I think it was on one of FlightChops videos that I first heard this comment: “Experience is the hardest teacher, because she gives you the test first.”
On Thursday I flew my solo short cross-country flight. I was excited about this next step in my flight training for a number of reasons. First of all, a guy can only fly circles around the airport only so many times before he wants a change of scenery. Secondly, since my instructor felt that I was ready for my solo short cross-country, I must be doing things good on a consistent basis, because my instructor is one of the safest pilots I’ve ever met and he is deeply rooted in the belief of not having students do something that they’re not ready for. I’m a lucky student pilot in that I felt comfortable with and have trusted my instructor since hour one. (He’s also a really good friend that I look forward to flying with for a long time).
We reviewed my flight plan. I had a standard weather briefing about 90 minutes before take-off and because it was one of the summer days where the weather could get stormy fairly quickly, I called for an abbreviated briefing right before deciding to leave. In my head I reviewed IMSAFE, the FAA mneumonic designed to remind pilots to do a safe assessment of this current condition.
I – Illness – Am I sick?
M – Medication – Should I be operating heavy machinery?
S – Stress – Am I too stressed out to fly?
A – Alcohol – Have I had any alcohol in the past eight hours? (Personally, I go with at least 12 hours, but that’s just my own comfort zone)
F – Fatigue – Did I get enough sleep last night? Do I feel fatigued?
E – Eating – Am I well nourished?
If I was doing my typical pattern work or flying out to the practice area, I would have been fine with IMSAFE and because this was my first cross-country as a solo pilot, I used the same criterion. What I didn’t factor into the equation was that I would be flying for 2+ hours. So the last letter in IMSAFE, the ‘E’, was a fleeting thought when it shouldn’t be.
As I drove to the airport, I remembered that I hadn’t eaten my typical afternoon energy/protein bar that I eat to keep my fuel where it needs to be before suppertime. I didn’t think it would be a big deal because I felt fine at that moment.
Flying out at 4,500 feet I encountered some clouds that I knew I couldn’t pass through. They were much bigger than those wispy clouds that can be fun to fly through where you say, “I flew through a cloud!”, where it’s a puff of white that’s no bigger than a yard across. These were fairly sized cumulus clouds that I knew I shouldn’t be flying through. Their base was around 4,000 feet, so I requested permission from ATC to get under them. In a couple of instances I flew around them. I was doing this while still maintaining my heading with the VOR and I was feeling pretty good about my performance, though I was busy with the extra ATC communication and such. Before I knew it I was at the VOR and ready to head to the next VOR, continuing my dance with the clouds before getting turned over to the next airspace. Because I had been keeping busy with the clouds and the extra comm work, I didn’t get ATIS when I should have. When I was turned over to the next ATC, they asked me to confirm that I had ATIS. I didn’t. I had to get it and get back to them and that threw me off. Also, this extra work was apparently burning some calories.
There was something else that felt odd to me. I felt like I had to keep hitting the left rudder harder than usual. Every time I looked down at the ball, I had to step on it. I’m not used to doing that. Something felt off. I usually never have a problem keeping the airplane coordinated.
When I looked back at the video of my landings at the far airport, I now realize that I was showing some slight symptoms of what I call “the bonk”. When I’m on the ground I enjoy long-distance cycling, and I have gone without energy bars on some of my trips and got into “the bonk”, where I’m a little calorie deprived and feeling a little foggy. I’m still functional but I’m not at 100%, I’m running at more around 85-90% mentally, and that’s not good on a bicycle and definitely not good as the pilot of an airplane.
When I headed back to the home airport, I drank some of the bottled water I had brought along. While I had flown down via the VORs, I dedreckoned a direct flight back home. The clouds had cleared considerably and I had a smooth, uneventful flight home. I held altitude, I stayed on course but I still felt like I had to push the left rudder harder than normal, which was odd to me because if it was because of a crosswind component, it seemed like it should I should have to be stomping on the right rudder more to get home.
I was handed off to the home ATC where I made an approach and found the nose of the airplane off the center line on final. I tried to correct it with more left rudder and found myself feeling uncomfortable with the approach and decided to go-around.
I tried again, definitely feeling hungry and I was inadvertently crabbing to the right. I corrected the nose and got where I needed to be and came in and bounced. And bounced. And bounced again. I went to put more power in and was a little slow on the uptake so I bounced once more. That last bounce was really hard. Two days later I can still feel and hear it in my head. I was convinced I had broken a wheel off but I finally got airborne and went around. Frankly, I scared myself. I told ATC I was going around and I think I added “what the hell was that?”. ATC replied, asking if I was “alright” and I said, “yeah, I’m fine”. I took my time in the pattern and came in fine on the third attempt, though I was still feeling like I was pushing a lot on that left rudder. As I was flying the pattern, I confirmed that I hadn’t left any parts sitting on the runway. Luckily, everything was intact. I was apologizing profusely to the airplane and sweating like crazy, but I finally got it down with a decent landing.
Oddly, my GoPro stopped during the approach before my bouncy-bounce down the runway. In a way I wish I had caught this on video, but the fates decided against that. Looking at this last screen cap, I can tell that my altitude is great, my airspeed is right where it needs to be but I’m crabbing just a bit to the right. I don’t know if a gust of wind came up, if I did something weird with my feet or what, but I do know that my hand is way too tight on the yoke at that moment.
Still shaken, I taxied back to the runway to find my instructor and fellow student sitting in the hangar enjoying the nice weather. After a few moments I jumped out of the airplane and started ranting a bit about my stupidity and the bouncing and all that. Neither of them had seen what I had done. My instructor wisely let me get it off my chest for about two minutes and then he told me to stop and calm down. “Everyone does stupid things and has a bad day. Learn from it.”
It took me a bit to decide to look at the video and I can tell that I need to do a better assessment of IMSAFE. Eating is important. I also could have turned around when I found myself being quite busy with navigating around the clouds and when I felt that something was off with either the airplane or the way I was flying the airplane. None of my fellow pilots have had an issue with having to give the airplane more left rudder; the only thing that we discovered was that the rudder trim was turned all the way to the right. We don’t know if it’s been that way for a long time. I now know to check the rudder trim, which I was hesitant to do while flying solo and having never done that before.
My biggest take-away from that cross-country flight was the experience of scaring myself. I believe that in the long run it will make me a safer pilot and I will definitely being doing a much more thorough self analysis of IMSAFE and PAVE (Personal, Aircraft, enVironment, External pressures). As excited as I was about flying my solo short cross-country, if I felt at all hesitant, I should have stopped right there. I was putting external pressure on myself to continue on because after all, flying is awesome.
I think I passed that test for experience. I’m looking forward to doing a safety check ride with my instructor this week to get my head back where it needs to be and the continuing on with my training. Since overall the cross-country was successful, I don’t need to do another solo short cross country, but I’m probably going to spend the extra money to do it just so I feel better about the whole experience.