There are very few things in life you will remember as vividly as the day you fly solo for the first time.
It was one of those days when the mind turns easily to the beach and the leisurely lure of sand and surf. It was not a day to be locked inside a cocoon of aluminium and perspex, in close proximity to an engine block that was efficiently turning aviation fuel into heat. The sun streamed through the clear dome of the cockpit, drawing rivulets of sweat from my already stressed frame. Everything I touched around me, throttle, control stick, flap lever, carby heat control, was baked by a full morning’s exposure to the sun. I could sense the body odour that had accumulated in the tight confines of the cockpit during the pre-flight checks and the taxi to the runway. Out of sight of the flight office, the instructor beside me removed her tie.
I had just over 10 hours of flying in my logbook. Ten times I had been out to the airport for an hour’s lesson. And every time this was the hardest part. Getting the aeroplane started and out to the runway ready for takeoff was when my anxieties had time to play games with my mind. Did I really want to be there? Was it all worth the stress and strain? Was I about to successfully cheat death one more time? Each time I hurried the aeroplane out to the holding point knowing that once I was cleared for takeoff and pushed that throttle forward, all the tension would drain away and I could focus once more on the exhilaration of getting airborne.
This time, on this overheated summer morning, I knew what I would be asked to do. Fly precise and tidy circuits around the airport and land neatly after each one. I knew that because that’s all I’d been doing for the last few lessons. It wasn’t boring, there was too much to focus on, but it was certainly repetitive and I longed for something different.
Sure enough, it was circuits again. Take off, turn left, climb to a thousand feet, turn left again, pre-landing checks, turn left, begin a descent, turn left one last time to line up with the runway, land the aeroplane smoothly. Then, raise the flaps, throttle up and accelerate for takeoff and yet another circuit. It was predictable but constant action. And there were even moments when I found time to think of that beach.
I had settled into the routine of flying circuits when suddenly, something changed.
“Make this next landing a full stop,” my instructor said through the intercom. Obviously the heat had got to her and we were headed back to the air conditioned flight office after only five circuits. I wasn’t about to complain.
I turned the aeroplane off the runway and onto the taxiway. “Take us back to the holding point,” the voice in my headset said. I should have known something was coming but I was genuinely confused. I dutifully lined up at the holding point and waited.
“Alpha Bravo Charlie is ready for first solo,” the calm voice told the control tower.
“No I’m not!” I felt like shouting into the microphone. “Let me come back another time for that. I’m hot and I’m tired and I’m definitely not ready for a first solo.” But I sat there dumbly and let others make the decisions.
“Just do it the way you’ve been doing,” the voice said to me. “I’ll wait here for you and you can pick me up on the way back.” The seat beside me was suddenly empty and I was alone in that fragile little plane.
I had the overwhelming feeling that if I didn’t line the aeroplane up and firewall that throttle immediately I would never make it; that if I stopped, even for a moment, to consider exactly what I was doing, it would never happen. So I didn’t hesitate.
As the aeroplane roared down the runway the feeling of exhilaration returned but was mixed with some serious apprehension. Then I was airborne and it didn’t matter any more. I was committed.
The familiar workload made sure I was kept busy as the aircraft climbed and turned, clawing its way to circuit height. There was no other circuit traffic, which was a relief, as I had plenty to do to keep me busy without having to spend a lot of time “outside” the cockpit.
It was only on the downwind leg that I had a few moments to think. And the thought that lodged in my mind, sharp and clear, was: “I’m one thousand feet above that runway down there and if this aircraft is going to land safely on it there’s only one person who can make it happen – me!”
Then the moment passed and I was engaged once again with the busy routine of flying a disciplined descent and approach for the landing. It was comforting to have the well-drilled routine to rely on and I was grateful for all those repetitious, boring circuits my instructor had demanded we fly over the last few lessons.
The final approach to the runway was anything but smooth and I battled with throttle and elevator to get it right; but that runway was more or less in the correct position and it rapidly became only a question of how much trauma the aeroplane would endure when I reintroduced it to the ground. I had never displayed an intuitive skill for the flare; each landing had been something unpredictable. And this time, alone, I knew I had flared a little too high. The aircraft dropped unceremoniously the last couple of feet and the main wheels thumped onto the tarmac just ahead of the nosewheel. I didn’t care about the lack of finesse, all that mattered was that I had put the aeroplane (and myself) down intact.
My limbs were quivering as I taxied the aircraft back to where the instructor waited but I was also aware of the huge grin that I couldn’t keep off my face. It was still there when I throttled back and braked to allow my instructor back on board.
“Congratulations,” she said when the headset was in place. “That was tidy enough from where I was standing.” She obviously knew better than ask me how it felt. I didn’t have the words to describe it.
It was only later, driving home, that the full effect of what had happened hit me. I had an awed sense of just what I had done in that few minutes alone with an aeroplane. The sense of achievement was phenomenal. And I kept replaying the experience again and again over the next week.
My next lesson involved some more circuits with the instructor, then three on my own. But not one of those circuits matched the thrill of the very first. And no circuit since has come close.
There’s nothing like that first solo circuit!