[Update] So, the rest of the flying weekend was a bust. Weather rolled in and I wasn’t able to get in the air with my instructor yesterday or today. The weather cleared up this afternoon, but he was booked with other clients. At least the cat that has adopted the flight school was in feeling friendly. The maintenance guys call her Maggie, but someone stopped by Saturday morning and was calling her Whiskey.

I also spotted a couple of neat aircraft. One of my favorites:

And a Huey! The cloud cover is hanging out around 900 feet AGL.

The highlight of the bad weekend was a visit to the tower. This airport is somewhat unusual because it’s a public/private airport. The tower is an FAA facility even though the airport is privately owned. The controllers said they think it’s set up this way because of the large number of student pilots, the proximity to Bush Intercontinental Airport, and so they can use it as a training facility for new air traffic controllers. I learned quite a bit about how it functions. Very neat!

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[Original content below]

I’ve planned a weekend chock-full of flying if the weather holds. We got started with my first big cross-country trip this afternoon.

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The plan was to go from David Wayne Hooks Airport to Angelina County Airport in Lufkin, TX, then to the Huntsville Airport, and finally, back to Hooks. The total trip was about 175 nautical miles or just over 201 statute miles.

When planning a trip like this, the first step is to get all of the airport information for each of the stops. Important things to note are the appropriate frequencies for communication, the runway lengths, and the weather so you know which runway to use when landing.

The next step is to use the map to identify waypoints along the way. I put together a list of things easily-identifiable from the air like the peninsula of a lake, a small town, or a small airport. Once they are compiled, the next step is to figure out the distances between each waypoint and how long it will take to reach each point given how fast your plane will fly under the current weather conditions.

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This can all be done with a map, a pencil, a navigation plotter and an analog flight computer.

Or, you can cheat and use software like ForeFlight or SkyVector. For today’s flight we did a little of both. I put together the list manually, but my instructor pulled everything up on his iPad to verify I found all of the right information. We also used the GPS in the plane to mark the route between airports while I navigated between the waypoints. It’s a great fail-safe.

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We got off the ground about 45 minutes before sunset. The winds were out of the west, so when we got to Lufkin, I was landing into the setting sun. That was one of the most difficult landings I’ve had to make. The sun was blinding. Thankfully, there was no traffic at that airport.

After we got airborne again, I took the only picture I would on this flight.

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The sunset was beautiful even if the image I took was awful. Just squint your eyes a bit and you’ll get the idea.

For the last two legs, we cheated a bit more. There’s a process called flight following. The basic idea is to request guidance from the same guys who provide traffic control for the big birds. The pilot tells traffic control where he wants to go and they provide instructions. The best part is that once you contact them, they give you a specific transponder code and that is used to track your progress. Once it’s being tracked, it becomes part of a public database. Here’s my flight from KLFK this evening:

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All the wiggling around was me following my VFR waypoints.

And that led to the best part! The second tier of controlled airspace is “bravo”. This is where the big birds fly. You have to have permission to enter bravo airspace. If you enter it without permission, the FAA will come calling. My home airport is underneath bravo airspace, so we’re taught to drop our altitude to fly under it without getting into trouble.

Today, we were authorized to enter the bravo airspace without even asking! Coming back from Hunstville, we were cruising at 3,500'. Air traffic control told us to maintain altitude and direction and gave us permission to enter bravo. That’s something many private pilots never get to do. I can now say I was sharing airspace with commercial jets!

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I managed to make my way back to my home airport after dark with minimal assistance then land after dark on my own. We have two more long flights planned over the weekend. I just can’t wait to see what we get to do tomorrow!