Long solo cross-country, 4 July

What better way to celebrate Independence Day than to exercise my Constitutional right of free travel? That’s right: “free” as in “not encumbered by TSA or any of their baloney.”

The FAA requires that private pilots know how to plan and safely execute what they call “cross-country” flights. I’d already flown one with Andy from Palo Alto to Columbia, but the FAA requires that private pilots plan and carry out a cross-country flight of at least 150nm total distance, with one leg being at least 50nm and landings at 3 separate airports.

Andy had originally asked me to plan a flight from Palo Alto (KPAO) to Paso Robles (KPRB) to Salinas (KSNS) and back to KPAO. The first leg to Paso Robles is 129nm, so the total trip distance would meet all the FAA’s requirements. In my earlier post I gave a quick summary of what it means to construct a VFR flight plan; here’s a slightly more detailed list:

  • Puled out a bunch of paper charts: my San Francisco and Los Angeles sectional charts and my San Franciscoterminal chart. Sectional charts are large-scale charts that show terrain features, airports, roads, navigation aids, and other useful items at 1:500,000 scale. Terminal charts show a smaller area at double the scale, so they’re great for navigation planning in urban areas.
  • Used the paper charts to plot a direct route of flight, using a straightedge and a Sharpie marker to lay out my course. Paper charts cost about $9 each, so you might wonder why I’d be willing to deface them with a Sharpie. The truth is, they expire after about 5 months, so you may as well mark on them.
  • Used the route of flight to identify checkpoints– visual features on the ground that I can look at to tell where I am and what my progress along the course is. There are some well-known visual checkpoints already marked on the sectionals. For example, VPSUN is the golf course at Sunol, while VPMOR is the LDS temple in Oakland. You can use these as reporting points; for example, I can call the Palo Alto tower and say “Palo Alto, Cessna One Niner One Tango Golf, overhead Leslie Salt, landing Palo Alto with Juliet.” That doesn’t mean Juliet’s in the airplane; rather, it means that I’m reporting being overhead the Leslie Salt Company’s salt refinery with ATIS information— a radio broadcast telling me what the current airport weather and runway conditions are– Juliet. 
  • Measured the distance between checkpoints and put that into my navigation log.
  • Got a weather forecast showing the projected winds aloft and used those to calculate the amount of wind correction necessary for each leg.
  • Used the wind and airspeed data to figure out how long each leg would take to fly, or, in other words, the ETA to go between each pair of checkpoints
  • Used the ETA data to estimate fuel consumption for each leg
  • Reviewed the airport data, including which runways exist, whether they were open or closed, any restrictions on their use, what the standard traffic patterns and altitudes were, and so on.

After doing all that, I reviewed the weather forecast and saw that Salinas and Monterey were both fogged in. That didn’t bode well for my planned route, but I went to the airport anyway to meet with Andy and discuss my flight plan. Student pilots have to have an instructor’s logbook endorsement to legally do the long cross-country, you see, so meeting with him was a precondition to taking off. I reviewed the route of flight with him and pointed out some alternate options given that I couldn’t overfly the fog areas. He suggested a completely different route: over the hills to Tracy (KTCY), then down to Los Baños (KLSN), then to KPRB, and then back either direct (if the fog was gone) or by reversing that route. I replanned the route, got his endorsement, and went to check out the airplane I’d reserved… except that it was gone.

OK, OK, I exaggerate… a bit. The automated scheduling system that Advantage uses expects that you’ll sign out the airplane at the scheduled time. If you don’t do so within 30 minutes of your scheduled time, the system puts the airplane back in the available pool. I had an 0800 reservation, but at 0830 I was still meeting with Andy, so the plane became available and someone else grabbed it. Luckily there was another G1000-equipped 172 available at noon, so I took it instead.

Before I took off, I asked Palo Alto ground control for VFR flight following. This is essentially radar surveillance; air traffic control assigns you a unique transponder code that identifies your aircraft on radar. ATC will issue traffic and safety advisories, notifying you of other aircraft in your vicinity and so on. As you leave each bubble of radar surveillance, ATC hands you off to the next one. For my flight, I started out with Palo Alto and was handed off to NORCAL Approach, the TRACON (or terminal radar approach control center) that owns the airspace over most of northern California. I stayed with NORCAL until I got to an area outside their control, at which point they handed me over to Oakland Center, the air route traffic control center (ARTCC) that provides radar services outside of TRACON-controlled areas.

Anyway, one of the benefits of flight following is that you get traffic advisory calls. I got several on my route towards Tracy; that airspace is heavily traveled as people fly into and out of Palo Alto, Hayward, San Carlos, and the other airports in the area. My favorite call? That’s easy: “Cessna Two Hotel Golf, traffic your 1 o’clock, 2 miles, 5000 feet northbound, flight of two F-18. Hobo 51, traffic your 11-o’clock, 2 miles, 3000 feet eastbound, Cessna 172.” Sure enough, there went two F-18s zipping past, too fast for me to unlimber the camera and get a picture.

The flight itself was great! Good visibility on the outbound leg; I took off from Palo Alto, made a right Dunbarton, overflew Sunol, overflew the Livermore area, and headed to Tracy. AsHere’s what the Tracy airport looks like from 5500′ up; it looks small from the ground, but those two runways are 4000′ each.

Overhead KTCY


My route of flight from metropolitan Tracy (!) down to Los Baños took me roughly along Interstate 5. To the west there are all kinds of interesting hills; to the east there are a string of smallish towns, plus lots and lots of cultivated land. From the air, the patchwork of different shades of green is absolutely gorgeous.

Somewhere in the Central Valley

that salad you’re eating? it probably came from the Central Valley

My approach and landing at Los Baños were uneventful, with a good landing on their runway. The Los Baños airport is uncontrolled, meaning there’s no control tower or radar service. Each aircraft is required to vigorously “see and avoid,” of course, but there’s also a radio frequency on which aircraft in the vicinity announce their location and intentions. So you call to tell anyone listening that you’re approaching the airport, where you’re going, and where you are… i.e. “Los Baños traffic, Cessna Two Hotel Golf, 5 miles north of the field, two thousand five hundred, entering the pattern for landing runway 32”, or whatever. Then you call again when you get closer; meanwhile, other aircraft, if any, are making their own calls. I landed well, taxied back on the parallel taxiway, waited a minute for another aircraft to take off and clear the pattern, and took off to the south.

The route of flight that Andy and I had planned called for me to go from KLSN to New Coalingua airport, then turn southwest for Paso Robles.. so that’s what I did, being careful to stay out of the Lemoore military operating areas (MOAs). Andy warned me that I’d know when I was getting close to New Coalingua because I’d be able to smell Harris Ranch. I thought he was pulling my leg, but, sure enough, I could smell the stockyards from more than a mile up and several miles lateral distance. I made the turn before C80 and found Paso Robles right where it was supposed to be. I landed, taxied in to a parking spot, and went inside to find out if they had any food, having neglected to pack anything. They didn’t, but the kind folks at Paso Robles Jet Center loaned me a crew car so I could drive into town and eat at Margie’s Diner. As advertised, the diner had extremely large portions, which suited me just fine. I had a delicious grilled ham-and-cheese and two large diet Pepsis; meanwhile, the line crew refueled my plane so that when I got there (after a brief encounter with the airport’s resident cat) I was ready to go. I took off and headed to the northwest, towards Salinas, but there was a huge layer of haze that looked like it covered pretty much my entire route of flight. 

Haze, of course, diminishes visibility rather than eliminating it. It wouldn’t have been legal for me to overfly an area of fog that obscured the ground completely, whereas I could have legally flown over the haze. However, “legal” and “prudent” don’t always mean the same thing, so I elected to go back the way that I came, mostly. Instead of going back to C80, I cut the corner by flying to the Priest VOR, then to the Panoche VOR, then telling the G1000 to take me back towards Tracy and thence to Palo Alto. On the way back, I practiced using the GFC700 autopilot in the airplane a bit. This might seem contradictory– why use the autopilot at all as a student? There are several good reasons. First, I want to know how every piece of equipment in the airplane works so that I can get the most utility from it. Second, for instrument flying the autopilot is a tremendous aid because it can keep the aircraft pointed in the right direction at the right altitude while the pilot aviates, navigates, and communicates. Third, one of the things you’re required to demonstrate on the FAA check ride is what the FAA calls “lost procedures”– in other words, what do you do if you get lost? I want the option to be able to tell the autopilot to keep the wings level and altitude steady while I’m rooting around looking for charts or whatever. Fourth, it’s cool. Anyway, I spent some time refreshing my knowledge of how to set up the autopilot to track a heading and maintain an altitude. There are many more sophisticated things it can do that I haven’t started exploring yet, like fly a profile such that you end up at a specific altitude over a specific point on the ground. That will come with time.

Coming back I had a great view of the San Luis reservoir, near Los Baños; see below. 

San Luis Reservoir

There was a bit of haze, but off to the west I could still see heavy haze on my original planned route, and I was perfectly happy to see it over there instead of underneath me. My approach through the hills and the east side of the Bay went well, and I nailed the landing back at Palo Alto. 4.0 hours of pilot-in-command and solo cross-country time for the books!


Filed under aviation, California

3 responses to “Long solo cross-country, 4 July

  1. Bryan Koslosky

    Well done!…You are getting close to removing the word “Student” from your title. Good luck with your soon to be check ride.

  2. robichaux

    Thanks, Bryan!

  3. robichaux

    Oh, and a follow-up: Mac McClellan wrote an interesting article about autopilots and misbehavior thereof: http://macsblog.com/2012/07/when-the-autopilot-goes-nuts/.

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