Lesson 41: Local Area Solo

The previous lesson didn’t go well, so 24 hours later I was back at the club hoping for a better personal performance in the re-match.

Flying with a new instructor (new to me anyway), slightly conscious that this might be a big ask:   “Hey you’ve never flown with me before and my record probably says my landings 24hrs ago were crap…….but mind sending me for my first local area solo???”

Still he seemed up for giving it ago and seeing how I flew today, so we’d crack on.

That Plane again & the Visibility Discussion

G-UFCB Cessna 172SP

G-UFCB : Cessna 172SP

We’d be taking G-UFCB, I knew with Whiskey Kilo out of action it was either this plane or Romeo Charlie (as MEGS with all its glass cockpit toys was unlikely to be an option for a first solo out of sight of the airport).   Romeo Charlie was currently booked with someone else, so I was back with the plane that quite simply, hates me.

Forget the plane for a second though, the wind & cloud base were looking great but the visibility was 7,000m.   My instructor glanced the solo limits:  8,000m   We might have a problem here.

Serious hmmm’ing and ahhhh’ing ensued.

Now for my first stroke of luck of the day, a senior instructor became the voice of encouragement that it’s likely to actually be ok, go and see for sure, but it should be fine and getting better throughout the day.  When I was new and had even less experience, I used to think this was one of the more pessimistic instructors around – I’ve since learnt it’s more a voice of good experience.   For him to be optimistic about the weather, meant it felt definitely worth a punt of going up and seeing for sure.

G-UFCB strikes again

Charlie Bravo wasn’t about to throw in the towel and let me go flying that easy, it was being cold and grumpy today.   Its second radio had decided to suffer from the cold and pack-up, the display was unusable.   Sparking the second debate of the morning….

Given the second radio was out, I wouldn’t be able to get the ATIS (Air Traffic Information Service) on the way back if I went solo – at least not without changing radio frequency on com 1.   If you think that sounds easy enough, note that you’re not meant to ever leave a frequency without ATC knowing you’re doing so – if they can’t raise you on the frequency they last had you on, search and rescue starts to become an option.    Now seriously at Cambridge with radar and all the other bells and whistles of a proper airport, this is unlikely, but procedurally…..it’s not something I should be doing.

Again an experienced voice stepped in with some sound logic:   “Just get ATC to give you the ATIS and if they question it tell them why……you only have one radio.”

So we were still on for flying G-UFCB, I’d go do a sloooooow checkout (the visibility was just below limits but set to get better, time to trust the forecast and drag out my checks a little 🙂 ).

With some support from the airport staff we got the plane out of the hanger and got our taxi clearance.

Runway 05 again

Thankfully it was a pretty quiet morning for airport traffic, we did our power checks at Charlie and were then given clearance to backtrack down the runway, before turning round at roughly Delta (Taxi on the grass to the same point takes longer and in this game time = money).

Having flown 05, right hand circuits only the day before I was a bit more confident I knew my way round (I realise that to ‘outsiders’ of flying that sentence must sound stupid, perhaps to other pilots it sounds stupid too…..but in my defense I’ll argue there’s a reason why most clubs have a “currentcy” limit of about ~28 days).

Circuit #1

It seemed like a good circuit, I made sure my downwind checks were done with audio statements so my instructor was aware they were done etc.   There’s a quarry at the far end of the downwind leg, knowing that I’ve been taking flak for converging in circuit, I set that as my reference and for my money we flew straight for it and were dead centre with it at the end of downwind.

My instructor was being pretty quiet and just letting me fly it my way, I assume because I should be able to do this by now and so he could just assess whether I was flying ok or not, end of story.   To that end though, I was careful to make sure I turned base when I wanted to turn base, irrespective of anything else.

On completion of the turn, the runway was looking good, couldn’t be happier.   Now just to get the speed down, the flaps to 20 degrees and turn final.

The crosswind was nothing like the day before, so I turned a touch too soon, but corrected it in the turn and just let it come round a little slower.  Final approach was initially high, but it all came good.  Passing over the threshold everything was calm and under control, rate of descent felt much better.

With a gentle tap of the main gears, we were down.   It felt good, but my instructor said nothing – I couldn’t do it any better, so if that wasn’t a tick in a box we should call it quits now!

Circuit #2

On the climb out my instructor said the touch down was in fact very nice, my flying was fine and one more like that and he’d be happy to send me solo 🙂   I don’t know why this didn’t phase me, perhaps because my flying felt right and I had one good circuit in the bag, so I came at this circuit with a mental attitude of “of course it’ll be fine….”

All very much the same as the last circuit, perhaps the slightest bit harder on landing but still so gentle you’d have mistaken it for a speed bump at 5mph etc.

Approved to go flying Solo

The normal last minute reminders & formalities (i.e. radio tower to inform them the instructor was getting out) and I was good to go.

Now the people in the tower have always been pretty good to me, but upon asking for ‘further taxi’, their niceness just confused me.   Knowing that the active runway was 05, they cleared me to pull over to the siding of Bravo and do my power checks there…….normally you do your power checks at the side of the holding position, which today would be Charlie or Delta, so I wasn’t expecting Bravo to be part of any discussion.   A quick request for them to repeat the instruction and we were back in business, better to be sure and all that.

I decided that I was going to spend ~30-40 minutes out somewhere around Point Alpha and Grafham Water, having already told my instructor I wasn’t planning to try and come back and touch and go.   I’ve flown enough circuits to sink a ship recently, I wanted to spend some time out of sight of the airport.

All clearances sorted, a mile of runway ahead, the throttle went forward and at 200ft I verbally told myself out loud

I have to find my own way back from this point on….

I knew there were a million ways to resolve it if I did get lost, but as a personal goal I didn’t want to use them.   I just wanted to fly out, then bring it home on my own, without calling for help – do that and everything else would be a bonus today.

I don’t think I’ve ever flown 05 except for circuits, at 600ft and beginning the turn out to the left it was almost surreal to see the river Cam and recognize it etc.   You don’t really see it on 23 because you can’t turn until around 2,000ft.   I’d learn later my wife was running along side it at this exact moment and watched me climb out 🙂

From here I built myself a little mental plan:

  • Climb to 2,500ft
  • Find Point Alpha
  • Do some Practice Force Landings
  • Some Steep Turns
  • Head home

Now I’d seen the Cam. I knew where the A14 was so Point Alpha was going to be easy, even though I’d never found it this way before (I’d never even flown out of the circuit this way before, forget finding anything).   I cannot begin to explain how calm and relaxed I began to feel from this point on, the whole experience began to feel simply amazing, I guess I’ve clocked enough hours that all self-doubt aside, when it comes down to it I can fly the plane with no real major problems.

Point Alpha

Point Alpha

It’s taken about a year and half from that first experience of being in a C172, to now, out on my own in a C172……..sure there’s a lot of boxes left to tick, but the altimeter read 2,500ft, nobody was in the right seat.  If you’re thinking about learning to fly, I assure you that this milestone is a particularly addictive one.

And if you look to your right, you’ll see Point Alpha,  look back a few posts and you’ll get a bit of help pin-pointing it.

Practice Forced Landings

C172 in a turn

Turning to find some fields

With one landmark found and Grafham water in the window, time to find a good spot to do some PFL’s.  I did think about practicing a stall but my luck was on form and I didn’t want to push it 🙂

Admittedly the first one wasn’t a work of art, the target became too far away and I hadn’t really given myself the best of alternative options.   Still, on pulling the throttle out, I could still imagine some farmer beginning to panic about the C172 that had just started lining up to ‘land’ in his field.  It must be quite a sight from the ground.

This first descent also introduced the first complication, at 2,500ft giving it plenty  of attention, I’d known exactly where I was and finding my way home would be easy.   Now I’d descended to ~600ft AGL and made a number of turns, focusing more on the best field choices rather then navigating.   The world looks very different at 600ft, would I be able to find it all again???

Grafham Water Ahead

Grafham Water Ahead

Thankfully climbing back up to 2,000ft found the world how I’d left it, I soon found Grafham water and from there you know which way is which.   Little discoveries like this continued to make the flight beyond enjoyable, I really was having a lot of fun – partly fueled by the reality of what I was doing, partly because although the weather looked a bit average, it was actually a really nice day to go flying.

My second attempt at a practice forced landing went a lot better, this time I was more than happy that if I’d kept going, some random farmer would have had to be enlisted to help pull out a (well landed) Cessna from a field 🙂    I had no desire to land quite then though, so with the power back on, time to go and have some fun elsewhere.

Fen Drayton & Lakes

Fen Drayton & Lakes

Climbing back up it became seemingly expected to locate myself and then pondered what to do next.   For no particular reason other then to see what it looked like, I decided to fly over to Fen Drayton, there’s a good set of lakes just slightly north of there  – so it’s a village relatively easy to identify.

Here I decided to do some advanced turns, so kicking it off by working my way through the HASELL checklist, soon the plane was in a 45 degree turn round to the right, an abbreviated HELL check and then a turn to the left.   They weren’t my finest turns to date, I think I went +100ft on one and -80ft on the other, but as every second ticked by my confidence was sub-consciously ticking boxes – not so much about the quality of the flying perhaps, but more in terms of being confident with respect to the situation I was now in.

Enough fun, time to head for home

I guesstimated it would take 10-15 minutes to get back, with the clock saying I’d been up 30 minutes, time to see if we could find the airport again.

Knowing where I was, I knew that in theory if I flew a heading of 110 degrees the airport should appear.   There’s no reason it shouldn’t but you do wonder if it’s going to 🙂

Just to complicate things another Cessna came into view, I turned to ensure we kept well clear of each other and then set myself up behind it (I’d guess 4 miles) at about its 8 O’ Clock position.   I heard them give a radio call and knew I’d have to do the same very shortly.

The call went alright, I forgot to read back the active runway but they repeated and we got through it without any real dilemma.

Then the moment of truth, how did I want to join???    I wanted to take the easy way out and join crosswind (as I’ve done this with instructors more then anything else), but earlier in the morning two instructors encouraged me to do a standard overhead join.   If anything a more complex join procedure then anything else you can do, but I figured I’d take their advice and see how I got on (having never done a standard overhead join for 05 before in my life).

As the airport came into view the Cessna ahead of me however had other ideas, I told Approach that I had visual with them, but I knew I couldn’t keep following them if I was to do a standard join……one of us was not going to be doing that and I was beginning to wonder where they were actually going.   Forget it, keep them in sight and focus on the task:

  • Cross the runway threshold (23) at 2,000ft
  • Fly out a bit and then turn back 180 degrees
  • Cross the other end of the runway threshold (05)
  • Descend on the dead-side in a turning descent to the right
  • Cross the (23) threshold again at 1,000ft
  • Join the downwind leg of the circuit.
  • Complete the rest of a normal circuit and land…..

It’s something like that, and except for being so pre-occupied with flying each step pretty spot on (and forgetting to report dead-side), again ATC were kind enough to remind me to report my position.   The whole operation went arguably better then I’ve ever joined the circuit in my life!

I remembered all the remaining calls and the landing was a fine finish to an amazing lesson.   All that was left to do was to find somewhere to park the plane.


No problems, apparently the overhead join looked good from the ground, clearly good enough not to watch my landing, so I was asked how that went, but all good and I didn’t get flagged on anything.  So fingers crossed the Air Traffic folks in the tower hadn’t just spent 55 minutes bitterly grumbling about the student having a joyride to the north west………I’d like to hope I caused them only minimal hassle.

All things considered, perhaps G-UFCB has made some peace with me.

A long post, but if you’re thinking about learning to fly, let me assure you that this particular milestone is one that certainly makes it all worthwhile.

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