There are many important milestones in life. Many are mundane, like ticking off another birthday. Some are the result of years of work, like graduating from college. Others are profound, like the birth of a child. However, the events that really stand out share some things in common. They are special because they can only happen once, they often mark the beginning of something new and wonderful in your life and above all they are rare. Well today was a rare day for me, I flew solo for the first time.
Flying is like nothing else. All other experiences in life are extensions of what we can already do. To drive a car is an extension of riding a bike, an extension of running barefoot. Sailing an extension of swimming or floating on a log. Flying is completely unnatural. No other experience can really prepare you, in fact many mislead you. Learning to fly is a sequence of unlearning whatever you thought you knew and replacing it with something different. It is a leap into the unknown made with wings. Only your skill and knowledge of how those wings fly will bring you back to earth. When you take off on your own for the first time, only you will bring that plane back down. You’ve cast yourself into this unnatural state that rests on a knife edge of technology and skill. No matter how much we seek through training and design to blunt that edge, it still exists and is unforgiving. I can think of no other experience in life quite like it. I can only say that its one experience you walk away from feeling like you just conquered the world.
And so to details. Today was cool and a little windy. ATIS had the wind at 310 10 knots, which is straight down the runway. The temperature was 22C and there were some broken clouds at 15,000’. Not a bad flying day. I arrived early, and luckily so did Grainne. We went through the written exam she had given me last week. This was the last item to complete before I was clear to fly solo. I did fine on the exam, only one question wrong and it was pretty minor, (do you know that in some limited cases it is in fact OK to fly a plane without its Emergency Locator Transmitter – I didn’t). We also reviewed what Tony had written from last Tuesday’s stage check. He wrote some pretty nice things and concluded I was ready to solo, pretty much what he had said to me at the time. Grainne said “we would do some pattern work and see if we could get me to solo”.
In denial, I headed out to pre-flight 5766J and was just about done when Grainne showed up. We had an uneventful taxi run-up and take off on 31R, entering right traffic. The first approach was good but quickly proceeded to go badly wrong in the flare, the plane wandered all over the place and as I got close to the grass on the left so I decided to go around. I figured that had blown any chance of a solo today, this was landing performance like a week ago. I’m not really sure what I did wrong, I think I was trying to use just my rudder to keep the center line, fighting between keeping the nose straight using left rudder, while trying to stay away from the grass using right. I should have used just a little aileron to keep in the middle. After that we proceeded to do three touch and goes. None were great but none were too bad. However after the second one I really didn’t feel in the landing grove and I said I thought I should wait for a day with a little less wind before I did my first solo. Grainne was having none of that, after the next landing as I was about to do the “go” part of the touch and go, she stopped me and said to drop her off at the compass rose, I had no idea where that was, but I thought it sounded like a bar. She called Ground Control and told them we were stopping to drop her off, I could hear one of the controllers cheer in the background. The compass rose turned out to be a square bit of tarmac with the cardinal points of the compass painted on it, its for testing your navigation equipment. As it is near the end of the runway it gives the CFI a good view of your landings.
I shut the door and taxied over to the hold short line. I was thinking that radio was pretty quite and wondering if I should call the tower and remind him I was waiting. That’s when I noticed my radio was still tuned to Ground Control. I don’t know if he was calling me, but I set the radio to the Tower frequency and told him I was ready for takeoff and he told me to position and hold on 31R. The big moment, no going back once I took off. I got the clearance and was heading down the runway without really thinking. A fine takeoff, I reached 700’ which is my usual altitude for turning crosswind, as I turned I realized the turn was quite a bit sooner than usual. That was the effect of Grainne’s meager weight on the planes climb. Got turned onto downwind and overshoot pattern altitude slightly. Usually, I can wait until after the turn to level off, but without the weight I hit the altitude somewhere on crosswind. I had one plane ahead of me in the pattern. I saw him turning onto base as I flew downwind. I started a normal descent abeam the numbers and I guess either he was much slower than me, or I turned onto base too soon. Either way as I came up on final, he was still short final. I was just thinking, he’s not going to be clear of the runway in time when Tower said “that’s not going to work, go around”. So my first solo landing resulted in a go around. Second time through the pattern there was a plane coming straight in to 31R. The Tower told me he was “over the Mall, and I was number 2 to land”. I couldn’t see him but as I was already a little passed the Mall I decided that he must be past me and I could turn base. Bad decision, he was further out than Tower said and I ended up way to close to his backside on final. This time, I called the go around even sooner. Moral of the story always get the traffic in sight. So a second go around, I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to get back on the ground. Next time through, I had just started my descent abeam the numbers, when Tower told me there was a plane again coming straight in for 31R, he also said “over the Mall” but this time I wasn’t fooled. I saw him about a half mile further out and waited for him to pass my wing before turning. That is the long downwind shown on the GPS track. I had to put on some power once it became apparent I was going further downwind than expected and I really had to play with the glide slope as the final approach was about twice as long as usual. The landing was OK, a little flat but not too hard. My first solo landing, just two more to go.
Tradewinds doesn’t allow solo pilots to do touch and go’s, so every landing is to a full stop. It certainly spaces things out and gives you time to catch your breath. Did my after landing checklist and taxied back for takeoff. Another takeoff on 31R and right traffic. This time everything went well and I made a second landing, though the flare was better I was moving a little sideways when I touched down so I got some side force on the landing gear. Another takeoff and around the pattern for my last landing. Again a fine approach and then the flare when bad, just like the first attempt of the day, so another go around. The last landing was pretty much like the second, nose was high, but I was moving a little sideways on touch down. Still, three landings with me and plane both undamaged – that will do nicely for today.
Taxied back and got the plane parked, its hard work when you have to push it on your own. Grainne turned up with an instant camera and she took a couple of pictures of me grinning like an idiot for the notice board and a couple of shots on my own camera. I finished locking up and we headed back to the office. Grainne wrote up my shiny new solo endorsement on my license and the various endorsements in my logbook (which technically she should have done before I flew). She then proceeded to get me to cut the back out of my tee shirt. I guess its an old tradition when you solo your “shirt tails” get cut off. I’ve read that it goes back to the biplane days when your instructor sat behind the student. They didn’t have intercoms so to get his students attention the instructor would pull his students shirt tails. Cutting them off was freeing yourself from the instructor when you soloed. We had fun writing my name on it, drawing pictures and tacking it to the notice board along with the picture.
So now I’m to be let loose to fly planes around Reid Hillview. I guess I thought that I would solo, take a few more dual lessons and then sort of gradually solo a few more times. Not at all, Grainne wants me to fly this weekend solo and practice landings at RHV. We will fly together again on Monday and go down to South County and maybe Hollister so that I can get endorsements to fly there and land. That will pretty much opens up the whole practice area to me to fly solo. I’m looking forward to this weekend.