I've been flying so much lately I don't even know what day it is. What I do know is that today put my skills to the test.
Today I was scheduled for the last of my required solos. This was going to be a 2+ hour flight with landings at 2 airports I had not been to before. When I had originally scheduled the flight, there was nothing on the schedule again until 3, so I arrived thinking I had plenty of time to plan and get on my way, but as we know, this is flying, and things change. As it turns out, the Cessna was scheduled again at 1pm and JP had his checkride for his CFII endorsement at 3, so I my no pressure solo just took on a little pressure. No worry, I was there a little early and I already had my flight plan drawn up, so JP just needed to go over it and endorse my log book. Even as prepared as I was however, I didn't get off the ground until about 11:15 which meant at best, I wouldn't get back until about a quarter after 1pm. I checked with Travis and told them I could reschedule, but they wanted me to go ahead and go, even if it meant doing a little rescheduling.
I had several good checkpoints on my flight plan along the first leg to Colusa, the first at the top of my climb just over the town of Yountville, the second on the east side of Lake Barryessa and the third over a private airstrip at McCabe Ranch. Besides the solos and maneuver practice around the local Sonoma area, I had flown several other cross country duo flights with my instructor and several cross country solos in the past 10 days, the longest of which was the flight to Rancho Murieta just the day before yesterday, so I was feeling good about today. Flying over my first check point over Yountville I compared my actual time and altitude to my flight plan and noted that I was actually 30 seconds ahead of schedule, partly because I climbed faster than I had anticipated and my ground speed was a bit faster than I had planned, still, a less than one minute differential made me feel pretty good about my planning. I had marked a couple of landmarks on the map as well as I'm trying to focus more on ground recognition and was very pleased when I passed over my landmark, the intersection of 2 roads in Yountville, exactly as planned.
My next check point was on the east side of Lake Barryessa. Flying over Lake Barryesse at 5500 feet was incredible and I was all but giggling to myself in the plane. I was focused on the task at hand for sure, but you can't help but enjoy a view like that, especially when experiencing it on your first big solo flight. I had my iPhone in the seat next to me, so I took a quick shot of the Lake on my way over and then got back to business. I found myself wishing I had more time to fly around the lake a bit, but I had a mission I needed to accomplish and honestly, that was enough to focus on today. Since I had my iPad with me on the kneeboard today with ForeFlight loaded and running my flight plan I was able to see the winds aloft change in real time and took note of the fact that I now had a bit more of a tailwind and thus a little faster ground speed than I anticipated, even so, I hit my second checkpoint on the east side of Lake Barryessa within a minute of my flight plan.
I was stoked, the flight was beautiful and I was making all of my checkpoints and I have to tell you, at the risk of sounding totally corny, today, I was feeling like a pilot and was grinning from ear to ear. Flying over the mountains east of Barryessa and out into the Central Valley I made it to my 3rd checkpoint at McCabe Ranch. While I never did find the gravel private airport on the sectional map, I could clearly see the intersection of the roads I had marked as landmarks and once again was right on schedule.
Last night I had taken some extra time during the flight planning and had prepared several things which I used today on my flight. Along with the FSS directory information for each airport, I downloaded and printed the available airport diagrams, additionally I located both airports on Google Earth and printed out satellite views of each which I found to be incredibly helpful. Not only did I have a clear idea of what the runways
looked like, but I had a good idea of what the surrounding area and terrain looked like making my approaches much more confident. Coming into Colusa I already knew what to expect and found the airport just as anticipated. The approach was in left traffic and paralleled a main road, since I had seen it on the satellite image I was already comfortable with the idea, I also knew that I had plenty of room and no obstacles along the base and final legs of the pattern so there shouldn't be any big surprises.
Colusa is, well, let's just say it's a quiet airport. I didn't hear or see any other planes in the pattern, and after landing, short of a few dusty planes surrounded by grain elevators, didn't see much happening there either. Fine with me, I was just landing, snapping a pic for my CFI to let him know I arrived and was on the ground and then I was back up and on my way to stop number 2, Lampson field at Clear Lake.
Climbing out of Colusa I crossed my first check point, high tension wires that ran parallel along the east side of the mountains. I get really excited at this point when I see something on the ground that I made a note of on my flight plan, as it gives me some much needed confidence that I can plan and execute a flight, which, if you haven't done it, is trickier than you might imagine. I've said it a number of times before, but I don't mind saying it again, things look a lot different from the air and it takes practice to recognize even the most common objects. My next checkpoint wouldn't come for quite some time now, so I had to make it up and over the mountains between Colusa and Clear Lake. I stuck to my planned headings and every once in awhile looked down to cross check it on the iPad, although, half way over the mountains I discovered why it's a really good idea to have a physical, paper flight plan in the cockpit.
Looking down at my iPad during one such cross check all that was on the screen was a simple message, Heat Warning! Say what? I didn't even know such a thing was possible, but sitting on my kneeboard in the blazing summer California sun coming through the windshield my iPad had physically overheated and there was nothing more than the simple message on the screen, no ForeFlight, no flight plan, no GPS. I was very happy at that moment that I was confident about my flight plan, so I shut the iPad down and tossed it in the seat next to me. Flying over the mountains towards Clear Lake I was treated to yet another spectacular view, but just as I was about to get comfortable and soak it in I hit some mountain turbulence that ratcheted up my alert level a few notches. Now I have experienced turbulence, but honestly, with the exception of some mild turbulence during my previous solos, the only moderate mountain turbulence I had experienced was on my long cross country to Reno a couple of weeks ago with JP in the seat next to me. This turbulence made that turbulence seem like kid stuff.
Coming over the first of 3 mountain ridges I hit my first bit of turbulence and was amazed at how quickly the plane was tossed back and forth. I rolled with it and made my adjustments accordingly following the protocol I had read time and time again, keep the wings level & reduce throttle. Sage advice I might add, while the experience didn't frighten me, it was getting my attention, after all I didn't have an experienced CFI sitting next to me to take the controls if it got worse, I was going to have to fly this plane over these mountains, and there were a lot more of them ahead of me. Coming over the second ridge there was a steep valley below me and for just a moment the turbulence seemed to subside and I felt a sense of relief, however falsely so and poorly timed I might add. At just about that very moment I hit a downdraft. Now I've read about these a few times and paid close attention to the warnings, and while I've been in more than a few updrafts, I hadn't experienced anything quite like this before. This wind shear took the plane down, as in significantly down, in nothing more than an instant. I'm not sure how to even describe it except that it was an immediate drop in altitude...not a glide, or even a steep glide as one might expect, this was a slam that would have pinned me to the ceiling had I not been belted into my seat. In the instant it happened I just reacted, full throttle, nose up, climb, FAST!
Right in front of me was ridge number 3, the last ridge before crossing the lake and suddenly I found myself, let's just say, uncomfortably low. Having just been slammed down like a fly by the massive force of nature, and climbing my way back up to altitude, now I was really paying attention. Not that I wasn't before but now all of my senses were firing. I know it probably sounds frightening, and admittedly, for a brief moment it has that affect, but the truth is, I was confident in my abilities and I knew I could fly the plane, I knew I was going to get through this and in some strange only pilot sort of way, it was terrifically exciting, Now THAT was flying! By the time I hit the fairly calm air above the lake and started my descent down to Lampson field on the far shore, I was exhilarated, laughing, thrilled that I had handled the situation well, and piloted through that on my first long cross country solo.
Coming over the lake I made my call into Lampson field, flew a 45 into a right downwind pattern and landed the plane. I was actually so excited by everything that had just happened that I forgot to stop and take a picture for JP. Instead, I taxied down to the end of the runway, made my call and was off again. Departing Lampson field is a little trickier than landing at Lampson field as just after you take off you make a fairly hard right bank and climb out north over the lake, a little tricky, but amazing, I'm really looking forward to going back there again.
Heading south now back over the mountains towards Sonoma, I would climb to 5500 feet as I passed through the Mayacamas mountains, and as it turned out, some more moderate, but not quite as severe turbulence, out past Mt. St. Helena and down through Sonoma Valley and back to Skypark.
I landed at Skypark at 1:20, exactly 2.1 hours from the time I left. While JP was a little concerned that he didn't hear from me after Colusa, since I forgot to snap the usual pic and send him a message, I was very pleased with what I had just accomplished.
Today I had the chance to experience a little of everything and a lot of flying. Another great day in the air, it just keeps getting better.