As part of the commercial pilot training, there is a requirement to fly a solo cross-country flight with a landing at least 250 miles away from the starting point. Most of us, myself included, will pull up a map and look just outside that 250 nm range and start planning to visit the closest possible airport.

It’s time to think outside that circle and use that PPL and see the country. I had the chance to fly solo from Providence to Tulsa, OK. The experience ranks up there with my first flight, first solo, first license…..Every step of the way was an opportunity to use what I’ve learned and learn along the way.

Where to begin?

The planned route of flight from RI to OK

1200 miles!? That seems daunting when you first type in that distance. When I broke the trip down into its individual legs, it was much easier to look at without feeling overwhelmed. I scanned my route of flight, looking for cheap fuel to plan my stops. Once I found a good candidate, I checked the weather forecast to see if conditions would be suitable. My first stop in PA was forecast to be a little windy with no crosswind runway. I realized I should have alternates in mind wherever I went in case I couldn’t land safely. My finalized plan would take me from Rhode Island, to western Pennsylvania, to Dayton, OH, to southern Illinois, and finally to Tulsa, OK.

Providence, RI – Johnstown, PA
The first flight took me to the edge of my familiar “world”. I’d never flown this far from home, let alone by myself. Pennsylvania is surprisingly full of hills and valleys, with many airports located on top of hills or plateaus. I realized how many airports I’ve landed at are basically at sea level. In New England we are rarely faced with airport elevations much above a few hundred feet. They field elevation for my destination on this leg was 2,298 feet, a full 1200 ft above the PVD traffic pattern. Don’t forget AGL v MSL!

Navigating across unfamiliar land to an unfamiliar airport forced me to blow the dust off my pilotage skills, despite being assisted with a GPS and iPad. I located a set of train tracks that ran across to a highway, that pointed right to the airport, just like the chart said it would. I was glad I changed my mind about airports. 20 knots wasn’t nearly as bad straight down the runway as it would have been if it were a crosswind. I taxied in, topped off the fuel, and set off to Dayton, OH!

Johnstown, PA – Dayton, OH
Standing between me and Dayton was the Pittsburg Class Bravo airspace. To keep things simple, I filed an IFR flight plan. Doing so helped me with the unfamiliar territory and assisted in transitioning airspace near Pittsburgh.

Fortunately, training in PVD meant I was not worried at all about talking with Dayton Approach Control. I had called ahead to the FBO to inquire about overnight accommodations. They recommend I request runway 24L since they are right next to the approach end. That worked out perfectly and helped me locate their building on the gigantic Dayton Airport. I checked the forecast to see what the weather would bring overnight and the winds were forecast to get high. I didn’t want to leave the airplane outside in the winds, just in case. The FBO let me hangar the 172 for the night. I appreciated not having to worry about the airplane while I tried to rest up for the next long day of flying..

The overnight was a little daunting. It dawned on me that I was alone in Ohio, and I had gotten myself there by virtue of an airplane that I had flown.

I spent the night watching the weather develop along my next day’s route. The winds to the west were starting to pick up. The storms were two days away. Was that too much wind for me? Should I turn back?

No way! I had to make it. I couldn’t wait one more day or that storm system was going to be over New Mexico and coming quick.

Was I coming down with Get-there-itis?

I relaxed and took a look at the TAFs. That wind was right down the runway at both of my destinations and both had crosswind runways. The aloft winds were not extreme and the nearest cloud was forecast to be about 500 miles away from my route. With a flight like this, what is the worst case scenario? I might have to stop somewhere and adjust my plans? So what? It’s not the end of the world. Neither I nor the airplane HAD to be anywhere at any particular time. So, filed some flight plans, topped off the complimentary crew car and head back to the airport and took off for Illinois.

Dayton, OH – Marion, IL

I purposely filed IFR direct to Indianapolis before I would make the turn towards the south and make a direct line towards Oklahoma. I had never flown over this part of the country before and wanted to see as much as I could. Flying over Indy, the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway was easy to spot. A quick “hello” from the air and I turned my attention South.

The country that spread out before me was patchwork, flat farmland, punctuated by the occasional river. It looked that one giant soft field landing site. With air this calm and land so flat, I had the time to relax and listen to ATC. I heard several United and American miss calls and get headings and altitudes wrong. I was glad to hear I’m not the only one that makes the occasional mistake. 

Marion, IL – Tulsa, OK

Here I was. I had made it to the final stretch to Richard Lloyd Jones Jr Airport just outside of Tulsa, OK. I had planned on this being a 3-hour flight, but my headwinds had increased to 30kts! My groundspeed dropped to an abysmal rate. I tried climbing to a higher altitude to take advantage of what was reported as a lighter headwind. After climbing up to 10,000 feet, I found out that that report was wrong and I was going even slower than before. I had to recalculate all of my fuel burn math. How much did I just burn to get up here? How many hours left before I arrive? How many hours do I have left in the thanks? I took a look at a sectional chart and made note of several options for landing short of my destination just in case.

Thankfully the headwind dissipated a little and I was soon talking with Tulsa approach. Lots of people going were going into “Riverside.” I wonder out loud where that was and then it dawned on me….KRVS. I supposed that charts don’t always call it TF Green, either, but at least now I knew where to look. I spied two really tall buildings and were marked on the sectional as being next to the airport. Those would be (not?) hard to miss.

It took me longer to write this than it did to fly it. Why? Because every time I started to write it, I ran the whole trip through my head again. So many random little parts. It was a never ending challenge that I would encourage everyone to do. Every step of the way allowed me to utilize my training; to understand how it all fit together. Taking off with no intention of returning to Point A the same day will force you to draw upon lessons you forgot you took. Time to swim towards the deep end. But don’t forget, you know how to swim.

Like your first Solo or first flight as a licensed pilot, you will never get more out of an experience than literally flying Cross Country