Sunday, March 23, 2008

(Surviving) My First Solo

Greg once told me that there were three hurdles standing in my way to pilothood: a written exam, my first solo, and passing a practical (check-out) ride. Last month, I wrote the FAA exam and somehow managed to pass, which earned me the right to buy beers for all the pilots in my club. (Pilots are a clever sort, I'm learning).

Looking ahead, I knew the next hurdle would be my solo. Given various factors, however, including my inability to consistently land the plane without concern that I had set off the Emergency Locator Transmitter, I was confident that that time was still a long way off. Confident, that is, right up until last Wednesday when Rich, my instructor, sent me an email with just one word in the title: SOLO.

I broke into a cold sweat just looking at the email. In fact, it took me a while to even get up the courage to open it. Having done so, I was informed that I had various tasks ahead of me, including a written take-home exam, reviewing various procedures and regulations, and practicing certain ground reference maneuvers. Rich also recommended that I stop wearing my "Coach" shirts to our flying lessons.

To anyone but a pilot, that last sentence would seem odd (and not just because Coach doesn't make t-shirts). To a pilot, however, it makes perfect sense (except for the fact that Coach doesn't make t-shirts). When a student pilot flies alone for the first time, it is traditional for their instructor to cut the tail off their shirt upon landing. (Lose your tail, get your wings?) However, since most shirts don't have tails nowadays, instructors have to settle for just cutting the back.

Suspecting that Rich was just trying to wind me up, I attempted to get Greg to tell me what the "real" schedule was for my solo. I was politely informed, however, that I had mistakenly assumed that Greg's allegiance to me as my mentor would be stronger than his allegiance to flying. Still, given that Rich and I had not seriously practiced takeoffs and landings during the day, or completed all of the required ground reference maneuvers before I could legally solo, I knew that I would not be soloing during my three hour lesson on Saturday. So, I decided to wear one of my favorite shirts, which I sincerely hoped Rich would appreciate (and not because it was Easter Weekend).

Saturday's lesson started at the airport restaurant, so Rich could grade my solo exam. We argued a few points. He never actually gave me a score, so I'm going to call it a 95%. (I'd call it a 100%, but then I might have to buy beers for the pilots in my club again).

Rainy weather conditions required us to stay in the "pattern" (think large rectangle in the sky) when we headed up about 1 pm. For the next two hours, we practiced takeoffs and landings. It wasn't all work and no play, though. Rich showed me a soft field takeoff, which takes advantage of the vortices created by the wings of the plane. We would get the plane just barely up off the ground, then accelerate as we "floated" down the runway, before pulling hard on the yoke to shoot the plane upwards into the sky. (Well, as much as a Cessna 172 can shoot, anyhow). But it was still way cool.

Around 3, we came back in because Rich was scheduled to fly with another student. That student had called to cancel while we were in the air, though, so we decided to take advantage of Rich's time and the fact that the weather had cleared enough for us to leave the pattern, and continued the lesson. We flew North and worked on ground reference maneuvers, stalls, steep turns, and then went over to Carroll County airport and practiced more takeoffs and landings. After a while, we decided to pull in and refuel the plane. As I was taxiing off the runway, Rich commented, "Well, I think you're ready."

It took a moment for me to process what he had just said. As my stomach dropped, I pointed out that we had been flying for a long time and I was tired. We agreed to get sodas, refuel and think on it. When we got back to the plane, Rich asked me if he should call Greg and let him know that I might solo when we got back to Gaithersburg. I declined. I wasn't sure I was up for it, and the idea of an entourage on the ground made me uncomfortable.

Once we got close to Gaithersburg, we called for a weather briefing. The winds (although light) were blowing at 60 degrees crossways to the runway. I commented that I would rather have solo'ed at Carroll County, where the winds were nearly straight down the runway. Rich told me that we could always turn the plane around. For reasons still not entirely clear to me, I agreed.

So, back we went. I did one last landing with Rich in the plane for old times sake. As we sat in the run-up area, Rich went through a last minute list of reminders on the Do's and Don'ts of landing a plane (mostly the Don'ts). I told him he was making me nervous. He assured me that he would be on the ground watching and would have a two-way radio so we could talk ... or at least he thought we could, until he realized the batteries in his handheld were dead. I had mentally committed to soloing at that point, though, and no dead radio was going to stop me. We agreed that he would watch from the ground, but would go inside and use the airport radio if I did a "go around" instead of landing (which would suggest I was in trouble).

It was odd to sit on the runway without Rich (or Eddie) in the plane. Rich had warned me that Romeo would want to lift off quicker as I accelerated down the runway, and she did. As I climbed upwards, I heard Rich say, "Good luck, Amy." Although I was happy to know he had secured a radio, his words also brought home the reality of what I had just done, and the fact that it was too late to do anything but figure out how to get the plane safely back on the ground again. The flash of panic passed, however, and I turned right crosswind and made my first radio call. Things lined up on the final approach, Romeo followed 65 knots down to the runway, and I was back on the ground to Rich's enthusiastic "Nice job!!" before I knew it.

Of course, that was only the first of my required three flights around the pattern. On the next one, I let the throttle slip on takeoff and I was (further) unnerved to have a plane enter the pattern behind me on downwind. I silently cursed the other pilot and made my second Top Gun quote of the day, "Negative Ghostrider, the pattern is full," and felt a bit better. As I turned for final approach, I found myself low and further from the runway than I was supposed to be, so I added a third, "It's just a walk in the park, Kazanski" for good measure, and got down to business.

I added power, because that's what inexperienced pilots do, ignored the red over red light signal from the VASI (red over red = dead), breathed a sigh of relief when it switched to red over white (red over white = you're alright), yelled at myself (because Rich would have, if he'd been there) for letting my guard down and my airspeed drop below 65, and somehow landed the plane.

The third time around was somewhere between the clean first and the ugly second. I was relieved to pull up to the parking lot and let Rich and Eddie back in the plane. Before they did, though, I took this picture as proof of the empty seat beside me.

After landing at Gaithersburg, we quickly high-tailed it to a bar, but not before we dropped Eddie off and I gave him my water-bottle as thanks for spending five hours in the back of my plane. (I think he thought it was a fair deal).

After a few beers (pitchers?), Rich began his official shirt-cutting duties. I was a bit alarmed when he told me to move my hair, as I had clearly underestimated how much of my shirt was about to get cut.

According to Krista and Laura, I had quite the entourage of guys watching as Rich kept cutting.

In fact, the D.J. stopped by several times throughout the night to comment on how he had seen a lot of things over the years, but never a guy cut the back out of a girl's shirt. We could have explained, but it was funnier not to. (Actually, I think Rich offered up an explanation the third time the D.J. stopped by, but there might be children reading this blog, so I'll refrain from repeating it, comical though it may have been.)

I don't think I stopped smiling the whole night. It was a pretty amazing feeling to get to tell Rich at one point (probably around pitcher #4 or 5), "I flew a plane today, you know."

"I know," he replied, "pretty cool, eh?"

(I'll make an honourary Canadian out of him yet).

Although soloing is a major milestone, we agreed to keep my previously-scheduled Sunday lesson, because we both knew my learning curve was far from over. Rich decided to leave Eddie at home, but we somehow managed to stagger out to the airfield. It was, of course, two hours later than we were supposed to start our lesson, but, in light of the previous day's activities, I think two hours is actually quite commendable. If the weather hadn't of been Ferris Bueller perfect, however, I probably never would have gotten out of bed.

I didn't see much of the terrain after we started flying, however. In addition to making me fly "old-school" (i.e., with the radio mike in the plane instead of our headsets) because SOMEBODY forgot their headset, Rich gave me my first lesson on instrument training. This required me to wear foggles, which block out everything except the instrument panel, and fly the plane per Rich's instructions and what the instruments were telling me. Although this has a tendency to mess with your inner ear, fortunately, I did not need to partake of the barf bags that Rich had so kindly brought along for me.

When I took off my foggles for the first time, I found myself right over Carroll County Airport. I did an ugly landing, and Rich patted himself on the back for pushing me to solo after a day of practicing takeoffs and landings.

Of course, I would never think about countermanding Rich's orders. It's a non-nonsense business when flying with Rich.

However, we do occasionally still get confused as to who is actually supposed to be flying the plane.

I definitely wasn't confused during my solo, though. Although flying by myself really brought home just how many things I need to learn, and all the things that I need to learn how to do better, I still did it. And knowing that makes me smile, even as I write this.


At March 24, 2008 at 12:57 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rich called my cell phone about 15 minutes after I'd left the Gaithersburg airport. "I'm standing on the ground at Carroll County," he said. "Some crazy Canadian just took my plane." He told me Amy was about to make her first landing. "Here she comes, ooh, oh, whoaa, oooohhh, oh please god, I can't watch, wooooooo, NICE!"

Congratulations, Amy! Between the 100% on the written exam and a successful solo, you sure know how to make a mentor proud!

At March 24, 2008 at 8:42 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Job Amy! Your blog is entertaining too! We'll come fly with you in a couple of 5 years or so :) :) :) JK Anything that gets you to Chi town more often is cool with us :)

At March 24, 2008 at 9:04 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

congratulations!!! that is so exciting! love the pictures.

At March 26, 2008 at 12:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats Amy...I am so proud of you :) What a thrill. Keep up the good work and the great blogs.
Tamlyn :)


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