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Learning to fly a plane: The cross country flight (part 2 of 3)

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains By Dan Sobczak
June 2021

Editor's note: this article first appeared in America's Flyways magazine in November 2005. This content does not constitute flight instruction. Consult a certified flight instructor in your area for proper flight instruction.

"This is where the fun begins," said my flight instructor John as we finished our debriefing after my first solo flight.

"In the next phase of your training, we'll be working on navigation skills, flight planning and cross country flights."

John explained that we would make two cross-country flights together, one during the day and a second at night, to airports at least 50 miles from Falcon Field, our home airport in Mesa, Arizona.

Following those, I would make two more cross-country flights by myself: a short and a long flight, both during the day.

With the confidence I had gained from my first solo flight, I was eager to combine all the fundamental flying skills I had learned. No longer would I be limited to the practice areas and traffic patterns with which I had become so familiar.

I began learning new concepts like pilotage, in which a pilot observes features on the ground and compares them to an aviation map to locate one's position, and dead reckoning, which involves calculating the effects of wind and compass error on a plotted course.

John stressed the importance of learning these skills during our practice flights. I would learn to not just navigate, but to understand what I was doing and why. In the event of a failure of navigation instruments such as VOR or GPS, I could still find my way home. He told me, these skills could some day save your life.

The long solo cross country

After completing our dual cross-country flights and my short solo cross-country. it was time to begin planning my long solo cross-country. The flight planning was all up to me.

The long solo cross country flight from 2003: KFFZ -> KHII -> E25 -> KFFZ, as seen in ForeFlight.

The long solo cross country flight from 2003: KFFZ -> KHII -> E25 -> KFFZ, as seen in ForeFlight.

Pending John's approval, this would be my first complete solo flight, from planning stages through final touchdown. Lake Havasu City, Arizona (KHII), home to London Bridge on the Colorado River, was my destination.

After refueling at Havasu, I would reverse course to Wickenburg (E25), make a full stop landing, and then return to my home base at Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona.

I spent a full week flight-planning this mission, checking every detail, making sure my plans were accu-rate. I reviewed my flight plan with my instructor. Everything checked out okay. My plans were approved. It was time to fly!

I touched down in Cessna 738XD at Lake Havasu City Airport one hour and thirty-five minutes after take-off, as planned. The flight was progressing well. I taxied in and requested fuel over the unicom frequency.

After shutting down, I greeted the fuel truck driver in the hot late-morning sun and walked to the comfortable pilot lounge for a snack and a check of the weather along my return route.

Twenty-five minutes later, I thanked the airport staff for their help and climbed aboard 8XD, eager to return to cooler air above. I turned the ignition key. The engine turned over, but would not start.

The Cessna's Lycoming engine was still hot. I could not recall any special procedures for such a start, so I tried it four more times.

I waited ten minutes to give the engine a rest while I looked over my checklists. I tried a restart again. This time there was nothing but a click. The engine would not turn over.

I phoned Falcon Executive Aviation, my flight school, and apprised their mechanic of the situation. He thought that I had probably just run the battery down and recommended I have the Lake Havasu mechanic jump-start it.

The mechanic at Lake Havasu concluded that jump-starting was not an option. He would have to remove the battery and recharge it, a process that would take at least two hours.

After discussing the options with Falcon's mechanic again, we decided to have the mechanic pull out the battery and recharge it.

My perfectly planned mission was unraveling. I was behind schedule and now faced developing weather due to the late summer monsoon. After seeing thunderstorm and tornado warnings scroll across the TV screen in the pilot's lounge, I knew I would not be flying back to Falcon Field today.

It was late afternoon, four hours past my planned arrival time back home. I was hot, exhausted, and frustrated with myself for draining the battery. I was in no shape to fly home, and unprepared to spend the night in a hotel room.

I arranged with Falcon and Lake Havasu to secure 8XD for the night. Two pilots from Falcon would fly up the next morning to ferry the airplane back home. I then made the four-hour drive to Phoenix via rental car, arriving home late that night, dejected and tired from the long day.

Two days later, I learned that the Cessna started right up Sunday morning for the two Falcon pilots. I discussed my aborted flight with my friend Greg, a flight instructor with years of experience. I needed to know what might have caused the starting problem and the resultant dead battery.

"Hot engines do not always want to start right up," Greg advised.

"So I probably should have scheduled more time in my flight plan for the engine to cool down after refueling," I theorized.

"That could help the situation," Greg replied. "Did you lean your fuel mixture while at altitude?"

"I leaned it during the run-up prior to take-off at Falcon, but I did not adjust the mixture for the rest of my flight to Havasu."

"Not leaning the fuel mixture during cruise flight could lead to fouled spark plugs, which can make an engine hard to start," Greg suggested.

Whether or not 8XD's spark plugs were fouled, I had overlooked an essential checklist item despite my preparation. I accepted this event as a positive learning experience and vowed not to make this mistake again.

The long solo cross country redo

Three weeks later, it was time to redo my long solo cross-country flight. I decided to fly to Marana Northwest Regional (KAVQ), a small airport with extensive parachute training northwest of Tucson, then over the nearly 8,000-foot Pinal Mountains to San Carlos Apache Airport (P13) in Globe, and back to Falcon Field (KFFZ).

The long solo cross country redo flight from 2003: KFFZ -> KAVQ -> P13 -> KFFZ, as seen in ForeFlight.

The long solo cross country redo flight from 2003: KFFZ -> KAVQ -> P13 -> KFFZ, as seen in ForeFlight.

This time I wrote a reminder on my flight plan to lean the mixture at altitude and enrich it as required during descents.

After leaving behind Marana's bustling skydiving activity, I reset my navigation instruments to track the VOR radials that would lead me to Globe.

Minutes later. I visually confirmed the first of three waypoints on this leg. I knew I was tracking my plotted course. I continued to my next waypoint, Kearny Airport, near the small town of Kearny, Arizona.

My estimated time of arrival for the Kearny waypoint came, but something was not right. I could see a small town but there was no runway anywhere in sight.

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I double-checked my heading indicator, magnetic compass, and VOR radials. I looked at my map for additional landmarks, then scanned the ground. I could not find Kearny.

These skills could some day save your life. I could hear my instructor's words about pilotage and dead-reckoning running through my head.

Assuming I was off course. I took another good look at my sectional chart and noted landmarks further out from Kearny. The chart showed a pair of smoke stacks rising 1,000 feet above ground, a few miles to the southeast of Kearny. I made a wider, slower scan of the terrain below me.

Just off the nose of the aircraft, I spotted the two smoke stacks, and then peered northwest where Kearny, and its runway, suddenly appeared.

Relieved to know where I was again, I discovered that I had mistaken the small town of Winkleman for Kearny. I was 10 miles off course.

As I adjusted my heading, it dawned on me that I had slowly drifted off course just after my first waypoint, despite holding my heading accurately. I had neglected to correct for wind drift, which had been quietly blowing 8XD off course.

Lessons learned from the two long solo cross country flights

The lessons about fuel mixture from my aborted Lake Havasu flight and wind drift during the subsequent, successful long solo cross-country taught me an important lesson: Inattention to small details of flight can, and will, lead to bigger problems.

I was nearing the end of my private pilot training. The next big challenge would be the private pilot checkride. After fifteen years of dreaming and four months of flight training, I was about to become a certified pilot.

Stay sharp!
The Flight Chain App team

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains Dan Sobczak is the founder of, a mobile app that helps pilots learn from accident chains by making NTSB reports more convenient and easier to digest. Dan received his private pilot certificate in 2003.

Flight Chain App and its companion blog are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.

Ahead Of The Power Curve
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Flight Chain App and its blog Ahead of the Power Curve are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.