Sunday, July 02, 2006

My First Solo Experience

I flew six times in the first month I was taking lessons, then between a death in the family, an out-of-town trial, maintenance issues with the plane, 04G going, various scheduling issues, and weather, I flew four times in the next six months. I spent those months reading six magazine subscriptions, a bunch of books, playing Flight Simulator, listening to a half dozen flying podcasts-- I passed my written exam almost six months ago with a 97. But no flying. I thought I was NEVER going to get anywhere with this flying obsession. My wife, although hesitant about the idea of flying in a small plane, grew to look forward to the rare times I would fly because of the miraculous improvement in my mood. I was flying so sporadically, though, that it felt like the "two steps forward, one step back" syndrome.

Then I got to fly four times in the month of June and got to keep some of what I was learning. I flew on the morning of the 28th, and everything was great except for my schedule, which had me changing into a suit in the FBO bathroom and racing to DC while my instructor (John) tied the plane down. But I was consistently coming in lined up, and flaring well, and basically landing the plane repeatedly while handling everything else well, and I had 16.5 hours, which is about the national average.....

So I knew that if the weather was good, Friday June 30th could be the day. As I headed out the door for the airport, I checked my flight bag: headset, keys, kneeboard, logbook.... logbook? logbook?!?! It wasn't there, and as I ransacked the house, glancing up through the skylights at the clear blue sky and motionless leaves, I thought that this was exactly my luck. No logbook, and my certificate is in my logbook, and FARs say a student can't fly solo without the certificate. I headed to the airport and explained to John. I realized that I must have taken the log into my office after my last flight (I log my time online at and left it on my desk. So I left the airport and headed to work, picked up my logbook, and headed back to the airport. And as I drove, I could see the tops of trees tossing in a wind that was picking up, and I knew, I just KNEW that it was going to get gusty and I wouldn't solo.

But the wind was pretty much right down the runway, and John and I flew for almost an hour, and everything was fine. I botched a few approaches and got to practice my go-around technique, but that was fine too, and John had me taxi over to the hangar. I ran to the bathroom, received a call that I had to be in Tyson's Corner right after lunch, and ran back to the plane. John had his flight bag out on the ground and was endorsing my logbook. I was nervous, but.... I had the disciplined calm feeling I get in the courtroom-- when the stakes are high, and all you can do is have faith in your abilities and the outcome, you just trust in your training and ability and keep going. That's the feeling I had, and it's funny to me that the two things feel so much alike.

So John walked over toward the approach end of 32 and I buckled up, shut the doors, and started the pre-start checklist. Then John walked back and unchocked the plane, with me feeling like an idiot. I continued through the checklist and started the plane, and checked the oil pressure, and.... I had never flown the plane when the engine was hot, and the pressure tends to be a bit lower when the engine's hot, apparently, and the needle was hanging down just below the green even when I ran it up to 1500 rpm, and I had never seen it that low after starting. So I shut the plane down, and John walked back AGAIN and looked at it, and told me it was fine.

I taxied out to 32 and did the takeoff checklist. Four times. And it seemed like the checklist was supposed to be longer and I was missing something, but it wasn't. And I checked final. Six times. And there REALLY wasn't anyone coming. So I made the radio call and rolled out, lined up, and went. And my first thought as I climbed out was that John must weigh a lot more than he looks because to me alone in the plane, it felt like 04G used to feel with the two of us. As I passed over the departure end of 32 I just started laughing. Out loud. And I slapped my knee, and slapped John's empty seat, and basically got completely giddy. Then I thought about power lines and wanting to be turning downwind before I reached pattern altitude (i.e., turned toward the airport before the first power reduction) and I got serious and just did IT. Made my radio calls, checked extended downwind and final before turning, held my altitudes, headings, and airspeed on the dot. I used about 20 degrees of flaps and flared a tad high, but the landing was basically fine. And as I rolled out, John's voice came over the radio: "Good. Do it again." As I taxied back past him he was smiling and waved, and it was NICE.

As I was climbing out the second time I looked off toward Sugarloaf and the hills and thought how wonderful it will be to come out sometime (soon, I hope) and take off to go fly around. And the second landing was probably just about the best I've ever done. Chirp-chirp, right down the centerline, and I never felt the wheels touch down. John's voice came over the radio: "I bet you think that was a good landing!"

The third time around I overshot my altitude a bit and had to come down from 1600 feet (pattern altitude is 1549). And as I flew I looked down and thought, "Holy S&^%, I'm flying!" And it was getting hot and a bit bumpy by this time of day, and it was tough keeping things smooth on final. I landed a bit left of the centerline, but I've certainly had worse landings.

As I taxied back to park the plane I even remembered to radio UNICOM to have the fuel truck come out.

It's funny-- in some ways it seems as if the stress should make you forget things. But it almost felt like not having John there to remind me to do things just made something click into place. Sometimes with John in the plane I would forget carb heat or be sloppy about airspeed and altitude, maybe because part of my brain knows he's there to remind me. But solo, I did all my callouts just instinctively and it felt like the checklists and procedures were ingrained, and other than overshooting pattern altitude that once, I had all the numbers nailed. It felt REALLY good, and it felt like I knew how to do it. And I'm still looking for some way to get this grin off my face.

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