Lesson 55 – First Solo Cross Country

After weather, aircraft maintenance and scheduling delays, I finally flew my first solo cross country yesterday. I went from Waukegan to Janesville, Wisconsin and back. Only 53 miles each way, but a big step in my training. I ventured away from the familiar training area and navigated to a planned destination all by my self.

By the time I did my briefing with Sandy and preflighted the airplane, it was about 2:45. Sunset was 4:27 in this area so I didn’t have much time to spare. I taxied to a corner of the ramp, did my run-up and called ground for taxi to the runway. It took longer than normal for the controller to clear me to taxi because he was moving landing traffic down the taxiway I would be using. By the time I actually got airborne, it was after 3:00pm. I would have to make it a quick stop at Janesville. Tower cleared me for a frequency change shortly after takeoff and I opened my VFR flight plan with Kankakee radio.

I had planned to cruise at 4500 feet but clouds kept me down to 3300. That made my ground speed a little lower than I planned. Still, I crossed my check points no more than a couple minutes later than expected. My only problem came when I got to JVL. As seems usual for me, I didn’t see the airport until I was almost on top of it. I let the tower controller know that I didn’t have the runway in sight. He said he could see me and that I was on a good base for runway 32. That gave me the clue I needed and the runway popped into view like magic. I had low sun right in my eyes as I headed west and that didn’t help. Still, I should have seen the runway sooner.

My landing was uneventful, which is good, and I taxied to the terminal building to park. It was now about 3:45 and the terminal was closed so I had the parking area all to myself. I shut down, locked the plane and went inside a small vestibule that was unlocked. I called Flight Service to close my flight plan then called my wife to let her know I was running a little late and then Sandy to let her know that I was on the ground but would be heading back very soon and should be back before dark. I did a quick preflight and checked the fuel tanks then started up, swung around for my run-up and called ground for taxi clearance.

All the taxiing, preflights, run-up’s, taxiing again, holding for landing traffic etc. take time so, it was just almost exactly 4:00pm by the time I took off for the return flight. The clouds had disappeared by now so; I climbed up to 5500 feet. I had a bit of a tailwind up there and my ground speed was about 20 knots faster than before. Again, I hit my checkpoints without any problem. As I got closer to Waukegan, I started seeing lights coming on on the ground. It was still bright up where I was but it was obviously getting darker down below. I called the tower 10 miles out and entered the downwind for runway 32 at UGN just as the runway lights came on. There was still plenty of light when I touched down but, I had to hold short of runway 5 for several minutes before I could taxi to parking and it was quickly getting darker. By the time I parked, I had to use my flashlight to read the Hobbs time and to make sure I had all my stuff.

I admit I had been a little nervous about this flight. My main concern was that I wouldn’t be able to find the airport at Janesville. In fact, that did happen but, I learned that it isn’t that big a problem. I let the controller know and he was more than willing to help. This flight was an excellent confidence builder. Now, I have to start planning my long solo cross country.

  • David says:

    Nice writeup, I remember my first cross country. It’s always hard to spot airports, I think. It helps (obviously) to have good situational awareness about where you are and where the airport should be. For me, it really helps to spot the town near the airport, there’s always one close, and then identify the direction the airport should be from the town, relative to your incoming direction.

    Also, if you are coming in from the sides, it’s very hard to spot the runway until you are on top of it. Instead, look for the environment, typically a large ‘hole’ in a developed area, with airport-type buildings in the middle. Hangars, an FBO, etc. Once you spot that, you’re in good shape!

    Congrats, look forward to the rest of your lesson posts!

  • Tom says:

    Thank you for the tips David. I usually have a pretty good idea of where the airport should be. I think you have hit my problem on the head. I am looking for runways when i should be looking for other indications of an airport.

  • Oblivion says:

    Great job, Tom!

    Airports can be amazingly difficult to spot. I just flew into Sheboygan on Saturday, and they had the cloaking device turned on at the time. I also once overflew West Bend airport on my way to Manitowoc. The GPS was pointing out the airport, the VOR was pointing out the airport, but I never DID spot it. Incredible. And that was a perfectly clear morning! Also on my dual XC, I was starting to doubt Dells/Baraboo airport actually existed. It eventually ‘popped’ out of the trees for me, but yeah, they’re tricky buggers.

    One trick I’ve since learned is to scope out unknown airports I’m going to with Google Earth first. You get a good idea of what’s around there, the color of the pavement, etc. You have to be careful as Google Earth isn’t entirely up to date, but for where we are, it’s pretty good.

    So, have you flown away from home with this snow on the ground yet? Talk about everything blending together. . . .


    Keep up the great posts and progress.

  • Tom says:

    Hi Oblivion,

    I do look at Google Earth before flying to a new airport. I think that I will start printing the images for use in the airplane. Another great resource that I found for Wisconsin airports is the WI DOT airport directory. The kneeboard size aerial photos are very handy. You get a picture and all the frequencies on one sheet.


    I didn’t mention it in the write-up but, the snow added to the problem with finding UGN after lesson 57. It sure does look different with snow on it.


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