The moment a student pilot soars into the air alone for the first time is a leap of faith – for both the student and the instructor.
The date was July 31, 1997.
It was the date of my first solo. I was 21 years old. And I was petrified.
Okay, maybe not petrified. But my palms were sweating. My heart was pounding.
See, we aviation enthusiasts like to imagine ourselves as those old pilot stereotypes: the barnstorming stick jockeys who are afraid of nothing – who duel it out with the Red Baron, defending our homeland. Then, when our plane gets shot up, we bail out, and ride our parachute down to where we happen to land just outside our favorite diner. Just in time for breakfast, we pack up our parachute, trudge into the diner – to the awe of everyone inside – and order bacon, eggs and grits.
“Coffee’s cold again,” we would grumble. “Heck, this wasn’t even worth getting shot down for! And I don’t even eat grits!”
That wasn’t me. I put my first solo off.
I was a fair weather pilot. I was the guy who was constantly checking the winds – and if they weren’t straight down the runway, there was no way I was going alone. What? There’s another plane in the pattern? Better wait till he’s gone. Don’t wanna go while it’s crazy up there!
ME: And look! See that little cumulous cloud off in the distance? Looks grim! Probably means a storm’s coming!
INSTRUCTOR: That’s a smokestack.
ME: Who cares? They both have lifting motion!
Okay, again, I exaggerate. But no matter how many touch-and-go’s I did, the thought of me taking off without my instructor in the right seat set me on edge.
But that week I decided that, come what may, I was going to do it. I was going to fly my first solo.
Part of it was a girl. The girl I liked at the time was dating someone else – but she would have found out if I chickened out, and I wasn’t about to let THAT happen.
But mostly, it was because I wanted to fly. My aviation career had hit a wall – and there was no way I was ever going to get over that wall and get my license if I wouldn’t solo an airplane.
So two days earlier, I went to see a wise old doctor to get my third-class medical. Like countless student pilots before me, I walked up to a kind receptionist who basically handed me a plastic cup, pointed to the restroom and said, “You know what to do.”
Unlike student pilots nowadays, I walked out of the doctor’s office that day with my medical in my hand. It was a pre-9/11 world. We didn’t have to wait weeks for our paperwork.
That Thursday evening, when I walked into the Devonair Flight School on historic Bowman Field (KLOU), I had butterflies in my stomach. I told the folks there that I hoped tonight would be the night that I would solo.
“Your flight instructor called,” one of the guys said. “He said he’s sorry, but something came up and he won’t be able to make it tonight.”
At first I felt relief. I had an excuse. God obviously didn’t want me to fly today. Well, better luck next time.
But deep down, I also felt disappointment. I was ready. I had spent all day psyching myself up for this.
“I will solo you!”
The voice came from the chief pilot, a Norwegian, who had subbed in as my instructor on a couple of occasions. I’ll call him Dan.
“I dunno, Dan,” I stumbled. “I should probably wait until—“
“No!” Dan replied. “I will solo you tonight. Go pre-flight the plane.”
Dan and I went up and did a few touch and go’s in N9105, a Cessna 172 trainer. It was a hot summer evening, and Runway 6 – a 4,300 foot runway – was the active. I did the touch-and-go’s one after the other, and to my growing irritation, Dan wasn’t paying any attention. As I glided in for touchdown, he didn’t seem to even be looking out the window.
I wanted to yell, “If you’re going to sign me off to fly this thing alone, will you at least pay attention to see if I can land properly????”
(He was of course. Paying attention, I mean. I hadn’t yet caught on to that old instructor trick of feigned distraction and faking indifference during the most critical moments of flight, in order to build the confidence of the student.)
Finally, he had me taxi back to the hold short line, where he grabbed my logbook and signed it.
“You will solo now,” he said.
“What?” I said. “I don’t think so. You haven’t even been paying attention. I should probably wait for—“
“You are ready,” Dan replied. “You should solo right now.”
“I dunno Dan,” I said.
Dan sighed. Then he opened the door of the airplane, turned, and to my surprise, hit the transmit button.
“Bowman Tower, Cessna November Niner-One-Zero-Five is ready at Six.”
Then he smiled.
In a moment, he shut the door and was gone.
I was shocked, half nervous, half grinning at the audacity and hilariousness of my situation. Then the controller answered back in my headset:
“Cessna November Niner-One-Zero-Five, Bowman Tower, cleared for takeoff, left turn approved.”
I had two choices at that point. I could decline the clearance and taxi back to the flight school in shame and defeat, or I could say a prayer, taxi onto the runway centerline, throttle up and come-what-may.
I chose the latter. And as soon as the wheels left the pavement, my hours of training kicked in. On my first landing, I was dumbfounded – I had just landed an airplane by myself! By the second landing, I had a big, stupid grin on my face. On the third landing, I was Luke Skywalker tearing my X-wing through the trenches, getting ready to blow up the Death Star.
When it was over, I taxied back to the flight school in triumph. A few minutes later, I learned that my Dad had shown up at the school on an errand. He didn’t know for sure that I would be soloing that evening, but when he heard my voice crackling over the flight school’s handheld radio, he sat down on one of the airport benches to watch me land. He told me later that my wheels “kissed the ground.”
My dad passed away a few years later. That night will always be one of my favorite memories of him.
Overcoming my fear of soloing was a huge accomplishment for me. I would go on to make more solo flights, eventually to the practice area, then on to do several long solo cross-countries, before getting my license.
Like me, there may be lots of other students standing on the edge of the abyss, wondering whether you’re ready for your solo. Here is my advice:
- Make sure you meet the legal requirements for soloing student pilots, outlined in 14 CFR § 61.87.
- Trust your instructor. He or she knows what they’re doing. If they think you’re ready, you’re ready.
- Trust yourself. You have the training and the ability, or your instructor wouldn’t have signed that logbook endorsement.
- Fun. Take time to look out the window. Enjoy the view. Notice the seat empty seat next to you. And when you land, be sure to take plenty of pictures (but NOT UNTIL YOU LAND!)
Study hard. Learn the procedures. Then when you’re instructor says you’re ready, take the plunge.
If I can do it, you can do it.
How about your first Solo, tell us about it? Help a new pilot understand it happens to all of us:)