Solo for six+ hours

According to FAA regulations an applicant for a commercial pilot’s license (CPL) is required to fly a solo flight (only person in the aircraft) with a total of three landings and one leg of the trip must be to a destination exceeding 250 nautical miles away from your starting point (250 NM= 288 miles = 453 km).

This was actually the only flight I had to get done as soon as this new semester started. It was to be flown in one of our Cessna 172 aircraft with 165 horsepower, so it would take a bit longer than taking a high performance aircraft like the 206 or 182 with 245-285 continuous horsepower. However, the 172 doesn’t burn as much gas, so I was happy with that.

Washington state is often associated with the coastal lands with the Cascade mountains, Seattle, the Puget Sound, and the Olympic National Forest. It can be quite damp and rainy in those parts of the state with the Olympic peninsula being covered by a rain forest. However, as soon as you cross the Cascades going inland you will notice a sudden and rather drastic change in both climate and terrain.

Many of my classmates and me included were planning on flying out to the coast. That particular trip would easily yield the 250 required nautical miles and be a very scenic route past some of the west coast’s most iconic mountains such as Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood. It was also an intriguing thought to imagine how the vast body of water of the Pacific Ocean would look like as it emerges from a distance. However, as mentioned above, there are different weather patterns out on the coast on the other side of the mountains, so while planning on flying out there to cover at least 250 NM one is wise to plan for an alternate route in case the coast would be socked in with low clouds or fog.

The day I planned to fly the weather did not look very favorable to fly out to Astoria or Tillamook as I had planned. I took my alternate route to Redmond which for the most part would have been the same regardless of my choice of destination except that instead of crossing the Cascade mountain range I tracked south to Redmond, Oregon.

In large, the flight was very uneventful. This might sound like it was boring or disappointing, but in aviation terminology the term “uneventful” is generally a good thing. Numerous incident reports when pilots have encountered an in-flight emergency or urgency to land and the outcome is described as “uneventful” means that the plane and people involved made it out of the situation in good shape. For me, however, there were a few things that I had to encounter en-route.

The first thing that stood out as an oddity this trip was that my direct course from Spokane to Redmond would go straight through an airspace referred to as a “restricted area”. These areas of airspace are obviously invisible to physically see and you need to be aware of where they are and not fly through them without permission. The flight controllers I was in contact with sitting in Seattle watching me on their radar would ask me occasionally if I was aware of these restrictions. I was a bit confused sometimes when they asked, because they read to me the identification number of the specific airspace. Since there were a number of them clumped together, I had not memorized these numbers. So when they noticed I was confused when they read them to me they described their location and I could then say I was aware of where they were. Thank you Mr good guy air traffic controller making sure I’m not going into places where I’m not supposed to be.

The other thing that was different for this trip was that there were some airspace that were issued temporarily as restricted airspace. These “Temporary Flight Restrictions” can pop up anywhere where the FAA finds it fit and it is the pilot’s responsibility to know where they are and stay outside of them. Since it is the later part of the summer and the combination of some very hot temperatures and thunderstorms result in a lot of forest fires. The most effective way to fight fires in such big scale is to dump water and fire preventing substances over the fires from the air. To not be in the way of these water-bombings, it is not unusual that where there are fires there also is a TFR (temporary flight restriction). Since fires are discovered randomly, so does a TFR appear with no notice. To avoid flying into such airspace and potentially loose my license for doing so, I was periodically in radio contact with a flight service station to provide me information of closed off airspace. There were two TFR’s close to my route as I was approaching Redmond, but I made sure I had marked them out on my chart so that I would not penetrate any of them.

But it was a very pretty flight too. Growing up around some if the higherst peaks in the world I have a very deep longing to see mountains. During this trip I got to see some of the tallest ones in the Pacific North-West. I managed to snap a picture or two of them for you.

Landing in Redmond after 3 hours and 15 minutes with no break in flight (and no auto pilot on these small 172s) I ate my lunch, rested for a little bit, and had a fuel truck fill the aircraft with 100LL avgas for the trip home. I called flight service station from the ground before departure and they warned me about some building of potential thunderstorms in the area of Redmond. So, while paying close attention to the skies I started up and taxied out the aircraft to the runway. The tower cleared me to take off and off I went! I continued to watch the skies for potentially hazardous weather, but I saw none. The flight was rather uneventful all the way back to Spokane.

It was quite the feeling to have done such a long trip all in one day. Compared to airline pilots who do this every day, my little flight may not have been such a big deal, but it is always a bit special when you do it for the first time. I guess the idea of this sort of trip is to expose the student to the endurance and the continual concentration that is necessary to carry out a safe and successful flight. With not so sophisticated equipment such as radar or autopilot installed I had to keep scanning both instruments and the skies to make sure I was not flying into a potential hazard and that I was flying in the correct direction. When you fly solo you need to catch your own mistakes before they evolve into bigger issues.

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