First Solo

The plane rolled hard to the right and went into a dive.  It what was supposed have been an ‘aileron roll’ but the pilot kept pulling back hard on the stick, forcing the plane to come out of the dive going in completely the opposite direction, but now at a lower altitude and going much faster.   The turn was so tight you could just about make out the water vapor forming over the top of the wings, caused by the low pressure from maximum lift.  It was difficult to keep track of all the physics involved.  The engines were screaming, and then sputtering in a way that sent the spit flying.  The hands at the controls were almost invisible, the plane seemed to move as mental extension of oneself. With such intense practice, it’s quite amazing how good a young pilot can get at discerning all the nuances of aerobatic control. At the end of the training session, all aircraft were carefully returned back to the toy box.

The love and interest in airplanes never went away.  In fact, some of the same piloting skills were practiced into adulthood, just with a little less engine noise, and a lot more care about who might be watching.  I always thought that it would be great to fly, but that getting the pilot’s license would be a drag. If only there was just some way around that.

The Cessna 152 sputtered to life, with more noise, but less spit, than the planes of my childhood.  It was clearly older than the twenty something year old instructor sitting in the right hand seat.  It slowly taxied from the ramp out towards the runways in a very sloppy fashion.  Before turning right, it seemed go left for a second and then make a giant over correction back to where it needed to go.  The problem with the thing was that the steering wheel does not do a damn thing when taxiing at low speed.  The only way to make the plane go where you want is to step down on the right foot pedal to go right and the left foot pedal to go left.  If you really needed to turn hard, you pushed hard with your toes, which puts on the brake on that side of the plane.  This, it turns out, is exactly the way planes are supposed to work.  The real problem was that the person at the controls was me.  I was in my mid to late 40’s and had never flown before.  Someone had given me a Groupon for a half hour flight lesson.  They were having a special.  According to the young instructor, most people who get these Groupons have no interest in actually learning to fly, they are just going sightseeing.  Apparently, The young instructor could see my enthusiasm to actually fly the plane and could also detect my superior flight skills from all my earlier, spit filled experience.  When we lined up on the runway I heard him say, in his thick Australian accent, “OK, let’s take off. Start pulling lightly back on the yoke when that needle there hits 50 knots”.  ‘What? You want me to do it?’ I thought.  ‘What the hell, I’m sure he’ll take over when needed’ was my second thought, so off we went. It’s amazing how much useful experience and skill thoughtful play can give you.  Things were actually going fairly well.  My worst performance of the day was caused by not practicing ground taxiing as a kid.  All of those prior flights had ended in crash landings into the toy bin.  The instructor seemed to be having some fun too. He started barking out orders.  “Turn left at a 30 degree bank and end the turn at 270 degrees on the indicator in front of you”.  I complied with all the concentration that I could muster.  “Climb at full power to three thousand”.  “Now turn right for 180 degrees, level out, then turn left back to where we started”.  I was so intense that I barely noticed the scenery. Just every once and awhile, I would look down and the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and said to myself ‘wow, this is really cool’.  At the end of the flight and back in the office, I was so pumped that I bought all the textbooks and supplies, right then and there.  

Now that I was seriously committed to getting my pilots license, I figured that there was no need to stick with this little flight school simply because that is were the Groupon intro was.  I interviewed a flight club at the airport much closer to where I lived. This seemed smart.

The instructor that I was starting my ‘real’ lessons with was a surprisingly old gentleman who was an ex-air-force pilot.  He made it very clear that the this was going to be a long process.  He seemed more intent on showing me how good he was and how much I am not yet ready for the rigors of flying.  I took two lessons under him, with each one running longer and thus more expensive than planned.  After two ‘real’ lessons, I had lost my joy of becoming a pilot.  ‘Oh well, I had rocked kindergarten only to get shut down by the nuns in first grade’ I thought.  I know the gig well.  But then a thought occurred to me.  Why don’t I go back up to the little flight school in St. Charles and try a lesson with the young Australian kid name Aaron again, just to be sure.  I did just that and voila!  It was fun again!  The young kid, unlike the old man, did not seem to have an ego and delighted in teaching me.  Perhaps he did have an ego, but his pride was in how fast he could train up a student.  His goal was to get me past each major portion of the curriculum in the absolute minimum number of hours allowed.  It was more internal.  It did not include impressing that student.

Working that hard under someone creates a bond of respect.  I had lost any thought of the fact that I was one of his earlier students and that he could easily have been my son.  We meshed well together.  Partway in, I received one of the worst reprimands of my life, or at least it felt that way to me.  Before one of our lessons, I had not done my reading.  I had a party, or something, but I had not done my reading.  Upon discovering the setback, Aaron quietly said, with a little disgust, “it’s your money, what do I care?”   I knew damned well that he did not actually mean ‘what do I care’.  I was devastated.  I vowed to myself to never let that happen again.  The nuns in grade school and Aaron did not have much in common.  I’m sure they would both agree on that.

The scariest and most exciting flight in my training was my ‘First Solo’.  This is the first time you take the plane up, with only you in it.  At this point, I had done less than 12 flights.  The seat to the right was going to be empty.  On the lesson before, Aaron said “where a shirt that you can afford to loose”.  What? if I die in a heap of burning debris on the runway, he wants to make sure I don’t ruin a good shirt?  It turns out that at the end of your successful ‘First Solo’ (I hope most of them are successful), your instructor cuts your shirt off of you, decorates it with a sharpie, and hangs it over his desk until you complete your license.

The day of, First Solo:  It seemed like a big deal.  The people in the front office had an air of something big was about to happen.  Perhaps that was because they were the owners and ones in charge of fixing the plane sitting outside.  I tried to persuade myself that they were just excited For Me.  Aaron and I taxied out to the runways.  It was quieter than usual.  He did not have much to say.  I was both excited and a little scared.  I would not have said with any certainty that I was ready.  All I could do was assume that he knew what they were doing.  We took off together and made a couple of landings that went reasonably well.  He then directed me to stop on the taxiway, where he got out, taking a handheld radio with him, one that was tuned to the airport frequency.  He walked into the grass next to the runway and parked himself next to one of the signs. ‘This is it’, I thought. I pushed the throttle all the way in and lifted off.  On the one hand, nothing was really different than the previous 11 times I had gone flying, but then, it was very different.  As I was climbing, I actually looked over at the empty seat next to me and said to myself ‘wow, there’s nobody to get this plane down but you, man, no other way out’.  I enjoy scaring myself sometimes.  As I was circling the airport in the traffic pattern, Aaron’s voice came over the radio.  It was surprising how soothing that was.  He didn’t really need to tell me anything, as I had been through the procedure a number of times before, but I really wanted him to.  I was so appreciative, and felt like I would have been a bit panicked had he decided to just go home.  His confident reminders helped keep me calm and on task with all the little details of what I was supposed to do.  I even remember looking down and seeing the little spec standing next to the runway and thinking how calming that was, seeing him there.  Now as it turns out, Aaron sent out another plane with another student that had already Soloed, but needed some additional help.  We were both circling the airport in different parts of the pattern at the same time as he started talking both of us through it.  Not to help matters much, an unknown person came on the radio and said “Do you have two planes soloing with you at the same time?” Aaron replied “yes”.  “Wow, you’ve got balls dude”, replied the unknown voice.  As I said, perhaps he did have an ego, but it wasn’t about showing us how good he was.  It worked well.

I had been wrong in thinking that the process of getting the pilot’s license would be a drag.  That turned out to be great fun.  I was left with more of a ‘now what?’ after I had completed it.

Later, when I took my club checkride test, at the flight club in Creve Coeur, the one where I took two early lessens, guess who I had as my tester?  It was the older ex-military pilot who had managed to suck the fun out of flying.

I knew that he was going to be a crabbass about it, so I concentrated hard and managed to do some of my best flying.  At the end he said “well I don’t know who taught you, but you’re going to have to some more work first”.  I tempered my anger by chuckling to myself about how childish some adults can be.   I retook the test with another one of their instructors and past with flying colors, so to speak.

Some time later, while flying by myself over central Illinois, I tried some of the maneuvers that I had practiced as a child.   I’m glad that I did that practiced first.