We as commercial students in training are being introduced more and more to increasingly challenging tasks. A part of the curriculum this semester is to do some longer cross country flights to airports we have never landed before. This is exciting, challenging, fun and a little scary sometimes to do.
For this particular flight that took place last week, we students were paired up to fly together without an instructor to three destinations with a total flight time of at least 3.5 hours. I was paired up with my friend Josh. Since we both are interested in working with the organization MAF after graduation, we decided to see if we could make it down to the MAF headquarters in Nampa, Idaho. Here is how the trip went.
We started the trip with me in the pilot seat and Josh on my right. Even though we were encouraged to act as the pilot in command, where the pilot has the final authority in decision making, we were allowed to include our partner in some duties to relieve some of the work load. One of the tasks I had Josh help me with was to help me reach for the correct sectional aeronautical chart which we navigate by. The sectionals are roughly drawn so that each one of them cover the size of Washington state, so since we were heading into Oregon and Idaho to reach Nampa, I had a number of sectionals folded with fragments of our course drawn on them. For some reason I often prefer to use old school methods of doing things and there was no exception for navigation this time. Inconvenient as it can be with paper maps all over the place, you can be sure they never run out of battery.
We took off from Felt’s Field in Spokane at around 8 am. It was a beautiful day to fly. The winds were calm and it appeared that the sky was mostly clear of clouds over the airport. We flew the Cessna 172 “Skyhawk” model aircraft with 160 horsepower engine. It was a bit different from the 300 horsepower engine from the 206 that I had become more familiar with this semester, but mentally prepared that the Skyhawk would not climb as fast as high performance aircraft the takeoff and climb to cruising altitude went as expected.
We climbed up through the saddle between some hills south of Spokane and from a known location I navigated a direct course to Grangeville, Idaho. Soon after we cleared the first hills and the very familiar plains south of Spokane we spotted some clouds that we could not outclimb nor duck under and have enough safe clearance to the ground. We spotted a way through the towering columns of condensation that looked wide enough, deviated some from our course to turn round the first big white puff. We saw that there was a wide enough gap between it and the one behind it so that we could fly in between them. In order to stay within legal limits from clouds under the rules we are flying, it is important to never put yourself in a situation where you have no way out. As we were maneuvering in between the clouds, we had to be mindful not to take any chances of ending up in a cloud. It would not only be illegal, but very dangerous. They say that if a VFR (visual flight rules) rated pilot, who is not trained to fly with no visual references to the outside, ends up in clouds, statistics show that he will loose orientation and enter a spin resulting in violent impact to the ground within 10 minutes. As I made a couple maneuvering turns we came out in the clear where there were no clouds to be seen ahead of us up to our first destination.
It is always a bit interesting flying into an airstrip that you have never landed at before. Especially flying into one that does not have a control tower. In these cases there are certain patterns that you need to have studied prior to arrival that are laid out in certain documents. When you actually get there you need to make sure that you follow those procedures and also communicate your intentions and position on a common frequency for other aircraft in the area to listen to. Another challenge is to actually see the airstrip. Even though they can be a mile or longer, they can be strangely difficult to spot. This time, we could see the airport in good time to descend to it and there was no one else in the area, so there was really no problem landing at Grangeville.
A short while after landing, we were ready to take off again, this time to Joseph State, Oregon. The plan was to head west into Oregon and spot a certain river down in a canyon that split into two. From there I had plotted a specific course to get us straight to Joseph State. We flew over some rugged terrain that included parts of Hell’s Canyon that I hiked last spring (see blog post “Get out there while you can!” from May 7, 2016 to see what the area we flew over looked like). Again we started encountering clouds that were too low to duck under. Josh pointed out a cloud that had quite some precipitation falling from it, so we turned south to avoid that one. We quickly realized that the original plan to find the river split was not going to happen, so while I concentrated on flying the aircraft, Josh was mainly the person too look for landmarks that we could follow. We spotted a very distinguishable road that lead to a town a few miles south. From there, since we then knew our exact location, we tuned the GPS straight to Joseph State.
It was a strange and a bit fascinating getting close to Joseph State. First of all, we knew beforehand that this airport is at the very foot of some very high and steep mountains. We read up on airport advisories that there were potential hazards of heavy downdrafts from the mountains if winds came from the south. We were prepared for abandoning the idea of landing there if the winds posed any potential danger. We received reports coming in that the winds were coming from the north, so I made ready to land. Getting closer and starting the descent, I noticed that my altimeter showed that we were flying at around 6000 feet. Normally flying at this altitude we would still have 4000 feet to the ground. With Joseph State being at 5000 feet already, it was a weird sensation at first to be seemingly so close to the ground at that altitude.
Both me and Josh were really happy the winds favored a safe landing. Standing at the very foot of these magnificent mountains we gazed on an amazing view of snow covered slopes soaring thousands of feet higher into the skies.
The last leg I flew down to Nampa took us past some more mountainous terrain, and this time I navigated along a river for orientation and also some outs in case of an emergency landing that otherwise would be very hard to execute in the mountains. The river got intercepted by a highway that lead straight to out destination. For the first time during the trip we encountered some minor turbulence as we headed over some flat land that had been baking in the sun all day. Well on the ground we met up with a representative from MAF who took us out for lunch. Then it was time to fuel up and return home.
This time Josh had the controls, so I concentrated on keeping an eye out for traffic and landmarks that could tell us our exact location. The winds had picked up some from the otherwise extremely calm day. There was no need during this second half of the trip to navigate around clouds. They seemed to have burned off over the terrain we were now covering and we could fly pretty straight to the two destinations that Josh had picked out before returning to Felt’s Field. We flew over some more very pretty terrain with deep canyons surrounded by steep slopes and smaller mountains. Here and there we spotted some privately owned and maintained airstrips. We would not be able to land there without permission, but these are good to keep track of in case we needed to land for some reason and could not make it anywhere else.
The sun was starting to get closer to the western horizon as we landed at St. Maries, a beautiful area at the south tip of lake Coeur D’Alene. Josh did a great job at planning the approach to landing. Then we only had a small hop back to Spokane where we fueled up again before stowing the aircraft away for the night. It was a very good day of flying, with some new experiences made and the satisfaction of being able to fly somewhere quite far away.
Next on the list of flights is to learn to fly complex aircraft (aircraft with extendable flaps, variable pitch propeller and retractable landing gear) and a commercial qualification solo flight where at least one leg of the trip needs to be at least 250 nautical miles long. I will let you know more how these things go as we move on these next few weeks!