Dual cross country – or, a mini adventure with help

The Canadian curriculum for flight training requires the student to a flight of minimum 150 nautical miles (278 kms) with 2 full stop landings other than the departure airport. In my case I flew from Ottawa to Kingston to Brockville and back to Ottawa. Before sending me on my own, I did this trip with my instructor first.

On the day it of the trip it was warm and I had unwisely chosen the the late afternoon, the bumpiest time of day when the ground had absorbed its fill of the sun and was busy emitting its energy back into the air. Holding an altitude was tough. Holding the chart was tough. On top of all that my instructor tried to get me to fly systematically. Systematically means that you pick a direction, fly it, and confirm you’re on track. If you’re not on track, you are to estimate the number of degrees you are off track, get back on the track, and fly a new corrected heading. I was also supposed to keep an air log of where I was, what time it was when I was there, and make ground speed checks. Well, I struggled with it all. Pretty much the only thing that went well on my dual cross country were the landings.

Where was I? Well, there was a lake with an s-shape but a bit of a c-shape on the left edge. Is the left edge the western edge? Is that this lake over my right wing? I see a road. Is there a road on the map? I think so. Is it the same road? I wasn’t sure. What about that lake? I was over an area with many lakes and they all started to look the same. If I looked at the chart for too long the airplane drifted up or down with the bumps. And side to side. So periodically I had to straighten it out as well. Eventually the instructor flew the plane while I tried to figure out where I was.

The basic math required to to adjust track and calculate speeds became difficult since I was way overloaded. 28 – 17. Yeah I know it’s 11. But between trying to fly straight, level, and sort out on a map where I was, I had pretty much zero brain power left to do simple math like how much time had elapsed since the last checkpoint.

Since the ground speed math was going nowhere my instructor clicked on the GPS. A three line aviation GPS is nothing like the $100 unit at Canadian Tire. It’s not even like the “Maps” app. It has a few text only lines that shows your position in geographic coordinates. If you set a destination airport it will tell you which direction it’s in. It tells you ground speed. That’s about it. Still if I got spectacularly lost I could just fly along the heading on the GPS and end up at an airport eventually. Alternatively I could call the airport on the radio and ask for a radar vector. Good to have backups I guess but I didn’t want to rely on them.

As Lake Ontario came into view I saw on the runways by the lake. It’s quite a beautiful approach actually. I radioed Kingston and they told me to report over the 401. Once over the 401 I set up the the approach put the plane on the ground – pretty smoothly in fact – especially considering how overwhelming the navigation piece had been.

In Kingston I taxied over to the flying school and shut the plane down. Inside I bought a water from the lone fellow at the school and splashed my face in the washroom. A sign inside reminded me to “be a sweetie and wipe the seatie.” We had planned for about 35 minutes ground time but we cut it down to 20 because we had left earlier than expected.

Outside on a park bench my instructor briefed me on the next leg of the trip before starting up and taking off again. Runway 19 took us out over the lake on the climb out. Although it was quite a nice view it was a little unsettling to fly over the water in a plane. Oddly enough trans-Pacific overwater flights had never bothered me before – as a passenger – but now as a pilot-in-training I was suddenly aware of some of the risks. We turned left to stay within gliding distance of shore and heading for the set heading point.

Set heading points are where legs of a flight begin – should be close enough to the airport to be easily found but also far enough that there’s enough time to climb to cruising altitude. Our set heading point for this part of the trip was Eastview, a small town abeam a outcropping of nearby Howe Island, making it easy to spot. This time around I was a little more prepared and wrote the time and turned the plane to the planned heading – accounting the wind based on forecasts – that I expected should take me toward Brockville. Along the way I would compare what I saw outside against my planned track on the map, and adjusted the heading accordingly. It was tough to correct headings systemically rather than arbitrarily steering “a little to the left” or “a little to the right” so I made a note to practice that again later on.

There were fewer lakes between Kingston and Brockville so it was much easier to distinguish one from the other. Soon the single runway at Brockville came into view, more or less lined up with my direction of travel. Perhaps getting overconfident from successfully spotting the airport I got a little complacent and got ready to land.

“Which runway are you planning?” my instructor asked.

I started to clue in.

“Umm, well it’s the one I’m facing, but I guess that’s not a good reason to choose it.”
“No, definitely not. How do we choose a runway?”
“Based on the wind.”
“Okay, so what are you going to do?”

All the circuit procedures for an uncontrolled airport came back. I felt kind of silly as I flew over the field and checked the sock. (I actually spotted it on my first try.) The winds favored 04 after all but that was merely luck. The landing was again decent. This time we just turned around without shutting off and kept going. 

The last leg from Brockville back to Ottawa was again an exercise in interpreting maps. I was trying to fly toward North Augusta. Is that North Augusta? What about the patch of houses over there? There are some roads leading out of it. Oh, the one on the west side has like an s-bend in it? Is that an s-bend on the ground? I would reach Ottawa eventually. Oh, and I was supposed to avoid this advisory airspace. As it turned it I flew right through it. Unlike the chart it’s not like there’s a visible line for you to avoid. Better navigation next time.

Eventually Ottawa airport came into view. I landed. On the taxi my instructor remarked “You’ll sleep well tonight!”

We talked about the flight. Surprisingly he said it didn’t go too poorly (Maybe that is just common instructor practice), except that I should better prepare my arrival procedures – radio calls, determining the runway, setting up the circuit and approach. I took that to heart. At the end he asked me if I would be comfortable doing the same trip tomorrow solo.

I said yes – with the caveat that a perfectly filled air log with ground speed checks may be asking a bit much. Anyway, he was right – that night I did sleep well.


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