Learning to Fly – Day Fifteen (Across the country)

I was running on autopilot.  And do take that literally: I – myself – was running on autopilot; the plane does not have one. That has to be the only explanation that I found myself alone in an airplane 3,500ft (1km) above Florida, almost 200km from “home” and slightly lost.  Let us backtrack a bit though: This was my first solo cross-country. I had again sweated over the charts for a good solid hour and had laid a careful route from Winter Haven to Melbourne to Bartow and back to Winter Haven. When I arrived at 10:00 in the morning to start I was informed there was a “change of plans”.  This was no drill. Melbourne had surface winds at 15 knots gusting 22, which on almost any runway would be a bit challenging to a student pilot in a warrior. So my new route would be Winter Haven to Seebring, on to Arcadia, then to Bartow for three full stop and goes in controlled air space, and finally back to Winter Haven.  Another flight plan junked and with Gerry’s help I quickly put the plan together for the new route and I was off.  While you are flying, you do not think too much about it, but to some extent, it is like the bumblebee myth: It is said that the bumblebee from an aerodynamic point of view is unable to fly. (This is off course nonsense). However, the myth goes, the reason it still flies, is because it does not know.  I had been at the flying school for 2 weeks and was now in sole control of an aircraft flying to an airport I have never been at and expected to deal with controllers, vectors, landings, taxiing and take-offs. The only reason I can see I did it was because I was on autopilot. I knew I had learned a lot the past 2 weeks… but THAT much?!   I found Seebring easily.  The route there takes you past some very recognisable lakes and towns etc.  I joined the downwind leg, final approach and made a nice landing.  I took the first taxiway to the right towards a very impressive general aviation air terminal.  To the left of the main stairs were 20-30 piper warriors and Cessna Skyhawks.  To the right another 15-20.  In front of the building, however, there would be room for maybe 10 but there weren’t any taking up space. They probably left early so I took the opportunity and parked smack bang in front of the building.  When I pushed back the aircraft myself, I was pleased to see I was perfectly aligned with the centre T-mark for tie-down.  I went into the building and to the pilot’s café where I had a cold drink and a light lunch.  I then walked back to “my” Warrior, pre-flight checked it, sat in, completed the checks and was just about to start the engine when four “War-birds” (American WWII fighter planes) came around the corner.  They taxied down in front of me and in perfect synchronisation they turned straight towards me (Or rather, towards the 3-500 people gathered at the outside area in front of the building) 2 on my left side and 2 on my right.  They did their power checks (very noisy) and I assume the 20 odd people gathering to the right and left of my wings were those who didn’t want an old Warrior in the middle of a picture of WW-2 fighter planes.  Urgh. I now realised why there had been some orange cones where I parked and why no one else had. I tried to stare straight ahead on the war-birds and to ignore what must have been very angry looks from the on-lookers and photographers.  Finally, checks over, the war birds taxied to runway 36.  I breathed a sigh of relief and was just about to start and taxi after the birds when 18, yes, eighteen (!) More war birds turned around the corner. Nine on the left of me, nine on the right. They were maybe 25 meters away pointing straight towards me and the whole thing repeated itself. Finally, they scooted off to rw36 and I hastily started my engine and scooted on after them. They made their way to 36 and 2 and 2 they rolled down the runway and took off.  I was about to take off when I heard an incoming Skyhawk being advised on the radio he might want to wait landing until 22 War birds had done a fly-pass at 300 ft over the runway. He did not, as it happened, and landed and was on his final bit of landing run when I lined up on the runway and had the 22 war birds pass straight over me.  I counted very carefully and when I had seen 22, I rolled down the runway and was off towards Arcadia.  The leg Seebring-Arcadia is put into the trip for one reason: There are basically NOTHING between these two places except green forests land and green swampland. This was about finding, calculating and sticking to a course. I knew how to use the VORs and could have cheated but did not want to. I had decided they were for absolute emergencies only.  I tried to follow my planned heading and 5 minute before my planned time, the town Arcadia appeared in front of me.  One basic lesson in human psychology: You see what you want to see. I expected to see Arcadia… I saw a town…. It was Arcadia.  If this was Arcadia, then the airfield would be just SW of the town. I could not find it. I circled around in ever-increasing circles. I looked here, there and everywhere. No airfield.  I could slowly feel panic creep in. If I could not find it, I would have to return to Winter Haven having failed.  I found a large N/S running road. I followed it a little North. There was a racetrack! Great, only one racetrack on the map. I must have been north of my expected track and hit a small village, much smaller than Arcadia. I turned around, went South past my village and there, 10 miles further south was Arcadia and oh joy, a bit further south the airfield. I landed, having wasted 25 minutes in the air looking for the airfield. I had a 10-minute rest and was off to Bartow. Before Bartow, which was easy to find, I contacted the controller and requested permission to enter his airspace and to do three stops and goes. He cleared me to enter right base for 9R. I reported base and was cleared to stop and go.  Again, a right pattern and this time I was very high coming in. I landed long and rolled over half of the quite long runway.  Not having been to Bartow before I requested taxi back to the start of the RW. Another annoyed controller reminded me that I had requested stop and go. I confirmed this and explained that due to my long landing I wanted more runway for the take-off. I was given taxi back to 9L, took off on another right pattern and did 2 more uneventful landings and take-offs. It was then back to Winter Haven. It is almost impossible to describe the joy, when you are 3,000ft up and see your home airfield’s familiar runways appearing in front of you. “Winter Haven traffic, Warrior 32990 is 5 miles south of airfield, flying overhead to join 45 to downwind runway 11, Winter Haven”. I was home and another milestone passed. Tomorrow would be my QXC (Qualifying Cross Country), which is an official test of my navigational and airmanship skills, such as they might be.

Summary after 15 days:
Flown:  3 hours.
Total flying time: 42 hours and 33 minutes.
Solo: 8 hours.
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