“If you don’t bring back the cookie, you’ll have to do the ride again.”
I let out a forced laugh as these words came forth from the mouth of my flight instructor. “Seriously, you can’t just takeoff, fly around the local area and land. You have to go all the way to Tulsa, land, get a cookie from the FBO there, and bring it back.”
He was serious, but so was I. It was to be my first solo cross-country flight. I had been looking forward to grabbing the keys to the flight school’s Cessna 172 and taking to the skies by myself – flying out beyond the local practice area and into Tulsa’s Class C airspace. It was a challenge this young student pilot was ready to undertake no matter how daunting the radio calls seemed or how bumpy the summer afternoon ride would be.
I had soloed a few times in the local area: a pattern-only flight followed by a couple trips to the practice area for S-turns and turns around a point. I had become familiar with the patchwork of wheat and cornfields below the local airspace, and had even landed in one a couple of times with my instructor to practice soft field landings. Leaving the comfort and familiarity of the local area would be yet another test of my resolve to become an aviator.
My instructor had made the trip to Tulsa International Airport (KTUL) with me once before helping me become familiar with the radio calls. The process seemed cosmic at the time and I was glad to have my instructor helping me out, but now it was my time to prove – mainly to myself – that I was capable of doing it by myself. I remember the feeling as I departed Enid’s Woodring Regional Airport (KWDG) and headed east, using highway 412 as my primary navigation reference.
It was pretty much a straight shot east to the I-35 intersection, then southeast and over Keystone Lake into Tulsa. The sky was the very definition of CAVU, and other than the standard afternoon mild turbulence there was nothing out of the ordinary that would complicate this flight.
I used my most confident radio voice to check in with Tulsa Approach to let them know I was VFR to the west for a right base to runway 18R. I don’t remember the ATIS identifier that day, but I should; I listened to ATIS probably ten times before I was confident that I had all the information correct. The controller, whom I was certain my flight instructor had contacted to warn about the rookie about to enter his airspace, was very patient and friendly. After a point out to the airfield and ensuring that I did in fact have the field in sight he handed me off to an equally patient tower controller.
The landing was surprisingly decent given the ball of nerves in my stomach and somehow I managed to navigate the maze of taxiways to the FBO. With the aircraft shutdown in the chocks I practically skipped into the FBO with the grin of a combat ace on my face. I didn’t stop to make small talk with the receptionist…I had my eye on the cookie container and wasn’t going to stop until I had that precious morsel (if not two) in my hands. I picked up that cookie like an Olympic champion brandishing a recently won gold medal.
Flying-wise, the events of that day were wholly unremarkable. I’m sure I learned some lessons from the flight – I definitely gained confidence in my abilities as a pilot. But as I think back on that day, I remember my anxieties, worries, and fears. They seem insignificant now 9 years and 1,800+ hours later and I am able to see how far I have come in gaining experience and airmanship. I remember flying as an instructor with student pilots and seeing them experience the same feelings I did at that stage in my flying career – and I remember seeing their triumph upon overcoming those obstacles.
This is what being a pilot is all about: putting your skills and abilities to the test, overcoming challenges, and improving. My challenges today are different than they were years ago, but I welcome them with equal motivation and courage. The aircraft I fly are a little faster and more complex, but the rush of climbing into the sky is exactly the same. We are a lucky few who know what it is to take to the sky in command of an aircraft.
May your landings always equal your takeoffs!