My long cross-country solo is out of the way

Sunday was my scheduled long cros-country solo. I had wanted to go to Sedona (SEZ) but was convinced by my CFI that it was a bit too far to do in one day given the rapidly changing weather we get this time of year.

Oh, was he right.

Saturday night I planned a flight from Santa Fe (SAF) to Truth or Consequences (TCS). I got as far as planning out the route, noting the checkpoints and distances between each. I had a brief look at the weather (radar & TAFS) and some area forecasts but there wasn’t anything unusual or different from the previous couple of weeks. In a nut shell, the weather will be unstable throughout most of the New Mexico area on any given afternoon during the summer.

I arrived at the airport at 7 am and finished the flight plans after getting the most recent weather info. An hour later I had the fuel calculations, ETAs, etc. I met with my instructor about 9:30 (it took much longer for the planning than I expected…need to work on that) and reviewed things and answered a couple of “What if…” questions. Then I called for a weather briefing and spent what seemed like an eternity on the phone. They love to be thorough don’t they? The weather outlook was for storms around SAF late in the afternoon, perhaps around 3 pm. This would be just after my proposed return time so I didn’t think too hard about it. The rest of the report was for various rain that may or may
not effect the flight.

I had questions regarding two NOTAMS I came across dealing with activity in two restricted areas: R-5107 F/G and R-5109 A/B. Neither of those particular areas were on my VFR chart nor in the FAA facilities directory, although the R-5107 area was outlined. The flight briefer let me know that when that happens it’s usually because the areas start at
18,000′, above the VFR space. Good to know for future reference. She had me unfold the back flap on my chart to see where the list of restricted areas were listed. I knew this info but played along with her. I could hear her unfolding a chart as well so she was really into the instruction gig. I felt as if I was talking to my grandmother. I do appreciate the effort and the kindness shown but the phone call ended up lasting a full 15 minutes including filing both flight plans.

Finally I prepped the plane, taxied and took off at 11:10 am local time. In hindsight, much too late in the day. Five minutes later I was at 8,500 MSL and opened the first flight plan.

The trip down nearly followed I-25, making visual navigation quite easy. I had setup the radios to track the SAF and Albuquerque (ABQ) VORs and concentrated on following a turn from an SAF radial to an ABQ radial precisely. Before that turn, however, I had to contact ABQ approach and get permission to transition through their Class C space and request a flight following. I’ve only done that once prior. Nothing unusual about it and it was refreshing to be handed off during the trip through the area. SAF does not have radar and the mountains between it and ABQ make it impossible for ABQ to provide coverage for that area. Once under ABQ control radar coverage extended all the way to my first planned stop in Socorro (ONM). The flight was going well and about 12 miles out of ONM flight-following was terminated. I radioed my position to ONM traffic and then got somewhat nervous as I approached.

The town and the airport to the south were getting quite a soaking. That and the electrical activity in the clouds convinced me that I was about to change plans. Though moving eastward I had enough room to turn to a southeast course and skirt around the bad weather. It was quite localized, perhaps 20 nm in diameter. But I didn’t feel like circling
until it moved on either.

I reset the radios to track an outbound ONM radial while tuning in the approach radial I was to use for TCS, which came into signal range a few minutes later. (Though I don’t say it, I always ident the stations…but there were so many on this trip it isn’t worth repeating that each time in this report.)

I passed the storm and got quite a buffeting from the winds and rain on the southern edge. I’ve experience worse turbulence but I was in a heightened state of alertness all the same. I saw TCS ahead after another 30 nm and radioed my position and intentions to land. AWOS gave me the wind conditions which were confirmed by the way the plane at been
tracking during the last 50 nm. Runway 13 was perfectly aligned though it would mean either a straight-in approach or a flight completely around the airport before entering the pattern. There was a line of rain clouds to the west that looked like I might have enough time to circle, but why risk it? I opted to make a wide S-turn to the left and entered the pattern on an extended base leg. Calling my turns all the way in I touched down on 13, responded to the FBO that I didn’t require fuel and headed into  the lounge.  164 nm on my first leg and I needed a break.

Truth or Consequences Municipal Airport is like most I’ve seen so far. A small shack for a lounge next to the parking area. But it had a restroom and someone to chat with for a bit. I closed my flight plan and had a look at the weather for the return flight on their computer. My return flight would take me back up to Socorro (maybe I could get my second
full-stop landing in there) and then through a break in the Sandia mountains to the east, up the east side of the Sandias and east of Moriarty (0E0) to SAF.

The weather showed that the line of showers I saw on approach were indeed moving eastward. In fact, it started to rain as I sat in the lounge looking at the weather. I called for a weather briefing and was told things were clear to Socorro and definitely clear for the rest of my return flight if I left soon. A much older pilot was now in the lounge talking the the gentlemen who attends the lounge (Bill Reilly in case anyone’s flown there before). The two of them assured me that I would be fine. I thanked them and headed back to the trusty C172 and went through the prestart checklist. Once inside the plane it really started to pour. I looked on in amazement as a silver high-wing Airforce trainer (didn’t recognize the make/model) landed on 31, turned immediately off onto the taxiway and entered 13 midfield and departed. The rain then let up enough for me to take off. It wasn’t as clear to
the north as the weather briefer reported or perhaps  soon meant now. But I taxied onto 13 (into a moderate wind) and took off. I followed a standard left hand pattern and announced my departure from the downwind leg. I opened my flight plan after reaching 9500′ and made sure all the nav aids were working.

Then I saw the dark clouds ahead. I thought of turning to the east and flying a direct route to the break in the Sandias but remembered the massive R-5107 area to my right (the part that is on the VFR chart). I thought of who I should call to request permission to fly through it and realized I didn’t have a clue. FSS came to mind and I could at least get the info from them. Then I thought to turn back to TCS and just wait it out. I turned to the west to get a better view and saw that TCS was a no-go as well. To the north, west and south I was  blocked by thunderstorms. The one break I did spot was to my immediate west where there was currently no rain and bright sunshine on the other side of this font. I reduced RPM from 2650 to 2500 and dropped to 8500′ since the clouds above looked within the 500′ minimum. There was a lot lightning in the clouds to my right (north) as I passed and I kept thinking to myself how much more comfortable I would feel with a faster plane at that
point. It certainly furthered my resolve to continue on for an instrument rating. At one point I hit a pocket of turbulence and lost 200 feet in the blink of an eye. At the bottom I noticed the rpms briefly hit the red line so I cut power back to 2400 for some extra safety. Fortunately that was the worst of it. The edges of a storm can be more dangerous than flying through one – but I felt assured I was still far enough away to have been clear of the down/updraft change area.

Having passed the worst of the storms I made a large 10 nm loop to the west and back to the east and north where the path to Socorro was now clear with only the normal afternoon puffy clouds around 11,000′. I climbed back to 9500 feet and saw ONM was only 5 nm ahead – no time to get my mind set for a full-stop landing there and I didn’t feel like
hanging in the area to see what the weather was going to do either. I made it to my checkpoint at the ONM VOR and headed towards the other side of the mountains to the east, where the weather was still good, forecasted as well as visually confirmed. Finding the mountain pass was easy – look for the lack of tall rockiness – and I made sure to keep
the needle centered on the radial I was following as well. I passed just over two small towns and a collection of mostly dry salt lakes that I used to verify my position. Then I saw a spot where US 60 breaks away from some parallel train tracks. This meant I should turn to the north and follow a radial to the Moriarty VOR. Sure enough, two minutes later the needle started to home in and I was on course.

I tuned into the 0E0 traffic and listed to a collection of gliders call out their positions and intent to land. I was still about 20 nm out but it was nice to hear the wind conditions and runway in use. Nothing unusual about my landing at 0E0. I made it a full stop to fulfill the
requirement and taxied around and back to the entrance hold-short line. A number of gliders were on the ground being pulled to the parking area. I watched one glider come in for a landing – the first time I’ve seen a glider land. Is there only one main wheel and one tail wheel on these things? And how quiet it must be in those (after 3.5 hours of flying I
wasn’t too thrilled by my passive headsets any longer.

I took off from Moriarty and made the 38 nm flight to SAF. The area halfway between the two airports is the southeast practice area for SAF and I had no trouble visually finding my way. At 14 nm out I called SAF ATC and  announce my intent to make a left downwind to the active runway, 20. ATC concurred and reported light rain just east of the field. I saw the clouds – much too dark for light rain. And I saw – again – a lot of electrical activity in those clouds. “I’ve seen more bad weather on this trip than I have during my first year in Santa Fe,” I said to myself. Since I had to pass through this cloud to make the left downwind I
radioed back for permission to fly to the south and head back for a right downwind to 20. The tower concurred and I planned for the additional 15 minutes of flying this would mean.

A lot changes in 15 minutes. Coming into a straight approach for the downwind I received word from the tower that winds had shifted, the rain clouds were just about over the airport and would I mind moving from the downwind for 20 to a downwind for 28. What’s one more right turn?  I made the change and mentally set up for this (first time using 28 at SAF after all this training) and approached for an amazingly calm landing. Gusts picked up severely during the taxiing to parking – requiring a full stop at one point as the plane suddenly cut to the west despite a full right rudder and throttle at idle.

“Cessna 4 uniform echo you seemed to have stopped on the taxiway, is there a problem?”

“4 uniform echo…isn’t going where I want it”

“Roger 4 uniform echo proceed when able.”

There was a jet cleared to taxi as soon as I passed by, hence towers concern at my having stopped. All the training and knowledge of taxiing into head and tail winds paid off. I kept my eye on the rotating windsock and manged to crawl back to the parking area without losing control of the plane.

I was greeted by some of the flight school crew and my CFI, who weren’t there to greet me so much as to get the plane tied down as quickly as possible. Normally parking and tie-down are my responsibility. From the time I shut off the engine to getting out of the plane it had started to rain, heavily, and the winds were gusty like nothing I’ve experience in a plane before. I remembered to keep a firm grip on the door as I stepped out otherwise the wind would have taken it off I’m certain.

Because I landed 30 minutes past what I had planned for, FSS had called the tower before I phoned in to close out and the tower informed them that I had arrived already. I then had a chat with my CFI on the days experience and I let him know of the weather I had seen/avoided as well as the stuff I flew through. He drove home the point of why I should
have taken off much earlier in the day but that I had made some wise decisions.

I neglected to ask him about who I should call if I want permission to fly through a restricted area. I need to find this out so if you know…

I’m sure it’s in the facilities directory. I’ll take a look tonight.

I was told to start gearing up for the checkride, meaning practice my flight maneuvers (it’s been a while) and various landings. The next dual instruction will be night flights and instrument training. I’ll keep you posted as always.


Amateur photographer, cyclist, and beer brewer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.

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