July 20th, 2012: Tower Solo at Napa County Airport
I awoke this morning rehearsing tower calls, and I spent the whole morning repeating them over and over. I was scheduled for more tower work today again at Napa, but this time with JP. After the time I had yesterday, I was determined to get it right today. After preflighting the Cessna, JP grilled me with a couple of tower calls and hit me with a couple of spontaneous questions on the ground. "What's the first thing you're going to do today to get ready for landing in Napa?" he asked. "Configure the radios and listen to the ATIS" I responded. "Excellent, that's the answer I was looking for". Whew... I really didn't want to disappoint him before we ever even got in the plane. Here's a helpful stress reliever, configure the radios before you get in the air and if there is more than one, practice switching them back and forth between frequencies so your're not fumbling and guessing with it in flight. Anything you can do to take the work load off will make your flying that much smoother and safer for everyone. JP asked me to perform a short field take off, which I happily did, holding full brakes until the throttle was full in and the engine whizzing along at 2500 rpm, I then released the brakes and held the plane straight as we zoomed down the runway. Travis had given me another helpful takeoff pointer yesterday when he said to lightly pull back on the yoke as soon as the airspeed indicator started to move, not a lot, and not enough to fly, but enough to lighten the load on the nose gear. Doing that today in conjunction with the short field take off provided a much smoother roll and meant we were off the ground and flying in a remarkably short distance.
I was still a bit intimidated after my performance yesterday, but I was determined to do better today and I didn't even give JP the chance to push his mic button, making every call from the get go. As soon as we were into our crosswind departure I switched the radio to the Napa ATIS and listened carefully to report Charlie. "Napa Tower, Cessna five three zero echo romeo 6 miles west at 1000 in for landing with Charlie", hot damn, there's one down! "Cessna 530 echo romeo make right traffic for one eight right and report downwind", "make traffic for one eight right and report downwind, Cessna five three zero echo romeo". High five, 2 down!
JP wanted me to run through the pattern a few times with him to get in some radio work together, and to practice a few landings and some taxi backs, and even though I was still pretty nervous, all of the tower work went fairly well. I of course left out a thing or 2 here and there and had to make corrections, but overall my calls were clear and confident today and I did correct the ones where I made mistakes. Before I knew it, I was requesting a taxi back to the ramp where JP jumped out of the plane with the handheld, flashed me the thumbs up and said "go for it".
If I didn't feel like I was ready I wouldn't have gone as there's just too much at stake at a busy towered airport, but I just smiled, waived and made my next call "Napa Ground, Cessna 530 Echo Romeo at the ramp requesting taxi to one eight right". From that moment on, I had little choice but to do my absolute best making each subsequent call and response. "Cessna 530 Echo Romeo taxi via Alpha Kilo and hold short for 18 right". "Taxi via Alpha Kilo and hold short for one eight right, Cessna 530 Echo Romeo".
It was amazing. If I could pass along one piece of advice here it would be to remain calm, gain your composure, don't make a call until you're confident about what you're going to say and you're ready to act on it. At times this meant holding short at the runway and taking a deep breath, looking around the plane and running through your take off check list gives you a moment or 2 to think about what it is you're about to say, and do. Sure, I still goofed up a little, saying traffic when I meant take off, forgetting what F stood for, was it Frank, Freddie, Ferdinand, Fabulous...oh, right, Foxtrot...but I corrected myself and moved on.
The ATC controllers were incredibly patient and seemed to understand, which I'm sure was fairly obvious, that I hadn't done this before. I'm also sure they saw my CFI hop our of the plane back on the ramp, so they knew I wasn't going to get any help from inside the plane. On one occasion after clearing the runway after landing, I wasn't clear about the ATC's instructions to taxi back to the runway, so I held short of the intersecting runway, took yet another deep breath and asked the tower for clarification. Something you can't tell yourself enough out here, know when to stop and ask for help, the last thing you want to do is guess. "Napa Tower, Cessna five three zero echo romeo requesting clarification on taxi to runway one eight right" after which I received a very patient response, "Cessna 530 echo romeo, taxi via echo cross one eight left, left on Alpha, right on Kilo, hold short of one eight right". You see, they want you to do it right too, they don't berate you, or get mad at you, or laugh at you, they're there to make sure it all works, and with a little extra effort, and some prudence, it does.
A friend of mine was asking me the other day over lunch, what it was I liked about flying, and sure, I could have responded that it was the excitement of it all, or the amazing view that only pilots will ever see, but the truth is, it's the discipline, the comradery, the exceptional amount of trust between all of these people with a common objective. This isn't something we see in many aspects of our every day lives, but it exists here, 24 hours of every day and I like that, I like it a lot.
Three solo take offs and landings later I requested to taxi back to the ramp where I picked up my CFI who was throwing me a very enthusiastic thumbs up and smiling ear to ear, and it occurred to me, sure, this is as big a deal for him as it is for me, it means he's doing his job well and his faith and trust in me, and my success is his reward as much as it is mine. Clearly he was proud of my accomplishment, and I was equally proud of his. It's the kind of thing that should have you popping champagne, and screaming out the windows, but instead, we settled for a very peaceful and happy flight back to Skypark.
Tower solo, Check...What an absolutely remarkable day.
PS: The GPS died on the flight back to Skypark, thus the big gap. Thankfully it held out for most of the flight.