When talking about flying lessons and my progress (or the lack of it :-)) I am often posed the following question or comment: “but if you are taking lessons… then you always fly with an instructor, right?”
The answer is no. Unlike car driving lessons, part of the requirements to become a private pilot is to have completed a given amount of flying hours having flown solo (i.e. without instructor), part of them “navigation” flying hours (1).
The first flight solo is typically a marking moment in the flying life of a pilot. See here a post with my experience then. The first flights solo are typically around your home aerodrome, where you are used to all geographical accidents, the aerodrome circuit, radio frequencies and you may feel less stressed. A friendly scenario where to push the bird to fly.
There are many other marking moments in the flying life of a student pilot: the first take off or landing that you do at the controls, or the first navigation solo. The word navigation is used to describe flights going from one aerodrome to another, hence some navigation skills are required and employed to reach the destination.
Then, another big marking moment is what in France is called the “Grande Nav solo”. As its name points out, it is a solo flight implying navigation, but then a big one, a rather long flight. Specifically, as required by the FCL 1.125 (b) (1) “done au moins un vol en campagne d’au moins 270 kilometres (150NM), au course duquel deux aterrisages complets doivent etre effectues sur deux aerodromes differents de celui de depart” (see requirements above).
I completed such grande nav solo flight back on July 23rd. I had been after it for months, trying to find a slot with good meteorological conditions and having accumulated some flight hours in the prior weeks to feel at ease. It was big moment that I wanted to share here.
For that navigation we selected the route Toulouse Lasbordes – Rodez (2) – Cahors and back to Lasbordes. The route had over 160 nautical miles (over 300 kilometres) and would take me over 2 hours, including the two complete landings. You can see below the route in a screenshot from the 1/500.000 aeronautical chart available at the website carte aero fr.(3)
The experience during the flight.
The flight went remarkably well, even if I started a bit pressured because of the time.
I arrived at the aerodrome at about 18:00. With the flight preparation, finding out last information about weather, points of contact for special zones, pre-flight check list, etc., I only managed to start the engine at 18:36 local time. At that point I started to have some doubts of whether if anything went wrong I might not be able to return back after the complete flight… would I have to shorten it? I decided to take a look at the timing at Rodez parking.
After the take off, and en-route to Rodez, right after quitting Lasbordes’ radio, I passed with Toulouse Info and demanded a flight tracking, which is reassuring at the beginning. I couldn’t start climbing up to 4,000ft right after flying over Gaillac as there was some Airbus traffic coming from Blagnac. Reaching Camaux, close to Albi, I had to turn left (033) and then I could start the climb.
The week before I had got lost while navigating towards Rodez (I was then with my instructor, and we found ourselves with the help of a GPS). Not this time. I paid much detail to the navigation, finding the villages that marked the different way points of the approach to Rodez, and cross-checking with the tower that I was indeed at those points.
Curiously enough, when I was at the parking in Rodez there was a helicopter coming in, which followed the same descent path, runway, taxi way, etc., as if it was an airplane.
At the parking, I quickly made the numbers and thought I would have enough margin to complete the whole flight so I decided to go.
On the way to Cahors I continued being followed by Rodez Info (same controller than Rodez tower). When I mentioned that I was quitting to pass with Toulouse Info frequency he noted that I could continue with him all the way to Cahors, so I did. Having the sun setting in front of me and not wearing sun glasses that afternoon it was difficult to locate the terrain. I was seeing some cleared land about 10nm ahead, thus, I again asked the controller. He confirmed that it was Cahors aerodrome and that the distance was 8nm. Good. Second leg almost done.
I passed to Cahors frequency. As there was no controller it operated only for communication between airplanes… and parachute jumpers, as there were many jumping at that moment. The pilot of the plane from which they jumped proved quite helpful there. Even if I had studied the aerodrome chart, he provided all kind of explanations via the radio at my arrival:
“as there is parachuting activity, don’t fly over the vertical, integrate yourself directly into the circuit. There are no more airplanes at the moment, report in base leg (the circuit is a right hand for runway 31, the one in service). There are two exits to the runway, take the second one as in the first one there is a plane waiting for departure: me…”.
While parked at the tarmac, I drank some water and listened to some message for me. They offered to sign something for me. I wasn’t not understanding it fully. What did I need to get signed? Nothing. So I asked them about that. Apparently they offered to sign some paper as a souvenir of having flown to that aerodrome and visited the aeroclub. I thanked them and told that I wanted to go quickly back to Toulouse. “So, you’re doing your Grande Nav Solo, aren’t you?”. “Yes, I am” (all radio exchanges in French, though). “Good luck then!”. After a couple of minutes, I proceeded with the check lists to depart.
On the way back to Toulouse I passed again with Toulouse Info. I passed by the East of Montauban, Villemur-sur-Tarn… and then I was already in an area I knew well, thus I was rather calm.
Arriving to the way points EN and AE there was some traffic (informed by TLS Info), and as soon as I got a visual of them and they flew away I passed to Lasbordes frequency (no controller anymore due to the time of arrival). I proceeded with the integration, landing and parking at my aeroclub’s tarmac. Done!
Finally, find below a copy of the navigation log I used during the flight, with remarks for changes of heading, comments for the route, annotations during the flight, ATIS information, and the sum made at Rodez to estimate the remaining duration of the flight to decided whether to continue or not.
(1) The extract is taken from the French ministry for sustainable development [PDF] which oversees Flight Crew Licence requirements.
(2) Coincidentally, just a few days before that flight I had flown with my instructor and a colleague to Rodez and got lost at the destination.
(3) A tip from my colleague Rapha and a good resource to quickly start preparing a navigation flight.
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