Your connection with the sky

August 13th, 2012: Fire, Smoke & the Cross Country Solo to Ukiah


The last week has been nothing short of amazing. I have flown 7 out of the last 8 days and will fly 3 more before the weekend, that's 10 out of 11 days. In the last 7 days I've flown 2 extended day cross country flights, been mountain flying over the Sierras and Lake Tahoe, squeezed in a 3 hour night flight that included 7 landings at 3 different airports and today, flew my cross country solo from Sonoma to Ukiah.

Of course, when you fly this often things are bound to happen, and happen they did. This week was packed with impromptu ADM ("Aeronautical Decision Making") practice including diverting a night landing coming into Napa because of disabled aircraft on the runway, hitting a bird...a rather large bird in Rio Vista coming off the runway in the black of night and flying solo through the smoke filled skies of Clear Lake. Now that's flying!

At 1am this morning I was just rolling in after my night cross country, a trip from Napa to Modesto to Rio Vista and back to Napa. Today I was scheduled to fly my cross country solo, so not even 10 hours after landing I was back in the air after plotting out a new flight plan from Sonoma to Ukiah California. My instructor forewarned me that there were fires reported in the area around Ukiah so I called for a weather briefing to see if there were any TFR's (temporary flight restrictions) en route. While there was an active TFR over Clear Lake, my briefer told me I should be ok if I was staying in the valley on my way north. In retrospect, I could have done a couple of things at this point to save myself some worry, 1, I could have just bailed on the plan altogether and rescheduled for another day, or 2, I could have plotted out a new flight plan, perhaps south, back out into the central valley where there weren't any forest fires raging, but, the weather was near perfect in Sonoma, the winds aloft up to 6000 feet were basically non existent along my route and I had a pretty good plan all mapped out, so off I went into the wild, and as it turned out, not so blue yonder.

Everything was looking pretty good during my climb up to 3500 feet, but as I got farther up the valley, and up to my cruising altitude of 4500 feet, I could see the layer of smoke hanging over the valley. Not the perfect flying conditions, but as I moved farther up the, valley, despite the smoke, the visibility remained fair and I knew I could always turn around and head back to Sonoma if I felt like it was getting to be too much.

I have had so much cross country practice in the last week that things were really starting to click. I was finally getting the Garmin GPS system figured out, and even though I was flying by paper flight plan on this trip, I set the Garmin up for my destination as a cross check and safety measure, after all, up here especially today in these conditions, I didn't want to be flying the wrong direction. My compass heading was within a few degrees on the entire flight and all of my check points were very close, although I was flying at a higher ground speed than I had measured given the conditions, so I was making each point a couple of minutes early, but that was easy enough to recalculate along the way. I've really discovered the extreme importance of flight planning this past week and can't stress enough how significant even small errors can become, especially when it comes to compass headings and check points.

It's easy to rush the process of planning a flight and assuming that you're "close enough" on your calculations, it's also dangerous. Things look much different from the air than they do on the ground and while I'm getting better and faster at locating reference points, it's still not easy. I find that I am continually looking for ways to improve this recognition skill, and these days there are great resources to help you visualize your flight path like Satellite views on Google maps and 3D views on Google Earth for example. Pulling up these views prior to your flight and studying what the area looks like along your path will greatly increase your ability to spot your check points from the air. On my next cross country I'm actually going to print out these check point views and have them with me in the cockpit for reference. My main focus on my next flight like this is going to be making a conscious effort to slow the planning process down and arm myself with every advantage I can find, as I have learned, the more comfortable I am with the plan on the ground, the more comfortable I am with the flight in the air, and the exact opposite also holds true as well, the last thing you want to be is uncertain, it drastically increases the margin of error.

There are a lot of illusions in the air, especially at night, dusk, or in particularly poor air quality as I discovered today. Things that are tall can look flat depending on the quality of the air, light, and angle of view. Other objects, like small planes, can disappear completely into haze or ground clutter, and at night, mountain tops blend with the night sky and disappear completely. While today I never felt it was dangerous to be flying, it did add an extra element of challenge to an already challenging flight, after all, this was my first solo cross country and there was a lot to pay attention to even without the adverse conditions, was my flight plan accurate, was I setting up the GPS correctly, was I getting all of the right frequencies plugged in and listening in for traffic along the way, did I have proper precautions in place if I got lost or ran low on fuel? There was no one in the cockpit to ask today.

Even though I had just made this flight a few days ago, the smoke today made it particularly challenging to see the small airport at Ukiah, and adding to the challenge was the fact that the CDF, California Department of Forestry, Fire planes were using Ukiah for their refueling station and there were a number of them in the pattern at all times. I made my call and worked my way into the pattern but the extra pressure of not having a good visual on the airstrip, and the additional traffic in the pattern made my approach a little off, but I remained calm and set the plane down as best I could. Not my finest moment, but this was a challenging hour in the air, and I felt good about making it through the first leg of my cross country solo under the circumstances and conditions.

At this point I parked the Cessna and went into the airport center to grab a snack and some water, to relax for a few minutes and watch in amazement as what are undoubtedly some of the best pilots in the air, came and went from this small airstrip in the Ukiah Valley, all the while wondering, how do you get "that" good? Talk about weight and balance calculations, where do you even start when you're flying liquid cargo that changes drastically with each drop? The thought of it was making my head spin, so I soon made my way back out to the waiting Skyhawk, climbed in, made my way to the end of runway 15 for my run-up and, waiting my turn in the traffic pattern departed back to Sonoma.

Since I was now more or less flying south east, the flight back was at 5500 feet which kept me just above most of the haze and smoke, but that didn't necessarily make it any easier as I still had to look through it to see any activity below me. I kept close tabs on the radio frequencies at each local airport along the way, listening for other traffic in the patterns and ATC communications between pilots along the way which really helped me keep track of what was going on around me, but the strain of trying to focus through the haze was starting to wear on me and I was really looking forward to getting back into the southern part of the valley where the air was clearer.

By the time I was 13 miles north of Skypark, the air had cleared significantly, so I started a slow descent down into Sonoma Valley. As I approached I heard one of my instructors on the radio calling for a straight out departure, and recognizing that he and I would soon be in the same general location, I made another call into Skypark traffic  that I would circle around for a 360 north of the airport to give him time to clear the pattern which didn't bother me at all as I had been faced with enough challenges on this first solo cross country and welcomed the opportunity to take a few deep breaths and circle around while I considered my landing. With Travis clear of the pattern I entered on an extended downwind, made my calls through the pattern and gracefully put the Cessna on the ground. I have to say, while I thoroughly enjoyed the flying and the challenges presented, I was happy to be on the ground safe and sound.

It was an educating day in so many ways, full of aeronautical decision making, situational awareness and illusions. I lived to tell the tale, and learned some valuable lessons, not the least of which was that not all of my decisions today were good ones, and the clarity of that knowledge will be my focus as I move forward in my training.

Since I have been flying so much on a regular basis, and had flown 4 cross country flights in the past week, I had built up a level of false confidence about flying today...any one of the items listed below should have been enough for me to stay on the ground...but I didn't.

  • The fact that this was my first cross country solo
  • Feeling rushed because the flight planning put me behind schedule
  • Leaving the ground with less than full tanks of fuel
  • Not requesting flight following
  • Knowing that there were forest fires near my flight path
  • Smoke and haze and poor visibility along my flight path
  • Heavier than usual flight traffic at my destination
  • Emergency flight traffic at my destination
  • Fatigue from the stress, eye strain & challenges of the flight


Serious food for thought. If you don't "have" to fly on a day like today...don't, it's as simple as that.



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