Monday, September 23, 2002

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad DPE?

The Final Lesson - September 19, 2002

With the Cessna 150's cowling pressed to the horizon, we climbed skyward for yet another lesson. It was almost exactly one year after my first solo. As a pre-solo student, I had routinely over-controlled N9327U into nauseating fits of pilot-induced oscillation. But now I wore the airplane like an old, comfy shoe and could make it do my bidding with a smooth familiarity that I never imagined possible a year before. I keyed the microphone and broadcast my intended departure to the south while my hands and feet turned the airplane in the desired direction.

While leveling off at 3000 feet for some maneuvering practice, my instructor, Bill, casually noted, "there's a checkride appointment available on Monday." Then he raised an eyebrow. "Want it?"

This was all Kent's doing, of course. Nicknamed "Lima Bravo" by Dave (for reasons that do not bear repeating in this narrative), Kent started flight training before I did. Not surprisingly, he met each milestone ahead of me - the first solo, cross-country flights, you name it. I had been playing a languid game of catch-up, despite the efforts of mutual friends (ok, just Dave) to make a competition out of it. Consistent with past performance, Kent beat me to the checkride - endgame for the private pilot trainee. Unfortunately, his moment of truth was delayed by rotten weather. Bill had reserved Monday, September 23, 2002 as a rain date without knowing that Kent would be out west on vacation. And so the slot became available to me.

I pounced on the opportunity immediately. "Good," Bill said. Then he grinned, noting that it was time for me to finally "one-up" Kent. That evening, we ran through the repertoire of private pilot maneuvers as a check on my readiness. My ability to hold altitude during turns around a point was still not quite spot on, but everything else looked good. I promised to practice turns around a point on my own (and did) in what little time remained before Monday.


Overzealous Imagination - September 23, 2002

Sunday night, I lay in bed, my mind whirling with all things aviation. Beyond the expected anxiety, I also worried about the designated pilot examiner, Cliff.  Because he operated out of the airport in Elkhart Indiana, I had never met Cliff and knew very little about him beyond rumors floating around my home airport in Three Rivers, Michigan.  The stories painted a picture of a crotchety old curmudgeon who would pounce on the slightest mistake, sending the aspiring private pilot back to his or her instructor for more work. Images of airplanes and demonic examiners danced through my mind in a waking dream that never yielded real sleep.

Nevertheless, 8:00 am Monday morning found me at Three Rivers and running on a lean mixture of adrenalin and oatmeal. Bill checked-over my flight planning (Cliff had requested a flight planning exercise from Elkhart, IN to Saginaw, MI), gave me a pep-talk, then departed on a cross-country flight to Tawas. Outside, I could see that someone was cleaning the windshield on my steed, N9327U. I was quite surprised when I realized that the industrious line boy was actually John Conrad, the owner of the FBO. From my early days as a student to the purchase of my first airplane, John always took good care of me. John's simple act of cleaning the windshield that morning was more meaningful than any verbal "good luck" would have been.

At 9:00 am, I folded myself into the familiar cockpit of 27 Uniform. Ten minutes later, the wheels separated from runway 23 and the Cessna climbed eagerly into the cold morning air.
The flight to Elkhart was a brief one, but my level of trepidation rose as I neared the airport. Throughout my training, I was uncomfortable communicating with air traffic control.  Elkhart was a simple class D airport, but my previous encounter there had been with a controller whose rapid-fire delivery suggested delusions of working the tower at O'Hare. This time, my interactions with the tower were flawless and I was soon shutting the engine down in front of the Indiana Flight Center. I was 30 minutes early for my appointment.

As I waited in the cozy pilot lounge, I began to stew over meeting Cliff. Before long, he appeared and invited me to a classroom that we would occupy for the rest of the morning. 

We began with the oral part of the exam. During the course of our discussion, I learned that Cliff had 65 years of flight experience, starting at the age of 13. He was surprisingly patient as my nervousness interfered with my ability to provide answers to his questions. He also shared a lot of knowledge that was beyond the scope of our discussion, such as an in-depth explanation of how wet-bulb dewpoints were measured. Digressions aside, the three and a half hours of questioning were more grueling than my doctoral dissertation defense three years earlier. 

Over the course of the exam, Cliff's demeanor finally put me at ease. Contrary to my overzealous imagination, he was no ogre. Unfortunately, relaxing meant that I lost the adrenalin edge that had so handily compensated for my lack of sleep. At the conclusion of the oral exam, it was 1:00 (Michigan time) and I was more relaxed, but also extraordinarily tired and hungry. And it was time to fly. Looking out the window, I could see puffs of cumulus clouds hovering over the airport, marking thermal activity that had begun in earnest under the midday sun.  It was going to be a bumpy ride.

Fortunately, I had the foresight to throw some peanut butter and crackers into my flight bag that morning. While Cliff took a smoking break, I quickly devoured all the edibles in my flight bag. I was still hungry, but at least the snack helped to keep my blood sugar levels up.


Saddle Up

With his diminutive size, Cliff is one of the few people I have ever met who could sit with me in a fully fueled Cessna 150 without any concerns for exceeding the airplane's 1600 lbs gross weight limit. As he settled into his seat, he coughed with the gut-wrenching rattle of a lifetime smoker.  Please don't die on me, I thought. It was a terrible thing to think, but he looked dreadfully old and frail.

Once 27 Uniform's little Continental was humming a pleasant idle on the ramp, I pulled a 2002 Michigan Airport Directory from my flight bag. The directory is published yearly by the state of Michigan and contains highly detailed airport diagrams along with AFD-type information for every airport in the state plus nearby facilities in bordering states. I tuned to the Elkhart tower frequency and set the book on my lap.

"What's this?" Cliff said, snatching the book. Inwardly, I groaned. I should have used an AFD - an official FAA document - but had forgotten to buy a current copy before the checkride. Looking mildly annoyed, Cliff flipped through the book.

"Oh, it's one of those cheater books."

He flipped a few more pages. "Actually, this is really nice - but it's wrong. It doesn't list the Elkhart ground frequency. Where might you find that?"

As I uttered "AFD" into the intercom, Cliff nodded emphatically and wrote the ground control frequency for Elkhart into my book and motioned for me to continue.

My negotiations with the ground and tower controllers (ok, they were the same guy) proceeded without incident and we were soon airborne and pointed toward Saginaw. After the first nine miles of my planned cross-country flight, Cliff pointed at a nearby town and asked me to identify it from the sectional chart. When I did, he said, "great! What's our groundspeed?"

At that, I checked my watch and set to work on an aluminum E6B flight computer. The E6B had been a present from a former neighbor who had abandoned flight training when his children were born. Cliff's face lit up at the sight of the circular slide rule. "Ah ha, a whiz-wheel! Thank you for not using one of those digital calculators!"  Score one for me.


The Aeronautical Titan

"Let me show you something," Cliff said. I was delighted that Cliff was trying to teach me something during the checkride, but I cannot honestly remember the demonstration or the point he was trying to make. What stayed with me, however, was the way 27 Uniform responded to his skillful touch. As I watched him fly, he radiated passion and skill tempered with a lifetime of experience.  From that moment on, Cliff seemed neither old nor frail to me.  An aeronautical titan occupied the right seat of my rental Cessna.

Next came a battery of maneuvers - steep turns, stalls, and turns around a point. At his request for turns around a point, my stomach tightened a bit as this had always been my weakest maneuver. After descending to 1000' AGL, I chose an intersection of two roads as my point and made a downwind approach. Abeam the point, I rolled the Cessna into a 45° bank. Despite thermals popping up under the afternoon sun, I handily completed two turns around the point within a tight altitude box that was well within the test standards. It was my best execution of the maneuver to date and probably my best ever.

Back at 3000', Cliff pulled the throttle out. "Dead engine," he proclaimed. I established best glide speed and looked around the surrounding cornfields, noting one long enough for landing. As I set-up for landing, Cliff commented, "that one's no good, you'll be landing with a crosswind."
Instead of searching further, I argued back. "If I land into the wind, I'll be going across the corn rows and risk flipping over. I would rather land with the furrows, cross-wind or otherwise." Cliff did not like my answer.

"In a soft field, you'll probably flip over anyway. That other field over there is a better choice," he said.

"I'm too low to reach that field. We're going to use this one." I set up to land in the field and, a few hundred feet above the ground, Cliff restored full throttle. "Ok - let's go back to the airport."


Cleared for the Option

Back at Elkhart, we were promptly cleared for the option by the tower. "Cleared for the option" means that we can use our discretion to do a full stop landing, abort the landing ("go around"), or do a touch-and-go.

 The wheels of the main gear had just started rolling when Cliff looked at me pointedly and said, "go".

Go? Go where? We continued to roll along, nose high.

"GO, GO!" Cliff said. Then it clicked. He wanted me to go around. Oh! Flaps up, carburetor heat off, full throttle. The Cessna leapt back into the air. Cliff had wanted me to abort the landing at the most difficult phase - right when the wheels started rolling. I did not respond as quickly as he wanted me to, but my brain refused to process "go" as being the same as "go around".

The next circuit resulted in a standard landing. After that, Cliff requested a simulated soft-field take-off, then added, "but I will control the throttle." We taxied back to the beginning of the runway. While taxiing, I added 10° of flaps and, without stopping, turned the Cessna around for take-off. Cliff opened the throttle partially, producing an anemic amount of thrust.

"Soft fields cause drag on your tires," he explained. "When you get that nosewheel off the ground, I'll give you more power."

The airplane slowly picked up speed and, as the elevator became effective I pulled the nose up.  This action was immediately rewarded with additional -- but not full -- power from Cliff.  Our speed began to increase at a more reasonable rate and I finally got the airplane into the air, leveling off in ground effect.  Cliff immediately granted full throttle. It struck me as a clever way to simulate soft field performance on 6500 feet of paved runway.

Once in the air, Cliff asked me if I had ever done a no-flap landing. Sheepishly, I responded that I had not. "Well, you're going to do one today. What are you going to do differently?"
"I'll use a slip on final," I said.

He nodded. "That'll work." I turned downwind and was cleared for the option by the tower. Cliff cleared his throat. "Ok, actually, I'm not going to make you do a no-flap landing because it's not part of the testing requirements. But you should try them sometime soon on your own. Let's do a precision landing." He pointed to the 1000' foot markers on the runway below. "Land within 400 feet of the beginning of those marks."

This was something else that I had never tried to do. I was good at short field landings in the Cessna, but was used to aiming for the end of the runway. Somewhat discombobulated, I brought 27 Uniform into ground effect over the runway numbers and added power to keep us floating about a foot off the ground. Upon reaching the 1000' markers, I pulled the power and flared, easily planting the wheels in the predetermined zone. "Good enough," Cliff commented.

As we rolled-out, my blood sugar hit rock bottom. I really needed some food and wondered how much longer the exam would continue. As if reading my mind, Cliff asked me if I could make the next taxiway turnoff. As we departed the runway, he simply looked at me and said, "ok. You pass."

Cliff later explained that my performance on the exam was not perfect. He did not like my choice of landing site for the simulated engine out.  But ultimately, he felt I was a safe pilot and that was his primary concern.  He signed my temporary certificate and noted that it was a "license to learn" as he handed it to me. It was the only cliché I heard from him all day and his point was well-taken.

Bill, Two Seven Uniform, and a newly minted private pilot.  Photo by John Conrad.
 Ready For My Close Up

At 3:30 that afternoon, I re-entered the traffic pattern at Three Rivers as a certified private pilot. As I announced my entry into the pattern, Bill's voice crackled in my headset, "I'm with a student about ten miles west of the airport. Don't go anywhere until I get back."

Bill and his student landed five minutes behind me in N8082F. I recounted the day's adventure with Bill. Moments later, John Conrad appeared with a digital camera and photographed Bill and I posing with 27 Uniform. When the congratulations were over, I made a beeline for food.

Epilogue

The next time I spoke with Bill, he commented that he met Cliff personally for the first time a few days after my checkride.  According to Bill, Cliff made several nice comments about my piloting abilities.  In my short time with Cliff, I developed a lot of respect for his knowledge and skill and, as a result, I still hold his comments to Bill as some of the most meaningful compliments I have ever received.

A week later, Kent returned from his vacation. After describing his adventures out west, he asked what was new with me. "I passed my checkride a week ago," I said nonchalantly. Kent was shocked, and while this would have been an ideal time to rub-it in, I resisted the temptation.

But I did tease him once.

Shortly after my checkride, a group of my colleagues gathered to watch a video from a coworker's Tiger cruise on the USS John F Kennedy. The carrier was sailing from one port to another and our friend's brother-in-law was an officer on board. Tiger cruises are meant to generate positive publicity for the Navy and essentially turn into floating air shows. As we watched camcorder video of F-18s doing touch and goes on the deck, Dave opined, "big deal. Kent could do that in a Cessna. Right, Chris? Don't you think Kent could do that?"

"Sure," I said, "but I think he would need a logbook endorsement from his instructor before trying anything like that." Fortunately, Kent found the remark so funny that he told Bill about it during his final lesson.

Kent passed his checkride about a month after I did. I made sure that he showed-up in Elkhart with a current AFD rather than a "cheater book". More importantly, I dispelled the myth of Cliff being a crotchety monster. I hope this meant Kent was better rested for his checkride than I was.

Saturday, July 20, 2002

Mishaps at Muskegon: Student Solo Cross Country Flight

"Oh, they're crashing to the earth right in front of our eyes! One just went through the windshield of a parked car! This is terrible! Everyone's running around pushing each other. Oh my goodness! Oh, the humanity! People are running about. The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement!"

- Les Nessman, "Turkeys Away" episode of WKRP in Cincinnati (1978)

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
20 Jul 2002N9327UHAI (Three Rivers, MI) - MKG (Muskegon, MI) - 6D6 (Greenville, MI) - HAI2.776.4

For all student pilots, the solo cross-country flight is a critical rite of passage. As a pre-solo student, the very thought of that milestone looming in the distance would invoke a sense of dread in the deepest pit of my stomach. It wasn't the flying that worried me. That probably comes as a surprise to a lot of non-pilots, many of whom seem concerned about falling out of the sky like one of those turkeys from WKRP in Cincinnati (for the record, airplanes glide far better than turkeys). But that was never one of my concerns.

My biggest fear was getting lost in the air.

With training on "lost procedures" using VOR navigation, the dread began to ease. My comfort level grew further during solo flight practice when I would leave the comfortable vicinity of the Three Rivers airport and make the 25 nautical mile trip to Dowagiac airport and back (successfully locating the airports each time).

The Route

My long solo cross country flight was scheduled for the morning of July 20, 2002. Bill, my instructor, was waiting for me when I arrived at the airport. Together, we reviewed my flight plan. I had planned to fly from Three Rivers (HAI) to the Pullman VOR. Once there, I would track northward along the Lake Michigan shoreline to Muskegon (MKG). Muskegon is officially an FAA Class D airport, but it is also a TRSA holdover from the previous airspace classification system and has a radar approach control. After a full-stop landing at Muskegon, I was to depart eastward to the Greenville airport (6D6) for another full-stop landing. Greenville is a Class E airport in a small town northeast of Grand Rapids. Upon departure from Greenville, I was to fly southwest past Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo for a return to Three Rivers. The entire round-robin flight was 194 nautical miles.

Instrument panel of N9327U

Tracking to Pullman VOR

I launched from Three Rivers in five mile visibility on account of the haze so typical of Midwestern summers. Upon reaching 3000 feet, I trimmed 27U for cruise and began to track toward the Pullman VOR. As I left Three Rivers behind, I felt a brief pang of anxiety about losing my way, but the centered VOR needle was very reassuring.

The 39 nautical mile flight to Pullman provided ample time to fall into a comfortable routine of scanning for traffic and monitoring my instruments. As I looked out of 27U's cloudy Plexiglas windows, I began to wish that I had better visibility. Though conditions were legal VFR, distant ground reference points were quite difficult to see in the haze.

Before long, the VOR needle began to wobble in an over-sensitive manner and the TO/FROM indicator smartly clicked over as I passed over the radio beacon at Pullman. A mere 4 nautical miles away, the Lake Michigan shoreline was in plain sight and I turned the Cessna northward to follow it.

Radio Gaffes at Muskegon

My plan was to contact Muskegon approach upon passing over the large stacks at Port Sheldon that lie just south of Muskegon's outer control area. On a clear day, the massive stacks can be seen from over South Haven, nearly 35 miles away. But I never saw them that day. Noting the time, and that I should have reached them already, I began to worry.

What if I already encroached on Muskegon's airspace? What if I'm lost?

Frankly, it's hard to get lost along the shoreline. But I did not know how far north I had traveled since passing my previous visual waypoint. I listened to Muskegon's ATIS (Kilo was current), tuned to the approach frequency that serviced arrivals from the south, and let fly with my uncertain student pilot's voice.

"Muskegon approach, Cessna 9327 Uniform is south of the field, inbound for landing with Kilo." I omitted the customary distance information because I had no idea.

An approach controller responded with a squawk code that I dialed into the transponder.

Moments later, she called back, "27 Uniform, radar contact 12 miles south of Muskegon, expect right downwind runway 14, contact tower on 126.25."

At this, I breathed a sigh of relief that I had not traveled so far north as to stumble into Muskegon's airspace without permission. I switched on the landing light and checked-in with the control tower. But as I peered ahead in the haze, I became worried again.

Where was the airport?

On subsequent trips to Muskegon, I discovered that the airport is quite difficult to see from the south over the lakeshore because none of the runways are oriented in that direction. Instead, it is easier to recognize the shape of the clearing around the airport rather than the airport itself. But I lacked that understanding in 2002 and was looking for invisible runways. As I continued to peer forward, the tower called, "27 Uniform, clear to land, 14."

"Clear to land, 14. 27 Uniform," I acknowledged mechanically. Where's the airport? Then, off to my right, I saw a runway. And I was WAY above pattern altitude.

Oh no! It's right there! I'm too high!

I pulled the power and began a descent. Then, I looked at the airport again. It was a small airport with only two runways. Chagrined, I added power and leveled off again. I was over the Grand Haven airport (3GM), eight miles south of Muskegon. It must have been a slow morning at Muskegon if they were clearing me to land from so far away.

Finally, my destination materialized out of the haze and I dutifully entered a right downwind leg for runway 14. Turning final yielded an interesting perspective because the approach to runway 14 is over a body of water. I was accustomed to gliding over cornfields on my approaches to land. Seeing water in place of farmland definitely made for an interesting change.

The landing was a good one - a soft, well-controlled, full-stall landing. As I rolled along runway 14, I had a moment to bask in satisfaction over the fine landing I had just made; one that surely impressed the folks up in the tower. Then the tower called back, "27 Uniform, turn right taxiway Alpha." I consulted the taxiway diagram in my lap before acknowledging, then turned onto the appropriate taxiway.

The Muskegon airport, photographed November 6, 2004

"27 Uniform, say parking."

Parking??!

"Um…negative on parking…um…27 Uniform would like to depart for...um...Greenville."

Oh, that sounded professional.

The tower was very contrite. "Sorry about that 27 Uniform, I assumed you wanted to park somewhere. Are you a student pilot?"

Hmm…my fine radio work must have tipped him off.

I responded that I was and that I was on a solo cross country. The tower controller's tone of voice immediately became one of encouragement.

"Ok, keep going straight, then turn right onto taxiway Charlie. Charlie is the second taxiway on your right. Do you see it?"

As soon as I turned onto Charlie, he called again. "27 Uniform, go ahead and taxi down runway 36. That will take you back up to the departure end of 14. Let me know when you're all set to go." I completed the taxi and called the controller back. "27 Uniform holding short, runway 14."

"27 Uniform, winds are 150 at 5, altimeter is 30.02, squawk 4965, departure frequency will be 118.2."

This was a reasonably standard message to hear from ground control at a towered airport. The problem was that, although I had done landing practice at towered airports, I had never really dealt with ground control before. This was information overload to my inexperienced ear. And I certainly did not expect a change in transponder code. My previous code must have been dropped from the system because the tower thought I wanted to park. I should have asked him to repeat himself, but I thought that I had it all.

"27 Uniform cleared to depart runway 14 when ready," said the tower.

I answered that I was ready, took the runway, and added throttle to bring the Cessna's little Continental "roaring" to life. Moments after breaking ground, the tower controller's voice rang jovially in my headset, "27 Uniform, contact departure and have a great flight."

At this point, all the mistakes had already been made, it was just a matter of time before I discovered them. I hit the flip-flop on the radio to toggle to the departure frequency and called, "Muskegon departure, 27 Uniform."

There was a long pause and then a stern voice called back, "27 Uniform, switch to my frequency, 118.2." Oops. Muskegon has two departure frequencies and I had just switched back to the one I had used earlier. 118.2 was for departures on the other side of the airport. I dialed in the new frequency and checked-in again.

My transmission was followed by another terse message from the controller. "27 Uniform, is your transponder on?" I checked the transponder and verified that it was, in fact, set to report altitude. After another pause, the controller came back with a voice dripping with exasperation, "27 Uniform, squawk 4965." Embarrassed, I remembered that a change in transponder code had been a part of the information received from the tower before departure, but I had forgotten to reset it. I quickly dialed-in the proper code. "27 Uniform, radar contact 2 miles east of Muskegon. Maintain 3000 feet and fly heading 080." I acknowledged and dutifully turned on heading hoping that my diligence might ease the approach controller's irritation with me.

After flying a few miles, Muskegon called one last time. "27 Uniform, you are leaving my airspace. Squawk VFR, frequency change approved." Her clipped tone made it clear that she was glad to be done with the errant student pilot. Honestly, I couldn't blame her. I would have been kicking myself had the cabin in 27U been large enough to allow it. In hindsight, I am surprised that the tower controller cleared me to depart without a successful readback of my airspace clearance, transponder code, and departure frequency, but I still bear responsibility for my mistakes.

Limping away from Muskegon with my proverbial tail between my legs, I was dismayed to find that the haze had not yet burned-off. I was now flying toward the morning sun, which accentuated the effects of the haze. Despite crummy forward visibility, the ATIS broadcast at nearby Grand Rapids still reported five miles.

Greenville in the Haze

I radioed Grand Rapids (GRR) approach for VFR flight following to Greenville. This controller's demeanor was quite a change from the one in Muskegon. Though working a comparatively busy section of air, he spoke slowly with the sort of "don't rush me" dignity that only comes with age and experience. After providing my tailnumber and type, I dialed in my new squawk code and settled in to looking for my destination airport.

Though ground details were sharp through the side windows, the combined effects of the sun and haze in the windscreen made it hard to locate landmarks out front. I had planned to use the Sparta airport (8D4) as a visual reference point because it was nearly halfway between Muskegon and Grand Rapids. But I never saw it in the haze. Instead, I put my dead-reckoning skills to work in order to keep track of where I should be relative to Greenville. As I reached a point where my calculations implied close proximity to the still invisible airport, Grand Rapids called.

"27 Uniform, you're about five miles west of Greenville. Do you have the airport yet?"

"Negative, 27 Uniform does not have the airport."

"No problem, stick with me until you do."

I searched the ground beyond the Cessna's nose and, suddenly, a long, shiny line appeared on the ground pointed right at me. It was the east/west runway at Greenville, reflecting the morning sunlight.

I reported the airport in sight and obtained permission to change frequencies. The landing on runway 28 at Greenville occurred without incident. I rolled-out, followed the taxiway back to the head of the runway and departed without much ado.

Under Pressure - The Journey Back to Three Rivers

Once aloft, I set myself on course and called Grand Rapids for flight following back to Three Rivers. With a sectional chart in my lap, I periodically compared ground reference points on either side of my course line to what I saw out the window and noted that I was right on course. I was due east of Grand Rapids when I saw the right-fuel tank indicator drop from nearly half a tank to empty. The needle sort of bounced there, around "empty", as if to say, "Hey! Look at me!". But I knew the airplane's fuel burn, I knew that the gauges are notoriously unreliable, and I knew that I had plenty of fuel on board (i.e., I did not see fuel flinging itself out of the right wing). The left fuel gauge was right where it should have been. By all indications, the right fuel gauge was merely glitchy.

Near the Hastings airport (9D9) I gradually became aware of a new problem and began to wonder if maybe I should have taken a bathroom break at Greenville. But, for now, the discomfort was mild and I continued my flight home.

Downtown Kalamazoo, photographed Oct 9, 2003.

Near Gun Lake, Grand Rapids handed me off to Kalamazoo (AZO) approach for continued advisories. I was soon seeing the familiar cityscape of downtown Kalamazoo, with Pharmacia's Building 300 coming into view first as a particularly distinctive feature of the skyline. One of the things that attracted me to aviation in the first place is the delight I always take in seeing familiar sights from new perspectives. This was my first opportunity to really take-in the sights around Kalamazoo while flying in cruise.

Unfortunately, the pressure in my bladder had grown more insistent. I cannot overstate the extent to which that pressure ruined the view. And as it built further, crazy ideas began to run through my head.

Hmmm…maybe I can get that window open…

Perhaps I had become overly sensitive at that point, but it was now late morning and the increasing thermal activity was making for a bumpy ride. With each bump, the seatbelt seemed to tighten around me, cruelly. It was as though 27U had developed a malevolent streak and was jostling me on purpose; revenge for embarrassing her at Muskegon.

Mercifully, the Three Rivers airport finally appeared out of the now dissipating haze. The landing at Three Rivers was a good one, though the taxi in to the ramp was a bit more expedient than the usual "brisk walk" pace.

Lessons Learned

I often cringe when I reflect back on my performance on that cross-country because I made several dumb mistakes. However, I did accomplish the mission (if inelegantly). I also learned several valuable things that I still consciously apply to my flying.

First, I completed the flight with a much better understanding of the air traffic control system than I had going into it (not to mention a realization that I needed to learn more). I have heard many arguments, both ways, on the merits of training at towered versus non-towered fields. In my case, I was very comfortable with the non-towered environment where I had to make my own decisions. But talking with ATC made me nervous. Once I became an aircraft owner, I made a point of flying into towered airports to increase my comfort level. On nice days when I volunteered at the Air Zoo giving tours, I would fly to the museum on the field at Kalamazoo just to improve my proficiency with ATC. The great thing about Kalamazoo is that, while a relatively "small" airport, it operates like a big airport (i.e., separate frequencies for approach, tower, ground, and clearance delivery). During the first six months of airplane ownership, I even made several flights into Muskegon without any incidents. I like to think that those successful trips redeemed the mistakes I made that day as a student.

Second, no matter what the legal visibility minimums are, I will not fly in less than five miles visibility. Sure, I got to where I was going that day in the haze, but it was not fun. It was a lesson that Bill wanted me to learn, and I learned it well.

Third, and most importantly, I never, ever leave the ground without taking a bathroom break first. Whether I need it or not. I imagine that it's a mistake most pilots only make once. Evidently, that day was my turn.