Lesson 22: Solo Cross Country to Soldotna

Aircraft: C172 N52654

Flight Time: 2.0 hours

Total Hours: 29.6

I’m approaching 30 hours now, and looking forward towards my private pilot checkride, which at the current pace, should be sometime in April. As I make each new entry in my logbook, I can’t help but look over my previous entries, all the hours and flights that have brought me to this point. I remember being at 2 hours, and then, a few cold, foggy weeks later, hitting that first big milestone, the 10 hour mark. I remember the time when landing the plane seemed like such a struggle and wondering if I would ever get it down. I’ve come a long way during these incredible rewarding months and I’m simply amazed at how much I’ve learned.

For my second solo cross country, I planned for Soldotna, mostly because I’d never been there before. The day before, I plotted out a course that used both VOR navigation and dead reckoning and monitored the weather. It looked doable, but there were also points of concern. A low pressure system was causing low ceilings over the western side of the Cook Inlet, but the forecasts called for enough visibility and wind to make the trip possible.

When I got to my lesson, I called the FSS and got the latest briefing and was pleased to find out that even though Kenai had a 12kt wind coming in from the North, Soldotna was calm. Since Soldotna had east/west runways, I was concerned about possible crosswinds being too high for my landing ability. My backup destination was Kenai, which has north/south runways, but with Soldotna reporting calm winds, it was a go.

I was also concerned about 20-40kt surface winds over the Turnagain Arm, but talked it over with my instructor and he assured me that it was nothing I couldn’t handle. And if it did get back, I could always turn back. The practice that I had a couple of weeks ago could prove valuable today. When I actually took off and headed south over the Arm, it turned out to be not so bad. There were a few bumps, but certainly nothing like I had during my last time over this area.

Eyeing my VOR needles, I made the turn at the HOPER checkpoint, flew over the mouth of the Chick River, and then turned southwest. This was my dead reckoning portion, a 20nm stretch over an area with no real visible checkpoints. Using the numbers that I got from the winds aloft report, I used my flight computer to figure a wind correction angle and turned to the corresponding heading. It was incredible to look down, though, and see miles of forest, snow covered lakes and frozen, snowed over rivers that snaked and braided through the landscape in between tiny stands of trees. I looked for wildlife, but didn’t see any. I’ve always thought that the world is a beautiful place as seen from the sky.

I checked my time and groundspeed by using the 55° radial from the Kenai VOR, discovered that I was right on target, and proceeded southwest until I crossed over the small airstrip and road that marked my next checkpoint. From there, I could see the Soldotna airport, so I turned west, announced my position on the common frequency and began my descent. A voice came back on the radio that indicated a snow removal truck on the end of the runway. (It was actually the driver on the radio) As I got closer, I could see the truck plowing the edge of the runway, and I called to make sure that it was no problem landing on rwy 7. He assured me that he’d get out of the way, so I dropped into the pattern, made my turns and did a very nice landing on a very icy runway. I waited until I had completely rolled out until I applied the brakes and turned off.

The taxiways were covered in about 4 inches of fresh snow, so I kept the nose up and applied adequate power to plow through the powder as I taxied back to the end of the runway. I confirmed with the snowplow and then rolled back onto the runway and did a soft field takeoff before turning north. 

There was actually considerable low, almost to ground cloud cover to the west and I couldn’t even see Kenai. Even if I had wanted to divert there, it would not have been possible. To avoid the clouds, I had to head further west and at a lower altitude than I had planned as I flew north to pick up the 37° radial from the Kenai VOR. Once established on the radial and on the V-388 airway, I pointed the plane towards the Chick River bay, which I could see from my position. I had to use about 10° of right wind correction to hold the course. The difference in weather between what was in front of me and what was behind me was pretty dramatic, it was completely socked in to the west and mostly clear to the east over the Chugach Mountains. It made me glad that was able to get in and out of Soldotna, and it was probably good that I didn’t linger there too long.

The air over the Turnagain Arm was even smoother coming back and as I came across, I spent some quality time sightseeing and looking out at the mountains. Thats what it’s really ll about, right? Coming into Merrill, I made 3 touch and go’s before my last, full stop landing. For the first two, I practiced my short field landing technique, and although the first one wasn’t great, I held my airspeed low, paid attention to my rate of descent and the VASI, and actually put it down right on the numbers on my second try. My last two landings were standard technique and both went extremely well. Coming in on final and landing the plane is starting to feel really familiar. It makes me smile when I look back and remember how hard this used to be.

The strangest thing happened when I landed at Merrill today, though. Someone had apparently cleared all the snow off of the runway. It just didn’t look right, and when I touched down, I heard this weird chirping noise as my wheels touched the pavement. I hadn’t ever heard this before. Something must be wrong with the plane. 😉 It make take some time to get used to actually landing on pavement instead of snow and ice. I’ll have to bring this issue up with my instructor.

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