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."


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

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.