Cross Country Solo (Part One)

2 Apr 10 8 Comments

Now that the weather has started to show some semblance of Spring, a number of students are posting with excitement having finally completed their cross country solo. This is a flight that I think every pilot remembers, regardless of how long ago it was.

I put off going solo for as long as I could, until my instructor was so exasperated with me that inside the cockpit alone seemed the safer place to be. I learned to fly in Spain with English instructors from a flying school at Oxford, so it was all a bit confusing. Here’s my recollections of that first solo flight away from my home airfield of Axarquía.

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. Oliver had a list of prerequisites: the horizon needed to be clear, the wind calm and my practised forced landings needed to be perfect. If, god forbid, I had an engine failure, I had to be able to bring the plane down.

I decided not to go when the other students did their solo cross country navigations: I was the least competent and the least confident of the group. But in the meantime, I’d flown with Oliver every day for the past 11 days. I was desperate to catch up and spent every available minute at the airfield. When I arrived home I did only the work that absolutely couldn’t wait before collapsing into bed until the next morning when I stumbled back into the car and drove back to Axarquía. It was time to take the plunge and just do it – I needed to fly cross country solo.

The weather was bright and beautiful. I spent hours poring over the maps, making sure I understood the distances involved and the heights needed. The wind was slightly gusty but not enough to cause problems.

“Phone me from Granada,” Oliver said. He tried not to look nervous. “We’ll take a decision then as to whether you should continue on or come back.”

“Or you could drive there and bring me back.”

“Not an option.” He handed me a sheet. “And you’ll have to find someone from ATC at each airfield to sign this sheet.” I looked at it, it was in English. “There won’t be a problem, the others did it too.”

I took the sheet and got into the plane.

I felt nervous but ready. I knew how to fly the plane. I’d taken it around the local area, done general handling over the sea, done hundreds of circuits around the airfield. I had flown to both of these airfields with Oliver to do circuits, so I knew the airfields, understood how to approach them and knew what to do when I was on the ground. I had to land and take off on my own but I was used to Axarquía’s runway at a measly 703 metres. Granada’s runway is 2,900 metres and Almería is 3,200 metres! Honestly, I could probably land on those runways sideways.

I knew which radio frequencies I needed, all written neatly on my knee pad. I had copied the information three times to make sure there were no scribbles. At this point, I was close to having the frequencies memorised. I marked my route on the map in bright red wax pen and then again on a blank sheet on my clipboard. I even had my mobile phone with me, so if I got completely confused overflying one of the airfields, I could put the plane into an orbit and phone someone to ask for advice, like they do on the game shows. I thought perhaps I better not mention this idea to Oliver.

There was no further preparation I could think of. It was time to do this.

The flight to Granada was remarkable only in that it was probably one of the most boring flights of my life. I chattered quietly to myself as I flew straight there and was given a straight-in landing. I parked without issue and strode into the building. It had been so slick, I should have been patting myself on the back. Instead, I felt sick to my stomach. I had to talk to people and get my form filled in and pay a landing fee and only now had I realised: I had no idea where to go.

When we came here before Oliver had seemed to know instinctively whom to talk to and what needed dealing with. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I just wanted to stay in my plane. I wondered what they would do if I simply took off without paying. I thought about Oliver’s face if I showed up without my signed form and a military jet chasing after me. I took a deep breath and made my way to the window and smiled hopefully at a man sitting behind a desk.

“I need to pay my landing fees,” I told him in mediocre Spanish, “and also I need someone from ATC. I need someone to sign this piece of paper.”

His friendly demeanour wilted. “Sign what?”

“This paper, see?”

“It’s in English.” He fingered the form with suspicion, he clearly had no idea what it was.

I went for the heartfelt-plea approach. “It’s for my licence. I am a student, learning to fly. The paper is to say that I landed here without breaking any planes or causing any problems.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Did you break any planes?”

“No! I think – I think you’ll find that ATC are happy to sign it. I was told they wouldn’t mind. It has my name and the plane’s registration on it.”

He made a quick phone call and then disappeared down the hall. I was supposed to phone Oliver and tell him I’d landed safely but I didn’t want to risk being on the phone when the man came back. I paced until he arrived a few minutes later.

“He said you did everything perfectly correctly.” His smile was back. “And he signed the form and told me to tell you good luck.”

I hadn’t realised I was holding my breath until he finished. “Gracias,” I said with a huge smile and took the form.

My phone rang, it was Oliver. I started to apologise but he cut me off. “The weather looks fine. Take a break and have a coffee before heading to Almería.” Stage 2 of my cross country flight was on.

Do you remember your first solo cross country flight? Tell me about it in the comments!

Part Two: Almería

Category: Excerpts,


  • I recently completed my first (and second) solo cross country flights here in Minnesota. They were fairly uneventful circuits of about two hundred nautical miles each, although I had a few wicked crosswind landings on the second flight. Now I need to build time before I can take my practical exam (forty hours are required; I’m at twenty-seven), so I’m going to see if my instructor will endorse me for a solo flight to Milwaukee (almost three hundred nautical miles each way).

  • Wow, I was way past 40 before I was ready for my practical. Well done! And yeah, it sounds like a few long flights will be the best way to get the hours under your belt quickly.

  • I love this blog, but somehow I don’t think I’ve commented before.

    My first solo on a warm summer afternoon last year in California, from KOAK to KLHM, about 85 nm each way. I remember two things about it most clearly. First, I had to transit through the Sacramento Class C. Now, my home airport is Class C, but I’m usually entering or leaving, not transiting. So when I got near Sacramento I was very surprised to get vectors from air traffic! I didn’t have a lot of practice taking headings on the fly yet, but somehow I managed. I could hear the controllers talking to the 737s on frequency and I felt very small and vulnerable in my little C172.

    The second thing I remember was actually arriving at the field. I found it with little problem, but when I arrived there was another plane about to enter the pattern. I decided to let him go in front of me, and I remember calling on the radio that I was a student pilot and was going to let the faster traffic in ahead. Humbling but also gave me the rush of “I am making command decisions!” When I was lined up on final I could hear my instructor’s voice reminding me of all the things I needed to do, and I was chanting out loud my little mantra in those days, which was “don’t pull up”. I had a tendency to creep the yoke back while on final, causing my airspeed to decay too early. I chanted my mantra, watched my airspeed, put in a crosswind correction, ignored the burbling, bumpy air, and before I knew it I was touching down and calling in to say I was leaving the active runway.

    There was no one at the airport when I arrived, but I was full of happy nervous energy. I ran a few laps around the plane, patted the cowling fondly, and went to get a drink of water.

    I managed to get airborne again and back home without incident, and this time when I got vectors from Sacramento I was expecting it. :)

    I’m still working on my license (there have been some interruptions…both health and monetary) but I’m hoping to finish this summer.

  • The first time I got vectors (at Malaga) I was convinced they thought I was a passenger jet. I think I said “I’m a single engine plane, you do know that, right?” half a dozen times.

    It sounds like you’ve done all the hard bits! I hope you finish this summer (and write about it).

  • First slo crosscountry !
    Sylvia is right, nobody will ever forget it.
    And everyone has a different story, even if they flew the same route, under the exact same conditions, as other students.
    It must be one of the greatest adventures in anyone’s life.
    Anyone who went for a private pilot’s licence, that is !

  • My first solo cross country?

    I was fairly familiar with the area, which only helped matters. I left ANE (Anoka County, Blaine, MN) for BRD (Brainerd, MN) and headed east to GPZ (Grand Rapids, MN) which I had never seen before in my life. On the BRD – GPZ leg, the compass decided to leak a bit and I got quite nauseated, finally opening the window for a blast of fresh air. I was so sick that I contemplated diverting, but I needed to finish that cross country, so I stuck it out. By the time I got to GPZ, the compass was over it’s incontenence and I decided to forge onward. As I approached ANE, some weather could be seen to the SW, but I would be tied down well before it got to the field, so I landed without incident.

    Writing this down, it feels like yesterday.

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