While I had already done a number of cross country flights over the past 2 weeks, I was really excited about my flight today because today, I was going to do a long cross country by VOR. Now, if you've been keeping up with these posts, and my training, you know I've been struggling with this VOR stuff, and of course, this really bugs me because I'm a very technical person. I have always been the guy who sets up your stereo, or your new LED TV with surround sound, or wires your local network, yet here I have been struggling with this one odd little instrument.
I spent the weekend reading over the material I have on VOR tracking as well as watched a couple of good online videos on the subject and this time, felt like I finally had a handle on the whole idea, in fact, I didn't just think I understood it, I knew I had it finally figured out and today was going to be the proof. Over the past few days in working up my flight plan I had visualized the flight a number of times clear down to the way the VOR indicator would be turning during each part of my course. I had gone back over my notes and was confident that I could set up the required VOR frequencies in advance making the flight today go even smoother.
When I got to the airport JP and I went over my flight plan and with his endorsement in my log book. The fog was lingering around over Napa later than usual today, so while I was waiting for it to lift, I had plenty of time to go over my flight plan, call for a weather briefing and perform a thorough pre-flight on the Cessna. I had the cockpit all set up with my sectional map and flight plan just in case I needed them, and even had my iPad loaded with the route and flight plan, and at the ready on my new kneeboard. I wasn't planning on using it for navigation, but I did have a new app I wanted to try out along the way.
I climbed into the cockpit and finished my pre-flight procedure during which time I also took the opportunity to get the Garmin set up with the frequencies for the necessary VORs and ran through switching everything back and forth a couple of times just to be sure I had everything right. This was going to be a smooth trip today out to Rancho Murieta and back and I was finally going to put this whole VOR mental block behind me.
After my run up I taxied out to the end of runway 26, made my departure call and was off heading south for my intended climb where in route I would lock in my position on the VOR and turn on a course to intercept my planned radial...or not. As I climbed I noticed that the Garmin wasn't receiving a signal from the VOR so immediately my smooth flight had been challenged. Of course, as a student I immediately assumed that I had configured something wrong on the Garmin, after all, this VOR station has always worked before during my training flights, so I made the decision to climb to 5500 feet, my intended flight altitude, and circle around while I attempted to figure it out. I made a sweeping 360 as I ran through the Garmin settings several times, but to no avail as I couldn't get it to read the VOR, so here I was, only 5 minutes into my flight and my solid plan, and my confidence, has has been shattered. If I couldn't even figure out how to set up VOR tracking on the Garmin, then I had no business attempting a cross country via VOR tracking. At just about the moment I was going to confess my ignorance, abort my flight and head back in to Skypark I decided to try one more option.
Flipping the Garmin over to the second VOR station at Sacramento I immediately picked up a signal and all I could think of was, "you're kidding, all of this studying and planning and the Scaggs Island VOR just happens to be down? Is that even possible?". I made a decision to roll with it, and intercepted the 231 degree radial to the SAC VOR station. OK, so I'm not an idiot, I did have the VOR set up correctly but even with this new found realization, it took a few minutes to gain my confidence back. By now I was already 5 minutes behind schedule which meant mentally recalculating my flight plan. Since I was flying via VOR I was using the flight plan both as practice and backup just in case, well, just what happened, happened and I couldn't fly via VOR for one reason or another.
From that point forward everything about the flight went just as planned, I tracked the VOR inbound to SAC and then tracked my intended radial outbound to Rancho Murieta and cross checked the flight using my paper flight plan and intended compass headings along with the app on my iPad. Although it was a rocky start, I was turning this cross country into a multi-threaded learning experience. I found Rancho Murieta just where it should be, made my call into the pattern, landed, shot a quick photo of me and the Cessna safely on the ground to message back to JP as I knew he'd be somewhat concerned by now, and headed back out.
The flight back went perfectly. Knowing that the Scaggs Island (SGD) VOR was not transmitting, I used only the SAC VOR to track a radial inbound, then outbound back towards Sonoma. My tracking was so successful in fact that I flew directly over both the SAC VOR station and the SGD station on the fight back which helped to put a lot of anxiety behind me. Having successfully navigated via VOR today I took a few extra minutes to extend my flight up and over Sears Point, through the Petaluma Gap and into the beautiful Sonoma Valley, sort of a pilot's version of patting one self on the back.
Even though my confidence in my perfect planning had been shattered in the first few minutes I used the opportunity to make adjustments and in the process felt like I made some good aeronautical decisions. Instead of retreating back to the airport in defeat, I was able to determine that the initial problem was not pilot error, but mechanical error beyond my control and came up with another alternative solution that resolved successfully. All in all, I think this is what the whole experience is about. Things happen when you fly, whether it's runways that are shut down unexpectedly or VOR stations not transmitting, you simply have to be ready to deal with them. As student pilots, of course, we always tend to think that any adversity must be of our own device, it must be our own ignorance and naivete of the situation, but in reality, it can be something very real, like instrument or mechanical failure.
Now I'm really looking forward to my next opportunity to plan a cross country flight via VOR!