KRYV 301356Z AUTO 23003KT 10SM SCT110 09/08 A2971 RMK AO2
KSBM 301453Z AUTO 25005KT 10SM BKN060 BKN100 11/08 A2969 RMK AO2 RAB39E50 SLP057 P0000 60000 T01110078 53007
KATW 301645Z 26008KT 10SM SCT020 BKN070 14/09 A2969
KUNU 301737Z AUTO 26007G18KT 10SM SCT065 16/10 A2974 RMK AO2
And so it was, the stars aligned. The forecast wasn't optimal, but once again it didn't turn out to be reality. Conditions overnight were IFR, but the advisory was dropped with the 1400Z AIRMET. I was clear to fly. It wouldn't be a milk run, though. The radar showed a line of showers passing just north of Appleton and heading southeast toward Sheboygan. Ignoring them would be perilous. Adam reviewed my planning sheets and endorsed my logbook while I called for the weather briefing. One thing I've observed about weather briefings. When I'm on the ground, the information I have is the same as, or in the case of radar better, than the weather briefers. One thing the briefing you get from Flight Service is best at is completeness, especially when it comes to the non-weather items, like NOTAMS.
With the endorsement and good wishes from the ground staff, I made 02E ready for flight. After finishing the walkaround and securing the cockpit door, I laid out my materials on the right seat: the chart, the Airport/Facility Directory, plotter, sunglasses, water bottle. The kneeboard with my flight plan and the E6B were strapped to my leg. With over 2 hours of flying ahead, I took a deep breath and cranked the plane to life. And with a final check of instruments and radios, I taxied to Runway 23 for takeoff.
After liftoff, I climbed quickly. I tuned to Madison VORTAC and raised Green Bay FSS to open my flight plan. One note from all of my climbs for the day: I did not do a good job of holding my climb speed. Since that is part of the practical test, I need to focus on it. On the other hand, there will be someone in the right seat during the checkride, and the plane is not so spry with a passenger. I should be ok. The ride into Sheboygan is without incident, I make left traffic for Runway 21 and execute a decent landing. But there were dark clouds with rainshafts just to the north of the airport, and raindrops are hitting the windshield as I stop the plane on the ramp so that I can close the flight plan. My first attempt to call Green Bay FSS on GCO fails, so I shut the engine down and use my cell phone. I closed the flight plan, and I almost forgot to ask for an update on conditions at Appleton. And it's a good thing I did, because Appleton was reporting a ceiling of 3000'. That and the rain over Sheboygan was enough to convince me to get out of the plane on wait it out in the FBO. (The FBO, Western Shore Aviation
, was pretty sweet. They had 6 leather recliners in the pilot lounge. Too bad I was too nervous to sit down.)
After 45 apprehensive minutes, the radar showed no precipitation en route, and the latest observations for both Sheboygan and Appleton showed ceilings above 5000'. I headed back to the plane. I strapped in, checked the controls for freedom of movement, and started the plane. I headed back toward Runway 21. I had called my position on the ground, and I even saw a plane land, but nothing was coming over the radio. That's when I noticed my first blunder. I had forgotten to tune the radio back to CTAF from the GCO frequency. Not a big deal, but one of those detail things that drive me nuts. The skies looked good from the ground as I lifted off of Runway 21 and made my turn toward Appleton.
I made it to 3500' in little time as the plane was running well. Then, at 4000', everything went white. How could that be? I didn't see any cloud layer from below, yet here I was with no visibility. Do I keep climbing? That's risky business; I don't know how thick this layer is. I look below and observe clouds at about 2500'. How long can I fly above those clouds and still have a hole big enough to descend through? Appleton is reporting scattered at 2000', but this looks closer to a broken ceiling. It's a tough decision, but I decide to descend below the clouds. This will mean flying about 800' above ground level, so I have to be very careful. Towers can definitely come into play if I'm not extremely careful. Looking back, this may not have been a good decision, I'll admit to as much. The ride was bumpy, and I always had to keep an eye out for potential landing sites. If the engine quit now, it was a short trip to the ground. And I had to pee. The adventure was now in full swing, and it would only get better.
It was a great relief then, when I reached the eastern edge of Lake Winnebago. No more towers, but now I had to call Appleton tower. I made initial contact with Appleton tower and tower replied with an instruction to report when 5 miles out and to expect Runway 2_. I read the instruction back, but I got the runway wrong, which the tower controller quickly corrected. This is also when I made my next mistake. I stopped paying attention to my VOR needle and tried to find the airport visually. When I thought I was 5 miles east, I called the tower. The tower asked me again for my position. After my reply, tower immediately replied "Skyhawk 02E, IDENT". I knew right away I was not where I thought I was. I quickly pressed the ID button on my transponder, which sends a ping that the controller can see on his radar. He came back and told me where I really was, and it was time to confess. "Appleton Tower, I'm a student on solo, airport not in sight." Tower told me to turn to the southwest, and the airport should be about 5 miles to my 10 o'clock. Shortly afterward, I saw the airport and notified the tower. I was then cleared for landing, and things were fine as I landed.
I really had to go to the bathroom, and I tried to reach the FBO on the UNICOM frequency, but there was no answer. So I found a place to park on the ramp, shut the plane down and took my break. They have ramp fees at that FBO, so I discreetly went in, nodded at the girl at the desk, found the bathroom, and quickly made my way back to the plane. Next set of tasks would be to complete my landings requirements at a towered airport. I am required to do 3 solo landings, and 1 was complete. When I contacted the tower, I asked for 2 stop and go landings, and since traffic was light, the tower approved. A stop and go would allow me to stop on the runway after landing, then take off from that position. The runway was over 6000' long, so there would be plenty of room. All of that went quite well. The patterns were good, the landings were good, and communications were good. Just after taking off for the last time, I requested departure to the south. The tower told me to maintain heading while a commercial jet came in, then directed me to the south, which was good because this ensured I got above the 3500' ceiling of Oskosh airspace about 12 miles south of Appleton. I reached my cruise altitude of 4500', and requested to change radio frequency from Appleton tower, which was granted.
As I made my way over Appleton, conditions were good. That is until I saw a scattered cloud layer ahead at about eye level. I tuned Fond du Lac ASOS, and it said the scattered level was at 5000'. So I had to make another decision. Do I go over or under? This time, I could see this was just a cloud band, and there were clear skies at the other side, and this scattered layer had plenty of clear holes that I could descend through. So I pushed the throttle in and took the plane up to 6500'.
I wasn't at the level for long, as I needed to make my descent for Dodge County. I did have to deviate slightly to the west to make it through the clouds, but that worked to my favor, setting me up nicely for my entry into the Runway 26 pattern. Everything went fine at Dodge County, and I only had time to touch and go and make it back to Watertown.
It was good to hear the familiar "Welcome to Watertown" greeting on the CTAF as I tracked over the city on the way to a landing on Runway 23. It was a long morning, with 2.8 hours of flying time. I lingered in the lounge for about an hour, drinking in the experience, telling my tale to the nice lady at the desk, and building up anticipation for the next chance I would get to fly. It's getting closer now, let's see if we can get it done before Thanksgiving.