In the two years that I’ve been flying there have already been a number of moments that I will never forget. From my first solo lap around the traffic pattern to my first time flying an airplane through the clouds my adventures in aviation have included some amazing experiences that make all the hard work (and hard earned money flushed straight out the tailpipe) worth it. That said, there’s one flight that I took this year which will probably always remain my favorite flight of all time, and the story starts three weeks prior in the beginning of August 2015.
The aviation bug had bitten me hard. After finishing up my private pilot certificate I spent a few months tooling around and enjoying my new-found privileges, but soon enough I had paid off my flight school debts and was back for instrument training. I didn’t just want to spend my entire life flying for those $100 hamburgers on fair-weather days — I wanted to be able to actually put this certificate to good use and fly myself places even when the weather wasn’t exactly cooperating. I wanted to see the world and be at the controls, and for that I needed not only an instrument rating but also an airplane.
I started instrument flight school in February and by May I had passed the written exam and was starting the flight portion of the Part 141 flight school program. It started slowly, but as it became more and more likely that I would have my instrument rating soon I found myself browsing through the listings on Trade-A-Plane more often. I originally thought that I had wanted a Cessna 172 like the one I had been training in throughout my flight school, but there was something about the higher useful load and the quicker airspeed of the Piper Cherokee 180 that had piqued my interest. Still the 172 was my first choice, and when I found a promising candidate I jumped at the opportunity and started the purchase process.
The 172 in question was a well appointed old girl in Ohio that was well within my price range. I already knew I was going to have to get an airplane loan to cover the purchase price, but I figured I could have that paid off in a couple years without a problem (what with working three jobs and all). I contacted the AOPA financing people and they put me in touch with a small local bank that was experienced in financing airplanes, a bank who immediately approved me to purchase a plane at twice the price of the one I was looking at should I want to look elsewhere. That was a good thing, since shortly after the financing came back as being approved the seller sold the airplane to someone else and left me out in the cold.
Approved financing now in hand I went back to Trade-A-Plane and started shopping around again. After about a week I found a listing for an early red and white Piper Cherokee 180, specifically a 1963 model. It was absolutely beautiful, with a complete set of logbooks, IFR certified, and less than halfway to the recommended overhaul time on the engine. Even better: it was well under my approved credit limit with the bank for financing the purchase. Having been burned on one deal already I contacted the seller immediately and bought a plane ticket that very weekend to go check it out.
I arrived Friday afternoon to take a look at the airplane and I immediately fell in love. It was exactly what I was looking for: an economical (and good looking) cross country airplane that was IFR capable. After a few hours looking through the books, taking a lap around the airport, and chatting with the owner the moment of truth arrived. There was someone else coming later that afternoon to check it out, and if I passed on it now it might not be available in the morning. Having already been burned once I didn’t want to let an opportunity like this pass me by again so I made him an offer on the plane and he accepted.
The offer was dependent on one thing: a clean inspection from a mechanic shop of my choosing. As keen as I was to buy an airplane I wasn’t about to be taken for a ride with something that needed an engine overhaul immediately or whose wings were about to fall off. I cut the seller a check for a down payment, and he graciously offered to fly the airplane up to Cobb County airport (KRYY) where I had a mechanic on standby waiting to inspect the plane.
A little over a week later the mechanic finally finished the inspection and the plane had passed. There were some issues that needed to be addressed (cracks in the spinner, new seals on the engine) but nothing that would prohibit it from flying back to Texas for the much needed repairs. My instrument training was coming to a close and I had my check ride scheduled for the end of that week, so I figured that flying my newly purchased airplane back home would be the perfect graduation present to myself. I asked the mechanic to have the airplane back together by the following Friday morning so I can pick her up and started preparing for the check ride.
The next week, temporary instrument rating in hand, I headed out to Georgia to pick up the airplane. I arrived around noon on Thursday and walked into the hangar to find the airplane still completely in pieces on the ground. I expected for them to at least have started putting it back together, but apparently a bigger job on some more expensive aircraft had pushed my little Cherokee down on the list of priorities. I don’t regret choosing a busy and well respected mechanic to do the inspection but it certainly made things more interesting than they needed to be.
A quick chat with the mechanic later and he assured me that he could have the plane back in one piece by the end of the day on Friday. I thanked him for his effort and started doing the flight planning for my trip home.
The general overview of the plan was that I would make two fuel stops on the way back. The longest leg would be a flight to an overnight stop in New Orleans, Louisiana (KNEW), and then two shorter legs to Galveston (KGLS) and finally to Castroville (KCVB) where I had a mechanic waiting to start work on the plane. I planned to file these flights as IFR simply for the added safety factor but as time progressed it looked more and more like the weather wouldn’t let me fly any other way.
There was a line of thunderstorms working its way up the coast, starting in Florida and threatening to be in Georgia by late Friday. The forecast seemed to say that if I wasn’t out of Atlanta by Friday afternoon then I wasn’t getting out that weekend at all — thunderstorms and low clouds dominated the forecast for the weekend, neither of which I wanted to play with. If the mechanic could have everything ready to go before sunset on Friday I might be able to sneak out, but otherwise I would be out of luck.
I spent the next day sitting in a local mall waiting for the mechanic to call and tell me that my airplane was ready to fly. I didn’t want to be in the middle of something when the call came so I sat quietly in the local mall for hours on end reading my book, watching as the hours ticked by without so much as a peep about the plane. I was starting to look into plane tickets back to San Antonio as a backup plan when the mechanic finally called and told me that it was ready — at 4 PM.
I quickly filed a flight plan, dropped off the rental car, and high-tailed it to the airport. My Cherokee was sitting on the ramp waiting by the time I got there, and after a few minutes settling the bill I had my logbooks and was on my way.
The previous week I spent some time with a flight instructor getting acclimated to the PA-28 and how it handles so I knew what I was getting into but I had decided to do a couple laps around the pattern just to make sure I could handle this airplane before I took off on a cross country IFR flight. “A couple” quickly turned into “once around the pattern” as I saw the clouds starting to roll in for the predicted thunderstorms. I hurried through my pre-flight before shoving all my baggage into the rear of the plane and hopping in and starting the engine.
Moving between the Cessna 172 I had been flying and the Piper Cherokee seemed daunting at first, but after discussing the quirks of the plane with my instructor I was comfortable enough flying it around. The lap around the pattern was admittedly a tiny bit shaky and I landed long but it was good enough for me that (A) the plane wasn’t going to fall out of the sky, (B) the instruments worked, and (C) I could land the thing without killing myself. All the strips I was planning on using were over three times what I needed for my takeoff and landing distance so while I definitely needed to work on energy management and getting the right sight picture on final that was something I could do once I was back home.
The very last thing I needed to do before taking off was refuel the airplane. I stopped back at the local FBO and asked them to top off the tanks while I checked the weather one more time. I called the flight briefer who told me that there were some thunderstorms wandering into my flight path but that I should be able to navigate around them without any issues. I had done a similar thing the week before on a long cross country with my flight instructor so I was comfortable with the idea of identifying thunderstorms and staying well away from them, but it made me all the more anxious to get back in the airplane and leave as soon as possible.
The original flight plan had scheduled me for a 5 PM departure. By the time I was done with all the paperwork and refueling it was almost six, the sun was getting a little low on the horizon, and the clouds were starting to appear. I double checked that everything was ready, hopped in the airplane, started it up, and got my IFR clearance to New Orleans for the night.
Everything had been building up to this one moment. I had one chance to make it out of Atlanta for the night, and if anything went wrong I would be stuck there for the foreseeable future. As I was taxiing out to the runway I obsessively checked over every dial and gauge to make sure that the instruments were working properly and that there were no gremlins hiding in the engine but everything looked perfect. I couldn’t see a single issue as I was holding short waiting for my takeoff clearance. The longer I was sitting on the ground the further into my flight path the thunderstorms wandered — I wanted to go, and being held on the ground was making me very nervous.
And then, at long last, I heard the words I had been waiting to hear.
Cherokee 31W, cleared for takeoff on runway 9.
It wasn’t just about this one flight. Those words were the final culmination of everything I had been working on for the last two years. Hundreds of hours spent in classrooms and tiny airplanes working towards my private pilot certificate and instrument rating. Weeks of sleep deprivation as I tried to fit as much flying into my schedule as possible while still working a day job. All the time and energy I had spent on the airplane purchase, and all the stress of the previous day. All of it had led up to this, my first moment of true freedom. I was the owner of my own airplane, fully qualified to fly it through any conditions, with full tanks of gas and I had just been unleashed into the skies for the first time.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t stop smiling the whole climb. The airplane performed beautifully, lifting off gently and soaring into the skies as if that’s where it belonged. The feeling of freedom that I felt was truly indescribable, and in that single moment I knew that all the hard work and hard earned money that it had taken to make this happen was worth it. I didn’t regret a single thing.
The flight out of Atlanta was workload intensive but I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I felt completely prepared to operate in one of the busiest areas in the United States for air traffic and conformed exactly to ATC’s expectations for my IFR flight. While leaving the area I flew through more than a few large puffy clouds which was amazingly fun. It was my first time ever going solo in IFR conditions — I had always had a flight instructor in the right seat during training, but now I was on my own for the first time. I had a little difficulty at first keeping the airplane as stable as I wanted, but I soon had enough practice to remain exactly on my altitude and heading through even some of the bumpier fluffy clouds.
As the flight progressed the clouds changed. Gone were the white puffy clouds, replaced by some more menacing looking things. With a little help from ATC I was able to pick my way through the storms, emerging unscathed on the other side and with clear skies in front. The forecast had been accurate — I did encounter some storms on my route of flight, and I was indeed able to scout around them. Another case where less than ideal conditions during training (cross country flying with thunderstorms in the area) paid off in a big way.
As I left the storm clouds behind me the sun was starting to set. I would definitely be landing at night but I had prepared for this eventuality. The airport I would be spending the night at had an ILS approach I could use to get me on the ground regardless of whether I could see anything or not so I decided that even though it wasn’t cloudy enough to be proper IFR conditions I would use that approach anyway.
The sun was just setting as I finally made my way over the coast. I caught a brief glimpse of New Orleans in the distance before the sun went down for good and I was enveloped in the inky blackness of night. With the assistance of the New Orleans approach controllers they vectored me to the final approach course for the ILS approach to New Orleans Lakefront and I made my first nighttime instrument approach and landing.
Walking into the FBO at New Orleans Lakefront I couldn’t help but smile — I knew right then that I had just made the perfect flight. Let’s check off the list here, shall we?
First flight . . .
- In my own private airplane.
- Through Class Bravo airspace.
- Under IFR conditions since my checkride.
- In IMC conditions without an instructor.
- Dodging thunderstorms solo.
- With an actual purpose (flying the plane home).
- Over 3 hours in duration without stopping.
- Shooting an ILS approach solo.
- Landing at a brand new airport in a city I had never been to before.
For all those reasons and more it was the best flight I had ever taken, and somehow I doubt that I’ll ever be able to top it. But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying.