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My First Solo Cross Country Flight


In 1960 the regulations for student pilots were very loose by today's standards.  For example once your student pilot license was endorsed by your instructor for solo cross-country flight, you could conduct solo cross-country flights, all over the USA, without any restrictions or instructor involvement, until your student pilot's license lapsed (2 years).  This allowed individuals to purchase high performance airplanes and operate all over, with inadequate experience, training, knowledge, and understanding, with a high probability of killing themselves.


My instructor, Bill, said next we would do a cross-country training flight.  The flight would be from Whiteman to Bakersfield, to Santa Barbara, and back.  On this flight I was to learn navigation and tower communications.  Also he recommended that we take a new Cessna 150 since it had radio communications and navigation equipment.  He said that I would find it very easy to fly.  He sent me home to plan out the trip, drawing course lines on the aeronautical chart, marking checkpoints, and preparing a flight log.


I hit the books all week, studying navigation.  I planned out the trip, as best as I could, with my limited experience and knowledge.  I bought a pilot's handbook on the Cessna 150 and studied it thoroughly.  I got a flight computer (which is a circular slide-rule) and worked away at learning how to use it.


I did not attend any kind of aviation ground school.  In fact I never have.  Through private, commercial, instrument rating, and flight instructor licenses, I just self-studied.


Saturday finally came.  I showed up at Whiteman Airport at the appointed time, early afternoon.  This lesson proceeded slowly.  First I had to learn about this all aluminum airplane, and all its controls and instruments.  That took some time.  How strange it felt sitting in this Cessna 150 where the seating was side-by-side.  I had never worked with aviation radios, and never seen neat devices like the attitude and directional gyros, or been in an airplane that had wing flaps.  Bill took some time to explain these devices to me.  But not much time.


I could not believe how easy it was to taxi that nose wheel type airplane.  It was like driving a car.  It went where pointed.  This was not my experience in the tail dragger Aeronca Champ I had grown to love.  After that I always felted that taildraggers were real airplanes.  The nose wheel airplane was just too easy to land and takeoff.  They were for airplane drivers not real pilots.


So in one trip I was to learn a new airplane, radio communications and navigation, approaching strange airports, tower communications, aeronautical chart reading, identification of landmarks, etc.  I was soon on overload.


The takeoff was easy.  We headed out Newhall Pass and then took up a heading that would follow my charted course line.  The ground was going by about 35% faster than I was used to.  My planned checkpoints were way too close together, 5 to 10 miles apart.  These went by so fast, that I had no time to do any calculations.  Another lesson learned by error.  The trip to Bakersfield seemed to go by in a flash.  We are about 15 miles out from Meadows Field when Bill says he is going to call the Tower for landing instructions.  He picks up the microphone and mumbles something.  I don't have a clue what he said.  The Tower answers and I don't understand a word they say.  We came straight in to runway 30R and I landed the Cessna 150 with some coaching from Bill.  Bill calls Ground Control and gets taxi instructions.  I did not understand any of it.


We had a hamburger at the airport café, while Bill re-did my plan for the next segment of our trip.  We were running out of time.  Off we went toward Santa Barbara.  Once again Bill did all the radio communications and then interpreted for me.  He shows me how to fly using the VOR system.  We get near Santa Barbara and the sun is going below the horizon.  Bill says it is getting too late and we will not have time to land at Santa Barbara.  We just fly over the Santa Barbara Airport at about 5500 feet, and then head for Whiteman.


Bill is worried.  We are late.  The flying service management is going to be upset at him for being so late.  He just gives me headings to fly.  He is not instructing.  It is a race to get home.  We get to Whiteman.  It is pitch-black on the ground.  Whiteman has no airport lighting.  We circle over where Bill says the airport is.  Down we go into the darkness.  The beam of the landing light illuminates the strip.  Bill lands the plane.


The management at the flying service is yelling at Bill while he fills out the back of my student license and log book.  I am approved for cross country flight.  I am approved to fly a Cessna 150.  I go home, very tired.  As usual, I have no one to share my flying experiences with, or to learn from.  I just relive it all, in my head, ala Walter Mitty, over and over again.  It is an escape from reality.


Well this is amazing.  I'm approved to fly this airplane in which I have only made one landing.  I am approved to fly, solo (by myself) from anywhere to anywhere in the USA.  What a great country we live in!


Well it took a few weeks to recover from the dollar cost of that 3-hour flight instruction trip.  I built up some more money for flying.  I call the flying service to schedule some more time with Bill.  "Bill?  Bill doesn't work here anymore.  He got a job flying DC3s in the Belgian Congo."  "Oh…Ok." I hung up.


I have the endorsement for solo cross-country flight.  Might as well use it.  This will be fun!  I call the flying service again to schedule the Cessna 150 for half of the next Saturday.  They ask me nothing about what I am going to do or where I am going to go.


Where shall I go?  Somewhere that has no control tower!  I don't understand aviation communications.  I don't want to talk to anyone on the airplane's radio.


So the mission for the day was Lake Elsinor Airport.  I had read in a flying magazine that there was a nice restaurant there.  I went into the office at Hank Coffin's Flying Service and asked for the keys to the Cessna 150.  The keys were handed to me without question.  No one asked where I was going.  No one asked if I had filed a flight plan.  I didn't know how to file a flight plan!


It was a hazy day in the San Fernando Valley.  At about 2500 feet msl I was above the haze.  At 5500 I leveled off.  I tracked southward to the LAX VOR.  On the south side of the Santa Monica Mountains, the ground below was covered with a very white dense cloud layer.  The Morse code emanating from the nav radio droned on and on at a 10-second interval    ._..  ._  _.._    How mystical the sights and sounds in this unreal world.  The whiteness down below reflecting the sun's brilliance back into my eyes.  The aeronautical chart on my lap a two dimensional representation of the three dimensional world outside the airplane.  It all made sense.  I was comfortable in this world.  I felt I belonged here.


Crossing over the LAX VOR, I turned southwest tracking to the Seal Beach (SLI) VOR.  At the SLI VOR I turned a little more to the east and tracked on a the radial that would take me over the Elsinor airfield.  I was still flying on top of the cloud layer.  That layer extended up to the base of the coastal mountains.  The Elsinor area and airfield I had never seen before, either in the air or on the ground.  The chart indicated that the airfield was dirt.  My text book on flying stated that the VOR system was accurate to within +/- 4 degrees.  The Elsinor Airfield was about 60 miles from SLI.  That meant if I kept the needle centered and could figure when I was 60 miles from SLI, I would be within +/- 4 miles of Elsinor Airfield.  That is if it was working properly.  Anyway, I could always turn around and go back the way I came.


I kept tracking that radial.  After crossing the coastal range, the signal became a little flaky, the needle wandering without any course changes by me.  I saw the lake, then the airfield.  Out in the distance another airplane seem to be headed that way.  I followed, descending toward pattern attitude.  This other plane took me into a downwind entry, for a landing to the southeast.  I gave the other plane plenty of room.  Let’s see how my second landing in this airplane turns out.


I totally mis-judged the approach.  I ended up with flaps all the way down, 10 feet above the ground, about 100 yards short of the runway threshold.  Praying, I flew at high power, in ground effect, all the way to the start of the runway.  Soon as I reduced the power, the main wheels were on the ground.  Thank you again Lord!  The runway was semi-soft sand.  Seeing a line of parked planes at the far end, I made them my destination.


As I got out of the airplane, a fellow pilot, a little older than me, walked up.  Instantly I had a new friend.  “Where you from?”  “I’m on a student cross-country.  I’m from Whiteman Ariport near Burbank.”  “Oh, do you want me to sign your log book?”  “Sign my logbook?  Why?”  “You’re supposed to have someone sign your logbook, wherever you land, or else your student cross-country flight doesn’t count.  Didn’t your instructor tell you that?”  “Ah…No my instructor didn’t mention it.”   I didn’t tell him I had no instructor.  We had lunch together.  He signed my log.  God is my co-pilot, just like Ernest Gann.  I also realized I was a member of the “brotherhood of pilots”.  Whenever I met a pilot, I would instantly have a friend.


The flight back, over new territory for me, was relaxed and fun.  I went north to Ontario, then west along the San Gabriel Mountains, north of the Rose Bowl, and along Foothill Blvd, to Hansen Dam, and into the pattern at my home airport.  I did it myself!  It was an adventure.  I lived to fly!