The cross country navigation exercise is required to complete the JAR private pilot’s licence. It is effectively the first time the pilot is left alone with the plane, dependent on the new skills learned over the past few weeks. It is now not simply a case of handling the plane but also juggling the full navigation and radio without someone to take over if it becomes hectic. This is a flight that I think every pilot remembers, regardless of how long ago it was.
I learned to fly in Spain with English instructors from a flying school at Oxford. My first leg was Axarquia to Granada where I was fine in the air but then panicked at dealing with the people on the ground. I survived and made my way back to the plane for the next leg of my flight, from Granada to Almería.
The sun was shining and, although the horizon wasn’t as clear as I might have liked, I didn’t have to do any difficult manoeuvres. I’d survived Granada, now I just needed to fly back to the coast and then east to Almería. It was a quiet journey and no one seemed to want to speak to me at all. I was humming to myself by the time I called Almería to tell them I had them in sight. There was no one in the local area but me. The runway was huge: 3,200 metres. It was the biggest runway I’d ever seen from the left-hand seat and I had it all to myself.
I landed without incident and parked in the corner before realising that I was going to have to trek across the hot apron to find someone to speak to. Eventually I found a tired looking building with a black C on a yellow background over the doorway, the international symbol for “Pilots, come here first.”
A red-faced Spaniard sat a grey desk, grimacing at paperwork. A younger, short-haired man stood to the side of the desk, arms crossed against his skinny chest as if in self-defence. They both glanced up as I walked in.
“Buenos días,” I said with a bright smile and explained that I was here to pay my landing fees.
The unhappy official looked at me for a long tired moment. He said “I need to speak to the pilot,” in rapid Spanish and then returned his attention to the paperwork in front of him.
“That’s me!” I tried the bright smile again. He glanced up with a harassed look.
“I mean the person who flew the plane.”
“Sí. That’s me.”
He furrowed his brow but finally got up from the desk. His too-tight jacket rode up over his waist.
I waved the form in front of me. “I also need to get this signed by someone in the tower.”
He glanced at the paper in my outstretched hand but didn’t take it. Then he spoke to me in slow and concise English. “I need to speak to the pilot of the plane.”
The young man hovered behind the desk, twisting his hands.
“Yes.” I took a deep breath, trying to drown out the blood pumping through my ears. “I am the pilot of the plane.”
He slipped back into Spanish. “¿Sola?” Alone?
My friendly smile had long since slipped off. “Sí, sola. Alone. Me. I am the pilot of the plane.”
He stepped past me and looked over towards the General Aviation parking.
“Where is the plane?”
I pointed. He stared at the Cessna as if perhaps I had some able-bodied young man hiding behind the wing. When no one appeared, he scowled, snatched the paper out of my hand and stormed out of the room.
The young assistant took a step to follow him and then paused. He glanced around before putting a hand on my shoulder to pull me closer. “I think that’s great!” he said in a whisper, and then turned to run after his boss.
The young man’s proud smile undid the knot in my throat. What I was doing was great! It didn’t matter what some overheated damn bureaucrat thought. I was doing a solo cross-country: how could that not be great? I was flying alone, in a foreign country, in command of a beautiful plane on a beautiful day in a … well, less than beautiful airport. But amazing, nevertheless.
By the time the man in the too-tight jacket returned, nothing could dampen my broad smile. He handed me the certificate with a grunt. Someone had signed to say that I had landed at the airfield, all I had to do now was make it back home. I clapped my hands in glee and chattered happily as I paid the landing fee, ignoring his stony silence.
I’d planned to stop for a coffee but I was in such a good mood, I saw no reason to delay the rest of my flight. Besides, this was the easy bit. I just needed to fly straight back to Torre del Mar and then make a right turn to Axarquia.
It was impossible to get lost as I just had to follow the coastline. The worst possible case was if I saw the rock of Gibraltar come into view which would mean I had gone too far.
There simply wasn’t anything left to go wrong…