I have been a flight instructor for decades. In the course of training for the basic pilot certificate, the Private Pilot certificate, we send student pilots on what we all call in the vernacular “the long cross country.” This is a flight that used to be several hundred miles and was shortened some years ago to merely 150 nautical miles, but its purpose remains the same – to give the student pilot an opportunity to venture out into the world, to trek far away from the comfortable environs of his home airport, to fly over enough time and distance so that the unexpected is expected, to give him or her an opportunity to make decisions on his own, decisions that have consequences and sometimes ambiguous choices. It is a rite of passage. Every time I send a student out on this solo flight, I expect something unexpected to happen: a change in the weather, an Air Traffic Control instruction that he has not heard before, perhaps a minor mechanical problem. I want to learn how the pilot will handle these curve balls and I want him to learn to depend on his own judgment. Of course, I am always available by phone or email to help sort out an intractable problem. There is always support. But this is where and when the pilot really begins to assume command authority.
I have been flying for many years and have had some great adventures, piloting charitable flights through all kinds of weather while caring for very ill children and their families, flying float planes in the wilds of Alaska, crossing the country through the Rockies and across the plains in a 700-pound light sport airplane. But I am about to embark on a flight that will inevitably involve the unexpected — mechanical problems, transit and visa problems, daily weather challenges and decisions in unfamiliar territory. Fatigue, strange languages and customs, unfamiliar airports and procedures. This is a flight of thousands of miles, literally around the world, and I embark on it knowing that these things, which could be seen as challenges or as opportunities, will happen. And suddenly, as I contemplate the flight, the similarity becomes apparent. And I think I am ready for my long cross country.