After nearly a month off due to camping, maintenance on the airplane, and an annual inspection, I finally completed my solo cross country time. I sort of did this out of order: I flew my long solo first, then a shorter solo to finish up the time. I planned this shorter flight from San Luis Obispo Regional (SBP) to Santa Barbara (SBA) and back, a little over 120 miles round trip. My flight instructor wanted me to fly in Class C airspace on my cross country flights to build experience. This added more use of the radio and frequency changes.
During my previous career in law enforcement I was a training officer as well as a weapons and range instructor. In this capacity I was always given new acronyms for “new and better” training all the time. Sometimes the new acronyms were so similar to the old ones, that under stress they would mix together. Early in my career I was at a training event and an older instructor said, “I stole this from someone so long ago I can’t remember when I heard it. What are we here for? What do we want to teach? We are here to teach them to win every time. The way to win every time is to remember – What’s Important Now.” It may seem very simplistic, breaking a situation down moment by moment. Where is the danger coming from, how can I mitigate the danger?
When at the range as an instructor I wanted the gun to jam, sometimes to the point of using dummy rounds. After the shooter went through the acronym for the jam and still wasn’t clearing the gun, it was time for What’s Important Now: make the gun go bang! Don’t give up; keep working the gun. When flying an airplane and something unusual happens, keep flying the airplane. The only chance you have to get the airplane flying normally again is to keep flying the airplane. Don’t become a passenger.
I was feeling a little rusty and planned to take my time on my briefing before the flight. I was feeling a little better as I walked out to the Piper I planned to fly. As I approached the airplane, I first noticed the cover was not on as it usually was and something was under the left wing. I realized it was the tow bar. I then noticed the sun shades were in place on the left side but not on the right side. I thought that was a little weird—they must have been in a hurry putting the airplane away. Just then the fuel truck drove by and I thought I should see if I needed fuel. I checked the right tank and found it above the tab. When I checked the left tank, I could see it had about an inch of fuel left in it. I called for the fuel truck and was topped off in just a few minutes.
I took a little more time on my pre-flight than normal. I always think, it takes as long as it takes, just do it right. That morning, tower and ground were on the same frequency at San Luis Obispo Regional. I obtained my weather information and fumbled through my clearance for Santa Barbara, receiving a frequency and transponder code. Taxi and run-up went off without a hitch. I was cleared for takeoff with a left downwind departure. As I was passing through 1500 feet, I was handed off to Santa Barbara. I was feeling pretty good when suddenly the seat sank about an inch. I thought, everything is going to be OK, I can still see over the cowl. I knew I could not raise the seat while I was still sitting in it and hoped it did not sink any lower.
The flight was going well, other than the seat, as I continued toward Santa Maria (SMX). As I approached Santa Ynez (IZA), I received my next frequency change. Shortly after I was able to obtain the weather information for Santa Barbara, and I was then handed off to Santa Barbara Tower. I was instructed to follow the freeway and enter a right base for runway 15R.
I recalled my instructor telling me he had to request runway 25 due to the crosswind on runway 15 while on his solo cross country as a student pilot. I had a limit of a 5 knot crosswind, and runway 15 was going to be about a 9 knot crosswind. I checked runway 25 and the crosswind was 4 knots. I requested to land on runway 25 due to the crosswind, and the controller cleared me number 2 for runway 25. The controller gave me an altitude of 1500 or above due to low flying helicopters practicing in the area. I had only landed on runway 25 once before and lined up too close to the runway on my downwind. As soon as I turned to base I realized my mistake. I was able to turn to final and stay over the runway. Due to being 500 feet above pattern altitude on the downwind, I ended up too far down the runway and advised I was going around.
The controller seemed unphased by my transgressions and just said to follow runway heading and he would call my crosswind. Shortly he told me to turn crosswind at my discretion with no altitude restriction. I turned to crosswind and this time got into a better position for the downwind. This time everything went by the numbers and a nice landing was my reward. Now I just needed to exit the runway and contact ground. As I reached taxiway Mike and began to turn to the left, the controller came on and said exit right on Mike and contact ground. So, I made a bit of a wide turn to the right and got off at Mike.
I contacted ground and requested to taxi to the run-up area for runway 25. I was cleared to taxi via Hotel, cleared to cross 15R and 15L, and cautioned of the weed abatement in the infield. I finally made it to the run-up area and could take a breath. Once I was confident the seat was going to stay in position, I contacted Santa Barbara Clearance. I was instructed to expect runway 25, follow runway heading until advised, and remain at or below 3000 feet. I contacted the tower and was given a clearance to take off on runway 25, exit the pattern on a right crosswind and follow the freeway due to an aircraft taking off behind me.
I was given a frequency change as I reached El Capitan Beach and relieved of the altitude restriction. Shortly after I reached Santa Ynez, I received another frequency change. I began to follow the Santa Maria River and then headed toward Oceano (L52) and Avila Beach. Looking toward the Pismo Pier I could see a Yellow Stearman that flies out of Oceano flying low along the beach.
Just before I reached Avila I was handed off to San Luis Obispo Tower. San Luis Tower and Ground were still being handled by the same controller as in the morning. I was instructed to enter the left downwind and report mid-field. I reported mid-field and was given clearance to land. Everything by the numbers once again and a nice landing. I exited runway 29 at Echo and was advised to taxi to the parking area.
Throughout the day I was utilizing my checklist, my kneeboard notes, my ForeFlight, and What’s Important Now. I use What’s Important Now to keep me on track or to get me back on track all the time.
All in all, a great day of flying, low wind, clear skies, and patient controllers. What else could I ask for?