Road to the PPL: all the way to the long solo cross-country.

As expected the winter months were – to put it mildly – not really optimal for flight training, so between my last flight on the 12th of November and the end of February I only got to fly twice (first on the last afternoon of the year, and then once in January).  But then the weather finally turned better, and I put exactly 10 hours into my logbook between the 26th of February and the 23rd of March, starting with passing my navigation progress test, and then going on three solo navigation flights, with the last one being the required long solo cross-country.

Now I have 54 hours and 12 minutes in my logbook (13h 24m as PIC – pilot in command, or simply put: flying solo), and only three flights (two trainings and a final progress test) remaining before my PPL checkride (the practical exam). “Unfortunately” I still need to pass the theory exam(s) first, but thanks to all the bad weather earlier this year, I have finally ticked off every module on the online learning platform, so it is only a matter of going through the theory books once more and then I will take care of that (plus there is also an English Language Proficiency exam too, but that should be a formality). But this means that now I need to take the remaining flights a bit slower, otherwise I will run out of flying before I am actually allowed to do the checkride…

Recently I added an extra GoPro to the cockpit to be able to include additional camera angles in my training videos (which of course made the editorial work significantly longer), and I finally started using my iPad Mini in an awesome FlyBoys PIVOT mount instead of my phone (for now just as backup, as I still have to use my paper maps for navigation…). Thanks to the popularity of my videos I was recognised by two different air traffic controllers on the radio during my last two flights, and simply by chance I was also photographed by plane-spotters a few times :)

Here is a list of my flights since my previous blog post:

Flight 24: After seven weather cancellations over the span of two months, I finally got to fly again on the last day of 2021. The weather was beautiful, albeit a bit windy, but nothing too bad so I could do another solo session. This time I stayed at Charleroi, and I only saw my instructor for five minutes for a signature, before I was left alone with the plane.

It was the first time I did a solo session without flying with an instructor first, so it was also the first time I started the plane and did the run-up unsupervised. It really felt like being a real pilot in command. The training was great, I got to fly both right and left hand circuits, I had to orbit a few times, and position myself in sequence on approach multiple times. At one point I was even asked to make a full stop landing before being cleared to take off again (to avoid the wake turbulence of a departing commercial jet), which I have never seen before.

Flight 25: This time we had a bit of everything. After a few grey days, the Sun came out victorious above the Southern half of Belgium, so after driving through some dense patches of fog along the highway, I arrived to a surprisingly sunny Charleroi, under a perfectly blue sky. The apron was still icy in the shadow, so the most difficult part of the day was actually staying upright while walking to the plane… Unfortunately the instructor that I had booked for this day could not do the NAV progress test with me (not every instructor is allowed to do these), so I decided to do one of the remaining “Basic Instrument Flying” flights. I have already done one of these in the ALSIM AL42 simulator of the school, but this was my first time wearing the “IFR glasses” or “Foggles” in the plane.

I originally hoped to do some soft field practice after the “IFR” training, and go to EBSH to familiarize myself with that field, but they were still closed over the whole weekend due to the runway being soaking wet, so that was a no go, but since we had a lot of time, we decided to fly to Spa instead to still get to know a new airport. We also booked a half hour of solo flying for me at EBCI for the end of the training, so I could really get over the 5 hour solo-threshold that was needed for solo NAV flights.

I almost did the solo time at Spa instead, since when we arrived the weather seemed to be really calm and there was nobody else at the airport, but on final the turbulence was so bad, that both me and my instructor agreed that Charleroi would be just fine. Unfortunately I had a small technical issue with the GoPro (apparently when I turned it on the external power was not yet connected, so when I started the recording it was using the internal battery, and thus it died after less than one hour into the training), so the patterns at Spa are not recorded :( Fortunately I fixed the camera on the way back to EBCI, so the rest of the training was fine.

At the end I did three solo patterns in the low sun, going well beyond the missing 12 minutes of solo time.

Flight 26: After weeks of weather cancellations and even a last minute instructor unavailability, the weather gods finally gave me a perfect weekend to fly, so it was time to do my PT2 – the Navigation Progress Test Flight. For this occasion I picked an instructor with whom I had never flown before, mostly because I was simply not allowed to fly with someone that I had already flown a lot with – to make sure an unbiased pair of eyes could judge my progress.

I had to prepare a navigation to Spa, but knowing that we will do a diversion at one point to somewhere else. This was a lot of work, because the wind was forecast to be shifting to the Southeast during the day, meaning that there was a good chance that the preferred runway 24 would be changed to 06 at one point. So I had to make two different navigation logs for these potential situations, and also prepare the map in a way that it could be used in any condition… Then of course runway 24 stayed in use throughout the day, with the tailwind component staying just under the limit.

Besides the usual flying, I had to do first an engine fire (in flight) exercise, which went very well (especially given how much time has gone by since I looked through the emergency memory items the last time), then halfway to Spa I was told to divert to Saint-Hubert. I managed to make this much more challenging for myself than it could have been, by simply mixing up two towers on the map after folding it around, which meant that for a few minutes I was slightly lost, but then by using the SPI VOR I managed to get back on track, without any help. So after all, I managed the diversion well, but drawing on the map while flying (and doing the math) was definitely not a simple task. Then I integrated into the circuit at EBSH perfectly, and did a low approach followed by a go around, before starting another diversion back to Charleroi. Fortunately now I was allowed to just follow roads and I did not have to measure and calculate everything once more. On the way back we did an engine failure exercise, which also went well, except for the fact that I had to be reminded to first pith for best glide speed (which I am pretty ashamed of). Then we finished the flight with a flapless landing, which combined with the tailwind (and my less then prefect final speed) resulted in a pretty speedy (but perfectly safe) touchdown.

Overall, even with the small mistakes (albeit noticeably more numerous than usual), I passed the progress test just fine, and I was given the green light for my first solo navigation flight!

Flight 27: Less than 24 hours after the successful PT2, it was already time do my first solo navigation flight. Basically as soon as I arrived home from the airport the previous day, I had to start preparing for this flight.

I decided to fly to Genk Zwartberg (EBZW). Pros: I already did a navigation flight there last October (I even flew four solo patterns in difficult conditions), the runway is not too short, you can fill in a PPR request online (and given how much I hate calling on the phone, this is a big plus for me :D), and it has a famously good AFIS. Cons: a lot of traffic in the weekend (with paradrop and glider activity), so maybe a bit difficult, but who does not like a challenge, right? At least the navigation is pretty straightforward.

Without spoiling the video, I can say that the flight was a huge success, and I enjoyed every second of it, except maybe the stronger than foreseen crosswind in the morning, which definitely made me a little bit anxious. The landing at Zwartberg was probably my most difficult crosswind landing ever, but also one of the nicest ones, so I was very proud of that, and overall it was a great confidence building flight.

Flight 28: A bit less than two weeks (and a lot of video editing) after my first solo navigation, I could not wait any longer to fly again, so I booked a slot relatively last minute, and planned a flight to Kortrijk / Wevelgem (EBKT).

I picked EBKT as destination because I wanted to do my long cross-country flight over EBZW (the destination of my first solo navigation) and EBKT, and I wanted to become familiar with both of these airports by then. Flying to Kortrijk also meant that this was the first time that I was flying solo to an airport that I had not visited with an instructor before! Milestones were coming thick and fast at this stage of my training, which was a great feeling.

The navigation went really well, with only some minor errors upon arrival to Kortrijk, and with finally consistently applying the HAT, THARIFF, and FREDA checks throughout the whole flight. This was also the first time that I had a 2nd GoPro in the cockpit, to provide a bit more variety by including some inside and outside shots along the way. I think this made the video much better (and of course also made making the video much more work), and I cannot wait to make use of all the new potential perspectives in the future. As special of the day I got recognized on frequency by one of the controllers at Charleroi, and the resulting exchange made my day even better.

Flight 29: Exactly two weeks after my second solo navigation flight, I felt like it was time to do my long solo cross-country. This is one of the requirements of getting the PPL, and it involves flying a minimum of 150 nautical miles (straight-line distance) and making full stop landings at two airports other than the departure (and final destination) airport. For the first time ever in the history of my solo navigation flights, I made the booking multiple days in advance so I had plenty of time to make my preparations, which was definitely necessary as I had a long day of flying in front of me.

My plan was simple: fly the first leg of my first solo navigation flight from EBCI to EBZW, then fly through unfamiliar territory from EBZW to EBKT (but already knowing the arrival to EBKT from my second navigation flight, and using VORs to make sure that I don’t fly into controlled airspaces or restricted areas before that), and finally close the day off by repeating the last leg of my second solo navigation flight from EBKT to EBCI. In total this meant a straight line distance of 193 nautical miles, plenty more than the required minimum of 150.

I had the plane at my disposal from 10 AM to 5 PM, and I was actually busy from half past ten to five, including refuelling and cleaning the aircraft after the flight. I added 3.5 hours of total time into my logbook over the course of the day, and I got pretty tired by the end, but it was a great experience, and a lot of fun after all. There were some small mistakes here and there, but I was always safe and I am feeling very confident in the air (and on the ground too).

At Zwartberg a friendly plane spotter took pictures of me, and during the flight back to Charleroi the controller on Brussels Information recognized my voice, resulting in a couple of extra happy moments in the air!

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