Second Solo X-Country

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Sat. 13th October 2001

The second cross-country was more challenging. The assignment was simple—fly to Prescott (PRC) and then fly to Wickenburg (E25) and then "come back, you hear?". 

As I looked at the map I realized that the devil was in the details. It entailed violating aviation's sacred cow – class Bravo airspace, and then trying to find Wickenburg with no navigation aids and then trying to keep off of a nuclear power plant (Palo Verde).

About Class Bravo

Air traffic control is an impressive array of technology and rules. Radar follows and communications links every aircraft to control towers where humans and computers manage the coordinated flow and safety in the sky. The skies are divided into airspaces classes, called Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and so on (for A, B, C…). Class Alpha airspace is all the sky above 18,000 feet. This is too high for small aircraft; planes flying there must have pressurized cabins, carry oxygen and fly under close scrutiny of air traffic control. 

Class Bravo is where heart-stopping drama unfolds at all times of day and night. Bravo is chock full of passenger aircraft on approach and departure from major congested airports. The US has about 30 class Bravo spaces. Each Bravo is a cylinder centered on the airport, stretching about 30 miles on all sides. It is also an “inverted wedding cake” or inverted umbrella. The area covered by Bravo increases with altitude. At ground level, the radius of Bravo is about 5 miles, and it increases in steps to 30 miles as we go higher up. 

Penetrating class Bravo - better known as transitioning Bravo, requires permission and strict adherence to rules governing speed, altitude and path.


Saturday morning I am at Chandler Air Service, and was treated with reassuring shrieks from many a flight instructors “Ohhhh eeewe, you going to the Wickenburg Triangle? Good luck, try to come back. We may miss you!!”  I was not the only person to venture out that morning, another student, Collete, was going to follow me, on the same mission.

To cut a long story short, I took off, opened my flight plan and headed for my first landmark—Firebird Lake. Circling the lake at 3,500 feet, I asked Phoenix Approach for clearance to barrel though Bravo Airspace:

Firebird lake (from 2000ft)

The radio conversations went like:

ME: Phoenix Approach, this is Cherokee 2148-Yankee at 3,500 over Firebird, with request.
Phoenix: Cherokee 2148-Yankee, stand by.
Someone else: Phoenix Approach, this is <mumble>, we are over Firebird, um, maybe 3,500 need transition.
<mumble>, please standby.
Yet Someone Else: Phoenix Approach, this is <something>, approaching Firebird from South, 1 mile away,  at 3,500 over Firebird, with request.

Oh great, I now have some company, or three. Same place, same height. I cannot see any planes though. I feel horrendously uneasy knowing that right alongside me, are two other aircraft that I cannot see, and a little bump would, let us say, be rather uncomfortable.

So I move away, I head off aimlessly a mile or two off of Firebird. Maybe they moved away too, I do not know. I did not feel any bumps.

Soon, Phoenix called me back, gave me a squawk code and said the magic words "you are cleared into class Bravo". I was asked to take the west transition. So off I went, one eye glued to the instrument panel, second eye glued to the map, third eye glued to the terrain below, watching for landmarks and the fourth eye looking for aircraft. 
(You don't have 4 eyes? Then please don't fly! I would not want to meet you up there)

Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, from West Transition Route

After transitioning I start climbing to avoid some other class D airspaces scattered around Sky Harbor. Once I am out of the zoo, I turn on the VOR and set the course to Prescott. The needle starts wavering all over the place. Cool, I realize, the plane has just one VOR, and it does not work. That is nice.

Prescott and Wickenburg

So it is "pilotage" time. Since I had flown that route, I was not nervous. I kept watching for landmarks, follow I-17 and climb as high as I can. All looks fine. I make the left turn into the valley leading to Prescott and soon the city was in view, and the airport looked like a barren splotch in the distance.

Then I called Prescott Tower. OK, I will not go into Prescott stories. All I can say is that if you, ever want to go to Prescott, just do not.

Prescott is a zoo. There are no humans there. And that includes ATC, pilots who fly around the airport, ground crew, everyone :-) As Collete and me had lunch we swapped Prescott stories. It kept getting weirder. To protect the guilty, I will not state them in a public forum. 

From Prescott I took off to Wickenburg. No navigation, unknown terrain. The fear of getting lost did raise its ugly head. Oh wait, why is there a city down there, there should be nothing here.... oh my look there is an airport. Let me fly over it. As I glide over the runway at 8,000 feet, I notice something written on the tarmac. In big bold letters it said WICKENBURG.

Oops, it snuck on me when I was not looking? Ok, wont complain. Lets land. Spiral down. Wait, I am thirsty, so I taxi the plane to this little house like thing. An older guy was hanging out bored. Chatted with him, he sold me a coke, and off I went.

Back Home

From Wickenburg its should be easy. Fly south till you hit I-10 and then follow it back to Phoenix. Just watch out for all the airspace restrictions, near PHX. No problem. Just came from there, should not be a proble. Only one problem.....

I was told not to fly over or near the Palo Verde Nuclear Plant (this is right after 9/11). I see a "plant" emblem on the map on my flight path, so I make a detour to avoid it. As I turn out of the detour, I look down and find the humongousest looking towers right below me. It was Palo Verde and I was right on top of it.

I had misread the location of Palo Verde. Oh well, there were no F-16s intercepting, so I just got out of there as fast as I could. Which is not very fast in a single engined plane.

Nice views, nice ride, I am almost home. As I fly close to Goodyear Airport I gave them a call. the bored traffic controller chatted with me "Thanks for calling" he said "nothing much is going on over here". I got to see the Phoenix International Raceway for the first time.

A few more minutes and it was over. Getting back home felt good. The flight however was a joy.