A Tale of Two First Solos
It has been a few weeks since I posted a story and I just received some news that inspired me to get back to writing. My nephew, Alex, flew his first solo this morning! Every time a pilot hears the news about a student’s first solo, they are reminded of their own first solo. So this story is about two first solos; mine and Alex’s.
Of course, 20 year old Alex soloed after far fewer hours than his 50 year old aunt. Some women don’t reveal their age – I don’t reveal how many hours it took me before I was ready for my first solo. Aside from all the physical reasons such as weather, the airplane maintenance schedule, etc., I believe that the main reason was that I simply was not in a hurry. The whole concept of flying the airplane by myself, without an instructor, before I got my license….well, it terrified me. When I first learned that one of the requirements for getting a pilot’s license was 25 hours of solo time, I almost gave up right then and there. They don’t let you drive a car by yourself before you get your driver’s license, but they make you fly an airplane by yourself before they will give you a pilot’s license.
Also, in spite of having resigned from my job to learn how to fly, I only managed to have three lessons before the end of that first summer. I was surprised when I looked in my logbook the other day and noted that my fourth lesson was not until November 20! Why the delay? In September, I returned to work, part-time, and my flight instructor left for a flying job in Moncton. Then, in October, we decided to move the airplane to the Oshawa airport, so it would be closer to our home. Also, I had decided to take the ground school course, so my Saturdays were spent at the Buttonville airport in the classroom.
In November, I met my new instructor, Teresa. She had been Jeff’s instructor when he had gotten back into flying, and Jeff felt that she would be perfect for me. He was right! We ‘clicked’ right away. Teresa’s style of teaching was just right for me. I tend towards drama and panic, whereas Teresa is the opposite – she is calm and reassuring. I recall one lesson where I felt that my performance had been particularly poor. When I got home after the lesson, I made a list of all the mistakes that I had made. At the beginning of my next lesson I showed it to Teresa and said, melodramatically “Here are all the things that I did on my last lesson that could have killed us”. After reminding me that she would not have let us die, she took the list, looked it over and made a list of her own. She handed it back to me and said “And here are all the things that you did well.” Her list was longer than mine.
The next big challenge was mastering the art of landing the airplane. Take-off is optional , landing is mandatory. A student is not allowed to go solo until they are able to consistently land safely, landing after landing. After many lessons consisting of nothing but take-offs and landings, I just wasn’t getting it. The landings were all, in Teresa’s words, “safe and unassisted”, but many of them were less than elegant. Some landings were smooth, some were hard, some were flat, some were hard and flat – the secret to making them all smooth eluded me. Teresa tried every trick in her book, including sending me for a lesson with a differetn instructor. That didn’t work. I got on the internet to do research, but that didn’t help either. So I turned to my network, my fellow pilots. I asked every pilot that I met at the various flying clubs that I belonged to what advice they could offer.
Finally one of the pilots asked me where was I looking just before touching down on the runway. “Well, at the runway, of course”. “Yes, but where on the runway?” was his next question. When he heard that I was looking at my intended touch-down point, he said “Ah, that’s the problem! You should transition your gaze to the far end of the runway”. The very first time I tried it, it worked and it still works every time. I was ready for my first solo!
On June 8, 2006, Jeff accompanied me to the airport….with his camera. Teresa and I went up and did two circuits (a circuit is one take-off and circle back around for a landing). After the second circuit, she told me to taxi over to the terminal and shut down the engine. She got out of the airplane, told me to lock the passenger door, smiled and wished me luck. Jeff, watching from outside the terminal, waved and gave me a thumbs up.
Sitting in the quiet of the cockpit, gathering my thoughts, I realized that I had never sat in the plane by myself before. After restarting the engine, I radioed to the ground controller to ask for permission to taxi to the active runway for one circuit (a 6 minute flight). As I taxied to runway 12, I felt calm and confident – I was ready for this. I’m sure the grin on my face came through in my radio transmission when I told the tower controller that I was ready for take-off. I squealed with delight as I taxied onto the runway and advanced the throttle to full power, feeling the familiar thrill as I eased back on the control yoke and became airborne.
I climbed and at 500′ above the ground, I made a gentle left turn for the crosswind leg of my circuit. At 1000′ above the ground, I leveled off and turned left again, to join downwind – the longest leg of the circuit. I conducted my downwind checks and for the first time since taxiing onto the runway, I remembered that I was alone in the cockpit. I reported to the tower that I was turning base (another left turn) and began descending and reduced my speed. I held a consistent airspeed of 70 knots and at 500′ above the ground, I made my last left turn, onto my final approach. The controller cleared me to land. I could almost hear my instructor’s voice, reminding me that a good approach makes for a good landing. I slowed the airplane to 65 knots, then 60 knots and held it steady.
As I passed over the threshold of the runway, I focused my gaze on the far end of the runway and raised the nose to further slow down the airplane. I landed smoothly and applied the brakes. On the radio, I heard, “Mike, Whiskey India. Oshawa tower. Exit at Charlie. Contact ground on 118.4. Congratulations on your first solo.” Suddenly, I was choked up. “Thank you. Mike Whiskey India.” I squeaked back.
After shutting down the engine, I jumped out of the airplane and then continued jumping, I was so excited! What an amazing feeling. I had flown an airplane – by myself, without an instructor! What an accomplishment! I highly recommend it. Jeff and Teresa congratulated me as we walked to the terminal and just before we went inside, one of the flight school staff tossed a huge bucket of water at me from behind….freezing cold water! I had heard that getting soaked by a bucket of water was the way that they celebrated first solos at Oshawa, but they still managed to surprise me!
My nephew, Alex, had a similar description of his first solo today, and there were also differences. After 8 circuits (including some ‘overshoots’ and ‘simulated engine failures’), his instructor had him taxi to the terminal and he hopped out. Like me, Alex felt confident, and in fact, he said that he felt less nervous with his instructor not in the airplane.
Unlike my experience, however, there was other traffic in the circuit, as he was flying at a busier airport and on a Saturday. That did not affect his flight, however, He said that it was one of the best circuits that he had ever flown. Everything went perfectly – altitudes, airspeeds, everything! And he made a very smooth landing. In Alex’s words “I greased it”. I asked him if there was anything unusual about the flight and he said “No, other than the psychotic upper winds, everything was perfect”
The first solo celebration ritual at Alex’s airport is similar to the one at the Oshawa airport, in that they throw buckets of water at the student. They have an additional one, too. They have a bathtub with wings and wheels on it and they put the student in the bathtub, fully clothed and with hot or cold water in the tub. In Alex’s case, it was hot water (on a very hot day) and they wheel you up and down in front of the hangars. What fun!
As he was describing the flight to us, he did not seem very excited and when I asked him how he felt, he shrugged and said that it was just like any other flight. I reminded him that he had just flown an airplane by himself, without and instructor, and that was a huge accomplishment. I asked him “So, how would you describe your first solo flight?” His response? “Definitely satisfying”