It was the kind of day where you look up and think, “I should be flying right now.”  Clear skies, good visibility and very light winds prevailed on a mid-sixty degree day in November of 2004. I stood by the airplane in Athens, Georgia, as a student pilot, but ready for a big solo flight. I had flown by myself a few times before in that Cessna 172, but this flight was a milestone. In the quest to become a licensed pilot, that day was fulfilling the required “long solo cross country.” I was responsible for selecting the route. The rules were that the flight had to be at least 150NM, with one leg over 50NM, and three full stop landings. My flight was planned from Athens (KAHN) to Greenwood, SC (KGRD); then to Milledgeville, GA (KMLJ) and back home to Athens. I recently dusted off an old journal that contained the entry I wrote after that flight. I thought I’d share it with you, along with some lessons I learned from the journey.

Flying Journal – November 17, 2004

1. Find a system that works for YOU
“A slightly different route than my original long solo cross country plans, but it proved to be a good one. I used a slightly new flight log method. Since most of them lack space to write notes on checkpoints, I used a number and star (*) system to reference navaids that I could cross-check different waypoints with. At a specific fix over a lake that I had a perpendicular VOR radial listed for, I had the VOR in standby and at the fix I switched it to active and spun the OBS to the correct radial to find the needle just crossing. I was audibly excited when that worked. I also got a pretty good feel for how the calculations for estimated checkpoint arrival time work.”

Flight Log Handwritten Pencil

This is the actual flight log I used for this flight. Just like an iPad, right?


2. Time your checkpoints logically and accurately
“Something I noted is that your time off from an airport isn’t always a good time to start your checkpoint timing. I departed 27 from Athens and turned right onto course for a northeastern heading. It was several minutes before I even passed by Athens again climbing out.

I took off from Athens airport on runway 27 (heading west) and turned towards the northeast as I climbed, passing Athens again.


3. You figure out what you really know when you’re solo
“The best thing about this flight is that I truly had to use only MY judgment when something was in question. There are so many cues you can unknowingly pick up from an instructor. First and foremost of these is when they tell you if you are doing something way off. If you are landing with leaned mixture, for example, they will tell you before you figure it out later on.”

Student Instructor Flight Lesson

This is me and my instructor, Reid, flying around the time of the long solo cross country flight.  You know, “back in the day.”


4. Be skeptical of variations from the usual
“At the beginning of the flight I had a little bit of trouble getting the engine started, probably because it was still warm and I primed it. Then I noticed that it sounded a bit different. But upon inspection I realized that since I was wearing sunglasses, which I normally don’t do, my headphones weren’t sealing all the way, making the engine noise a little louder. On takeoff, it bothered me that the oil pressure was at the extreme top of the green arc, but I didn’t see any reason to abort for that, so I continued with an audible note to monitor that, which turned out to be a nonissue.”

Solo Student Pilot Cessna 172

This was my very first landing on my very first solo flight!  We called this plane “ol’ blue tail” because, well, she had a blue tail.  A mid-seventies model Cessna 172 – N19916.


5. Note your airplane settings so you can recreate them later
“Flight following was smooth, but when I hit Abbeville and started my descent, I didn’t get down quite as I had hoped, leaving a pretty quick approach. All was well in the end, though, and I continued on. The thing that threw me off on descent was when I would pull power out and trim down, the power would creep back up, leading to a vicious cycle. Not a problem – lesson learned. Keep the power on the bottom of the green arc for descent.”

KGRD Greenwood County Airport

I planned the Abbeville airstrip as my descent point for landing at Greenwood, but I didn’t descend as quickly as I should have.  You could say I have nonaggressive descent tendencies.


6. Knowing where you are doesn’t mean you found where you’re going
“On to MLJ. I had a bit of a hard time actually finding the field. I could see on the map that it was just a couple miles from the huge stacks right in front of me, but I didn’t want to fly to the east of the stacks into airport traffic (which I could hear was departing and arriving), so I circled wide to the west of the stacks and came in for a straight-in approach. I landed 10 so I didn’t get the lake approach, but I still enjoyed it.”

KMLJ Power Plant Stack

This 2016 picture is of the 1000 foot stack from a coal plant in Milledgeville, Georgia.  The plant and stack have since been torn down, but at the time of this cross country flight, there were three stacks right next to each other, making for an easy landmark.


7. Have a little fun – with a big safety margin
“I shut down in MLJ, bought some crackers, made some calls and headed for 3J7 with the Ritz on the way. I had never flown low to minimums so I obviously approached very cautiously and a little high, but it was thrilling to make three 500ft passes with folks out on the front lawn watching. I rocked the wings a bit, circled a couple of times and headed back towards Athens. It was such a glorious feeling to be finishing this long-awaited flight, especially with a pass over friends and coworkers.”

Ritz-Carlton Lake Oconee Greensboro Georgia

The Ritz-Carlton on Lake Oconee.


Looking back on this flight brought more than just nostalgia. As a student pilot, there is a particular spark that fuels the passion to fly. Later, that passion is fueled by various things. It can even fade and need to be rekindled. For some, the fuel is livelihood – being paid to fly. For others, it’s a business tool to get around. For me, I was reminded what sparked my desire for flight – to share it. Sure, this story is about flying solo. It was stretching my wings and soaring out of the nest further than I had gone before. But whether I’m flying with friends family, or sharing my passion with you through Clayviation, the final line of my journal entry reminded of exactly why I fly:

“Only a few more hours until I can share this joy with everyone I know.”

Do you have any lessons learned from your cross countries?  Share them in the comments below!

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    • Clay

      Great read, Dave! It sounds like it was an awesome flight. Thanks for reading and sharing!


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