of me and passing under the plane right at the minute they were expected. I actually had trouble finding a couple of them because, while they were right in front of me, they didn't become visible until they were under the nose of the plane. The only thing I really did wrong in planning was to place my first checkpoint for each leg to far away from the airport. The instructor suggested always having a first checkpoint within sight of the airport, so that no matter what runway you end up taking off from or what sort of pattern the controllers make you fly, you'll always be able to get to that first checkpoint and then know the exact course to the next one.

While the plan was a good one, I had some trouble following it and recording progress. The nav log form has too many columns and numbers on it, making it hard for me to figure out where to read and write things while flying while also shuffling the charts and other pieces of paper in my lap. It functions both as a worksheet and as an in-flight reference, and is just too busy. The computer user-interface designer in me wants to design my own forms.

I felt overwhelmed throughout the flight, even while "relaxing" at the office in Chattanooga. There was a lot of new experience thrown at me today. None of it was unexpected, but actually doing it all for the first time was surprisingly nerve-wracking. I was continuously scanning for traffic, looking for checkpoints, checking and re-checking the chart, checking and re-checking the nav log, writing things down, doing arithmetic in my head, switching radio frequencies, and so on. I know it will get easier with practice.

A couple of days ago, I read another student pilot's account of his cross-country training. He thought it was pretty easy. Of course, he didn't fly in any controlled airspace, never filed a flight plan, didn't use flight following, never communicated with an approach controller or flight service specialist, had unlimited visibility for each flight, just did a touch-and-go at each airport, and flew an identical route for all his dual and solo cross-country flights. I suppose it would be pretty easy under those circumstances, but I think he got cheated out of some valuable training. I'm not going to complain that mine was more difficult.

Logged today: 3.2 hours dual cross-country in N4363D, with 3 takeoffs and 3 landings. Cost: $631.95.

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