Ab Initio 35: “First Solo”

In which my instructor leaves the poor aeroplane to my tender mercies and I manage not to break it.

It had been hot all week, but Saturday arrived cooler, with an overcast starting to clear higher up, and very still. Nice smooth flying weather.

The field was quite busy again, and I watched a number of visitors in and out, in an interesting variety of aeroplanes. Hopefully the new café is doing well and bringing them in. It was good to see.

I was down for the blue and white SierraBravo, with Keith in the right hand seat today and I checked it over, still warm from the previous lesson, while Keith sampled the breakfast.

I felt I’d been a bit rubbish for the previous two weeks so was very pleased that today’s first landing went well. Couldn’t quite figure out what it was I was doing this time that I hadn’t done before, or stopped doing that I had been–but it felt right.

As the cloud cleared and the ground warmed up, the turbulence over the trees became more pronounced, but nothing to disturb us too much, and what little wind there was was straight down 22. The second circuit was a bit extended to allow an arriving Yak to get off the runway ahead of us, and ended in a little bit of a balloon (I pulled too hard again!), hurriedly corrected.

We talked about that one as we climbed away, with Keith advising that when that happened to just relax the back pressure a bit to let it come back down then, once it was descending tidily again, to carry on holding off until the touchdown.

I’d always been a bit hasty before, when I made that mistake–either shoving the nose down to recover and arriving on the nosewheel, or continuing the balloon, running out of speed and arriving with a thud. It was one of the things that concerned me, if it should happen when I was on my own would I react correctly?

Anyway in spite of the slight balloon the landing was declared a nice one and Keith said to make the next one a full stop. This was another rather leery one as a couple of odd fish in a Cessna were blatting around doing close, low level circuits –the extended downwind of which took them straight under us as we descended on base. Most disconcerting.

“Don’t let them put you off,” Keith said. “Just fly this one the same as the others.”

A little steeper this time, as I’d delayed descending a bit, worried about ending up on top of the Cessna, but it was comfortably back on the normal glideslope by the time we reached short final, and it went smoothly enough.

We rolled out, letting the speed ebb away before bothering with the brakes. I didn’t think anything of the stop, three or four landings in the half hour slots I’d been having was pretty average.

Then Keith announced he was going to get out and have me do another one on my own.

To say I was shook rigid doesn’t really convey it properly. There was a moment’s sort of numb disbelief and utter alarm. Somehow my hands and feet kept working and I turned us around to backtrack with managing some variation on the theme of “okay”.

By the time we reached the intersection the not-quite-panic had abated to a half-worried-half-excited fluttering in the stomach as Keith called on the radio to tell them that ‘SB would be going out once more for a student first solo. Then I watched him unstrap himself and climb out with “Make sure that door’s locked behind me,” as a final few words.

I latched and checked the door and gave him a thumbs up that it was. I taxyed back to the hold line, trying not to think too hard about that very empty seat and telling myself to just fly it the same as the others this morning.

That Cessna was still up there somewhere and I had to wait for him to land before I could get off. It was not the most enjoyable wait in the world–now it came to it I just wanted to be doing, not sitting thinking about it. I ran through the pre-takeoff checks at least twice more than usual to keep my mind off the nervous wait, and on what I was doing.

Finally he landed and I could be off. The backtrack to the end of the runway seemed rather longer than usual, but I was feeling far less nervous now I was moving and had something to concentrate on.

Turned around, lined up, one more quick check that everything was how it should be, then full power and off down the runway. Little bit of a wobble to get back on the centreline–suppose that nosewheel wasn’t quite as straight as I thought it was. Ts&Ps good, RPM good, airspeed increasing, 60 knots, I’m talking to myself, up we go!

And up! The rate of climb with just a scrawny Leia on board was delightfully brisk.

I crowed like a kid who’s had the stabilisers taken off their bike and has just realised that whichever parent was enlisted to hang onto them let go 100 yards back. Wonderful thing to be able to recapture that feeling of gleeful triumph as an adult! I swished my arm through the empty space next to me.

Wowee. This is ME–flying an aeroplane! All by myself!

It’s just as well there’s no room to jump up and down in a Tomahawk or my delight may have brought me to a sticky end. As it was, I turned, finished the climb, levelled off and trimmed. My voice as I called downwind sounded far calmer to my own ears than I would have expected.

I went through the pre-landing checks talking out loud to myself again. I paid perhaps a touch more attention than usual to the ‘harness secure’ bit.

I’d strayed a little bit high by the time I finished and in getting back to the correct height, noticed how much larger than usual the power reduction needed to be in order to achieve some downwards motion. I was certainly going to have to be quite definite with the power when I came to descending to land.

For a few moments on the remainder of the downwind leg there was nothing to do but to make sure I kept on track and look out. The sky had cleared completely now and was as blue as anyone could want. Up ahead on the left, waiting for me to turn back towards it, Kidwelly castle with the town tucked up against it, stood out against the greenery. A river wound through it, widening where the estuary met the beach–the RAF tower on the range, bright against the sand. It could have been a daydream of the perfect day for a first solo.

Once I was on base there was no further time for sightseeing and I brought the power back, waiting slightly anxiously for the speed to come off enough that I could get the flaps down. Quickly I was absorbed in what I was doing, and again the nerves disappeared.

It wasn’t the tidiest approach of the day, I was a little high at one point and a little low at another, but nothing uncorrectable. I pulled the power all the way to idle and glided over the threshold to hold off.

Little bit of a balloon, or possibly a very gentle bounce, but managed to neither shove the nose in or lose too much speed at once, and recovered it reasonably for a nice enough touch down. That answered that particular worry!

Rolled out, belatedly realising I was rather left of the centreline, but feeling decidedly pleased with myself anyway. Only really hit me as I touched the brakes and turned around. Mixed relief and triumph! Enormous grin.

I announced I was backtracking and got a, “Roger, Golf SierraBravo–nice landing,” from the tower.

Held on to my concentration long enough to wend my way back among the parked aeroplanes without incident. I lingered slightly over the shutdown, and getting myself unstrapped and headset tidied away, absorbing the moment.

Keith came out to meet me, hopping up on the wing to shake my hand in congratulations, while my grin got steadily wider still!

I helped push the aeroplane back into its parking spot then wandered in a sort of grinning daze back into the club house to sort out logbook and shake more hands while grinning my thanks.


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