Cross-country flight planning

Recently I planned out my first cross-country (i.e., >50 nautical miles) flight, from El Monte to Banning. The flight was done with my instructor along, but I was in charge of the planning. If this were a road trip in the car, here’s how it would have gone:

First, you consider weight and balance. You weigh each of the people going on the trip and use an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the car’s center of gravity (CG) based on each passenger’s weight and which seat they’re in, along with the weight of a full tank of gas and its position in the car and any luggage in the trunk. You look up the resulting CG in the car manual and find that the car is too tail-heavy, so Uncle Bert needs to sit up front instead of the back, and you decide to only to add 8 gallons when you get fuel instead of 12.

Next you decide on your course. You decide to take Interstate 10 west; pretty straightforward. But that’s only the beginning. You need to decide if 8 gallons is enough to get you there, so you specify the speed you plan to drive (70 mph) and your expected fuel burn (74.6 miles at 40 mpg = 1.9 gallons). Pretty good, except you need to include fuel to reach a viable alternate destination (more on that in a bit) and a 30-minute reserve (what if you get lost and end up driving in circles for a while?)… even though the total expected driving time is only an hour.

You don’t want to run into traffic coming the other direction, so you specify that you will drive in the right-hand set of lanes, and possibly exactly which lane you will use for each section of the route. The freeway is invisible, so you calculate the compass headings you’ll need to follow to stay on track, and you pick out visual confirmation markers about every 20 miles, such as the Covina Ikea, the Ontario airport, and Citrus Plaza in Redlands. You mark these on your roadmap along with how much time you expect it to take you to get to each one and how much gas you’ll burn before each one.

In case there is some reason that you cannot reach Banning, such as a road closure or major earthquake, you pick an alternate destination so that you won’t have to find it in the midst of “oh no!”. There aren’t many choices, since you are only allowed to park at about 30 different locations in the entire Los Angeles basin, but you settle on Redlands and confirm that you can get there within your 8-gallon total, and that they have gas available, should you need more for the return trip.

Now your plan needs to be matched against actual weather and road conditions. You request a weather briefing which informs you that the winds on the freeway are from 250 at 10 knots, so you tweak your timing and fuel burn estimates accordingly. This is southern California, so there isn’t a lot going on weather-wise, but you are still informed of “mountain obscuration” in the hills due to low-lying clouds and a basin-wide low-pressure area. Happily, there are no Temporary Driving Restrictions on your route, such as Obama visiting Ontario, in which case you would have had to select a different route and start over, or go through extra steps to get approval to drive through.

During the flight, you hold all of your flight plan details clipped to a kneeboard, and between glances at the road, speedometer, fuel gauge, map, and other traffic, you carefully note down your actual progress versus your planned progress. If it takes you significantly longer than expected to reach a waypoint, perhaps due to an unexpectedly strong headwind, you may consider diverting to your alternate destination.

You are also maintaining radio contact with SoCal controllers along the way, so you are listening with half an ear to the radio chatter in case your name comes up along with “Traffic at 2 o’clock, black sedan slowing to 50 mph” so you can avoid it and confirm, “Traffic in sight.” This is challenging since your car’s brakes don’t work on the freeway, so all you can do is speed up, turn, or let off the gas pedal and coast. The SoCal controllers keep tossing you along their bucket brigade, causing you to tune your radio to a new frequency with a new controller every 5-10 minutes. They may also suddenly instruct you to “Switch to lane 4″ or “Reduce speed to 65 mph”, with which you scramble to comply.

Simultaneously, you are constantly scanning for possible emergency stopping points. The engine could die. The timing belt could break. The oil could dry up, a tire could fall off, the engine could catch on fire! You need to be ready! As you’re driving, you note every off-ramp and wide shoulder that could accommodate your car in an emergency. You never know.

Because the freeway is invisible, it has effects on your car that you can’t anticipate, only react to. Invisible potholes and bumps jolt you down or up unexpectedly. The location of the freeway moves up and down with the current atmospheric pressure, so you periodically tweak your altimeter with an updated setting announced by the SoCal controllers so that you can find the road again.

There are no bathroom breaks.

(For longer flights, you would pre-plan a landing at an intermediate airport as part of your flight plan that would allow you to stretch your legs, use the restroom, and eat food, as needed.)

All that planning and effort gets you near your destination, a large parking lot. You approach on the diagonal from the northwest, calling out your intentions every minute or so in case anyone else is trying to park at the same time. You might think you would just see them, and you are vigilantly on the lookout, but at 70 mph on an invisible freeway, there’s no guarantee they’ll be where you expect. You make the final turn into the parking lot and then begin slowing to attempt to park. This is non-trivial, because you are trying to figure out how to align the invisible freeway with the very visible parking lot, at precisely the right speed and angle, and since the brakes don’t work, all you can do is fiddle with the gas pedal or pop the trunk to increase drag. You roll in to a nice stop and wipe the sweat off your forehead.

Then you turn the car around and do the same thing back again.

I’m happy to report that we did the flight from EMT to BNG and back just fine. It took about 40 minutes each way — slightly longer coming back because, indeed, the wind was from the west. We had plenty of fuel, burning about 10 gallons with tanks that hold 38. The CG was fine, the morning clouds burned off in time for us to leave, I was able to find the visual markers, and I talked to all the controllers, sometimes with some very welcome coaching.

Here’s my flight plan on the chart. It’s a little hard to see, but the course is KEMT -> PIRRO -> PDZ -> ACINS -> KBNG. It’s almost exactly 60 nm. It stays under the LAX Bravo airspace, and at 5500′ it is above the ONT airspace and skims the top of the RIV airspace — but since we were talking to SoCal, we were allowed in. On the way back, we were at 4500′ but again had flight following from SoCal so were allowed through RIV and ONT airspace. Fun!


Solo flying practice

On Tuesday, I got in N19760 and flew out to the practice area, all by myself. It was the first time I left the airport solo, and one can’t help but wonder in that moment: Will I come back again?

I took my handheld GPS unit with me so I could track my flight path. The airplane has a small GPS display, but I wanted to collect data.

After a warm-up circuit around the pattern, I headed northwest to the Santa Fe practice area, which is less than 10 miles from the El Monte airport. You can see my path here, including the initial loop (right pattern at EMT from runway 19) and then my repeated circles and turns in the practice area. While there, I stayed north of the 210 freeway and was bounded on the west by Burbank airport’s airspace and on the east by El Monte’s airspace. Not a huge space to practice in — rather like a large parking lot!

Flight to the practice area

You can also see my eventual return, descending across the 210 for a right base approach to El Monte. I made it!

The GPS also tracks groundspeed, which is rather interesting to contemplate, since while flying the plane I am focusing on airspeed instead. Here is a plot of my groundspeed as a function of time (click to enlarge):

Ground speeds

I annotated it with what I was doing at each time. One surprise is that my initial circuit around the pattern shows a top ground speed of about 100 mph. On downwind, I am holding the plane very precisely at 80 mph (airspeed). There was an 8-knot wind from the south, so that could add ~10 mph, but I’m not sure how it got to 100!

After I reached the practice area, I leveled out at 3700 feet. You can see in this plot where I was deliberately speeding up and slowing down (while maintaining altitude, which you can’t see here). I then did some slow flight (near a stall) both straight and with shallow turns; you can see that I was down around 50-60 mph. Then I did two practice stall recoveries, which are quite evident as deep dips in speed (down to almost 40 mph) followed by speeding back up as I recovered and returned to my original altitude. Finally, I did some steep turns (45-degree bank) while maintaining my speed and altitude.

Near the end, you can see my gradual slowing down as I returned to El Monte. The speed levels out at what looks like ~60 mph, which would be rather slow for final approach, except that by this time there was a 12-knot headwind. So I was keeping the plane at 75-down-to-70 mph as I made my final approach, which concluded with one of my most satisfying landings to date!

How to spin a plane

Spins are one of the bugaboos of flight training. Dangerous, lethal, do not go here! A spin happens from a stall in which the pilot allows one wing to drop, sending the plane into a spinning dive at the ground, as shown at right. (In an airshow, where pilots deliberately spin, they use smoke so you can see a trace of the path.) In a spin, the plane may descend at 500 feet *per second*. Inadvertent spins that happen close to the ground are almost always lethal, since you don’t have time to do anything to fix it.

In flight training, we are taught to actively avoid spins. We’re required to practice stalls and how to recover from them, and especially how to keep them from developing into a spin, but we are not allowed to practice spins themselves. We memorize the theoretical steps that would be used to recover from a spin, but we never get to do it. I feel uneasy knowing about a bad condition and not getting any practical experience. What if it happened and I froze up? Or couldn’t figure out how to execute those memorized theoretical steps? So, my instructor encouraged me to go to an aerobatic school and get exactly that experience. It’s a bit like taking your car out in the snowy parking lot and skidding around on purpose to feel that loss of control and learn how to regain it.

As a super awesome birthday gift, my boyfriend arranged for us to get a spin training lesson at CP Aviation (btw, I love their logo). We sat down for an hour of ground instruction, in which we reviewed the aerodynamics of stalls and spins, and then he walked us through what we would do in the air. We were flying a red and white Citabria, which was my first experience with a tailwheel plane.


It is covered in fabric, not metal! It has no flaps! And the controls are VERY different from those of the Cessna Skyhawk I usually fly. Instead of a yoke, there is a stick between your legs. The throttle is a slider in the wall of the cabin on your left. So’s the carb heat and the elevator trim. The instruments are minimal — you have airspeed, altitude, and a turn coordinator. There is no attitude indicator, no VSI (vertical speed indicator), no heading indicator, no compass. You sit in this plane in tandem: you in front and the instructor behind. This gives you an awesome feeling of flying alone with a disembodied guardian angel floating over your shoulder and giving you directions. It also means that the instructor cannot see the few instruments there are. My instructor judges airspeed by looking out at the wing angles. And he’s good! (He recommended using this cue in my Cessna flying as well.)


I loved flying this plane. It was so responsive to the slightest move on the stick or the rudders. It felt delicate but strong at the same time. I sometimes feel like I have to wrestle with the Skyhawk to get it to do what needs to be done, but I only had to nudge the Citabria.

We went up and first practiced Dutch rolls, which I already knew and liked; they are a chance to practice good rudder control as you roll the plane left, right, left, right, while keeping the nose at the same pointing. Then we did power-off stalls and recovery (also something I’m familiar with), and then something called a falling-leaf stall. This is when you go into a stall and don’t recover, then work the rudders to *prevent* a spin. So the plane is sinking downward and keeps wanting to yaw off to the left or right, and you dance on the rudder pedals to compensate. I guess the diagram at right is what the plane is supposed to be doing, but from inside the cockpit it instead felt like riding a bucking bronco. The nose would yaw left and right, but it also bobbed up and down in an oscillation at the same time (fortunately, the instructor had warned me about this first).

Finally we got to do the actual spins. Here you slow down (not quite to a stall) and then deliberately press full right (or left) rudder and then pull back on the stick. The plane yaws and banks off to the right and then dives at the ground. You get to watch the ground rotating around in front of your face while you count off rotations and then initiate the recovery. This was, oddly, not scary. I felt in control of the plane the whole time. My instructor emphasized “owning” the spin — you choose when it starts and when it ends. This is much better than feeling that you must react to some inexplicable thing the plane is doing. We did 1-turn (incipient) and 2-turn (fully developed, tighter, faster) spins. I felt like a rockstar in an airshow!

The recovery from a power-off spin is quite simple, and the main challenge is not getting distracted or disoriented by what is going on outside. To exit the spin, you just press full opposite rudder and gently let the stick move a little forward. (Emphasis on gently. The handbook for the Skyhawk advises “briskly pushing the elevator forward” but the Citabria only needs you to relax it a little. Doing too much gets you into a power dive.) Once the rotation stops, you’re still plummeting towards the ground, so you need to ease up out of it to get flying straight and level again. Practicing up high, this isn’t bad. If you ended up near the ground, it would be SO SO tempting to yank back on the stick, which you MUST NOT do, lest you stall yourself at high speed and impact the ground anyway. Of course, if you are low enough, then you will be out of options, which is also why (unintentional) spins have killed a lot of people.

We then flew back to the airport, and my instructor landed the plane since I have no tailwheel experience (the Skyhawk I fly is a “tricycle gear” plane with a nosewheel in front). He let me follow him on the controls, though, which was fun. He did a very short final approach, used a slip to lose altitude (which felt much smoother and natural than slips do in the Skyhawk!), and we were down.

CP Aviation offers a series of lessons on “emergency maneuver and aerobatics training.” We did a mixture of lessons 1 and 2. I’d love to go back for more!

First solo flight

On June 12, I made my first solo flight in an airplane.

We were at the El Monte airport. The wind was out of 230 at 5 knots, visibility 6 miles, with clouds overcast at 1900 feet above ground level. Mild conditions. I got ready for a regular lesson in my usual plane, N19760 (a Cessna 172), and with my instructor David in the right seat I began doing practice circuits around the airport. Take off, turn right, fly back, turn right again, and land. We did this 6 times, and then my instructor said, “You want to go do it on your own?”

I agreed, feeling a mixture of excitement and apprehension, and then he asked for permission for us to taxi over to the side and drop him off:

By this point, the winds had picked up to 7 knots, straight down the runway, and the clouds had lifted to 2300 feet. Good conditions.

So my instructor hopped out of the plane and turned on his handheld radio, and then I closed his door and taxied up to the runway all by myself and requested permission to take off.


The tower gave me permission and I started rolling down the runway, then took off and into the air.


Everything was pretty normal. In fact, it was surprisingly normal. It felt so very familiar — I was thinking, “I’ve done this more than a hundred times.” I was so focused that I barely noticed that David’s seat was empty. I also knew he was listening on the radio, so it felt like he virtually was along for the ride.

I was cleared to land behind another plane, so I verified that I could see that plane (which was nearly on the ground) and then began my descent.


Here I am ALMOST on the ground:


That landing went beautifully — so well that I felt comfortable going around again. On your first solo, you do at least one takeoff and landing, and up to three of them total.

The second landing was a little shaky. I started to drift to the left a bit, then had a minor balloon, then got the plane down on the runway. But I was still good to go again, and David waved encouragingly from the sidelines.

The winds had picked up to 11 knots, variable between 170 and 230 degrees. As long as they don’t get too far off of 190, it’s not an issue, but it does make for some little twitchy adjustments as you descend towards the runway.

The third landing was fine, although not stellar. I got clearance to taxi back to park the plane, and then, unexpectedly, the tower controller gave me her congratulations:

Here I am after getting out of the plane on only slightly shaky knees. I did it!


Thanks very much to David (who also took these pictures and recorded the audio) and the Caltech flying club and everyone else who’s been encouraging me in this process. I still have a lot of work to do before getting my license, but this feels like a big step!

Chino Airshow and spins

Earlier this month, I got to attend my first airshow. It was hosted by the Planes of Fame museum at the Chino airport. I got to see a lot of historical planes (mainly WWII era) as well as some aerobatics!

Here is a shot of multiple planes, centered on a Lockheed P-38J Lightning (WWII):

Lockheed P-38J Lightning

Next we were treated to some loops and dives by Rob Harrison, the “Tumbling Bear”:

Aerobatics - upside down

Aerobatics - loop

And later in the day we saw even more impressive aerobatics by Sean Tucker in a biplane. Here I captured the end of his 9-rotation spin and resulting dive (not yet recovered!):

Aerobatics - spin

I was thrilled to see a spin in person! Spins used to be a normal part of a pilot’s repertoire — at the very least, pilots learned how to recover from an accidental spin entry. But the FAA found that more student pilots (and instructors) were being killed doing spin training than were being killed by accidental spins. So today, pilot trainees are not allowed to do them, even to learn how to recover, and so they are surrounded by a thick aura of mystique and danger. See this fascinating article for more details: The Spin Debate. My instructor, however, encourages me to go sign up for an aerobatic lesson from a flight school that is certified to teach them. I’d love to do that after I manage my first solo flight!

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