Return To Flight, Part Four
First Solo... Third Time
This article was originally intended to be about a lesson I had at the
beginning of February, covering emergency procedures... as well as the
first time I experienced how the Evektor SportStar handles in strong
winds. However, events this Tuesday morning compelled me to skip ahead a
little bit; I think you'll understand. -- RF
Wing flaps to takeoff position... trim
neutral... plenty of fuel... ignition on both, master switch on... canopy
"Lights [landing light], camera [transponder
to ALT], action [advance throttle]," I say, as I taxi to the hold short
line for runway 17 at Grand Prairie Muni. "Time to commit aviation."
I'm speaking to myself; the right seat is
empty. Time to do this flying thing on my own... again.
"Grand Prairie Tower, SportStar
6-7-6-Echo-Victor holding short 17, closed traffic, ready for takeoff."
Like many other "firsts" in life, you never
forget your first solo flight. I'll never forget all the details of
mine... the way the clouds miraculously cleared that Saturday morning...
how, incredibly, a strong crosswind suddenly calmed, and began to blow
straight down runway 21 at Belen Alexander Airport. The day was July 24,
My instructor, John, ran through some last
minute advice as we taxied to park in front of the FBO. "You're ready," he
told me. "And remember to flare." The last comment was a joke, regarding
my propensity for smooth, but flat, landings.
This was a big day, not only for me but for
John as well. I was his first student, ever. That meant he'd be riding
right along with me in spirit -- perhaps a bit more so than other CFIs,
with more first soloes under their belts, would -- as he nervously watched
me fly the pattern at E80.
Throughout my training, John had
become not just my instructor, but my buddy, too.
I remember that as I directed N62507 to the
end of 21, I muttered a quiet prayer; more of a request, actually. I asked
for the spirits of my friends, family members, and cherished childhood
pets who all had passed before me... to ride along with me for the next 20
minutes or so, if it wasn't too much trouble.
I have never felt such elation, as I did the
moment the mainwheels of that trusty Skyhawk lifted off the asphalt that
first time... as I realized, with equal parts wonderment and trepidation,
that I was solely responsible for setting those wheels down again, safely.
Preferably on the runway. I couldn't stop my left leg from shaking.
My first pattern was spot-on, except
for a wide turn to base; I had to add power and "drag it in" a bit on
final (John taught me power-off landings as rote.) I leveled off on cue,
just past the numbers. The nosewheel settled a half-second after the mains
touched the ground. Darn it... flat.
A quick flip of the switch to retract
flaps, carb heat and throttle levers shoved to the panel... and I was off.
OK... I have proven I can actually fly a plane.
Time to do it again.
My second landing was my best; I flared at
just the right time, and held the nose off until it absolutely couldn't
stay off the ground. I still remember how triumphant the full-on wail from
the stall horn sounded. Clean up the plane... and I was off
Around the patch a third time... and that
was it. My third landing was flat, too; a bit better than the first, but
not the work of art the second one had been. Oh well; I wasn't
kicking myself too badly.
I had just flown an airplane, all by myself.
I remember as I calmly taxied back to the ramp, grinning slightly as John
took several pictures. I ran through the engine shutdown checklist...
... And the moment that prop stopped
turning, and I shut the ignition and master switches off... I went
absolutely nuts. "YEEE-Haw!" I yelled to anyone who could hear me.
Before we headed back to the Albuquerque
Sunport, John bought me breakfast at Carolina's Cafe, the little FBO
restaurant. We went over all the details of my solo excursion ("that
second landing was fantastic!") as we both watched other planes land and
taxi in, each of their pilots with a lot more experience under their belts
than I had. Something to aspire to; the Saturday morning breakfast run.
It was a perfect day. And I have my
shirttail, framed and hanging on my living room wall, to remind me of it.
"6-7-6-Echo-Victor, Grand Prairie Tower,
report left base, cleared for takeoff."
"Will report base, clear for takeoff, 6EV,"
I reply. I note the time -- 8:05 am.
This time, my leg isn't shaking; in fact, I
realize as I taxi the SportStar onto the runway, I'm not nervous at all;
after all, I've done this before. This is going to be fun.
As you would expect for such a light plane,
the SportStar is a lot happier with only one person onboard; the plane
leaps into the sky almost immediately, just as Jay said it would. I raise
takeoff flaps as the altimeter ticks by 750 feet, 150' above the ground,
just like the checklist says to. The wind is blowing from slightly right
of centerline; the faintest crab keeps the plane tracking straight down
I turn crosswind at 500' AGL, 1100 feet on
the altimeter; I reach pattern altitude just as I start turning downwind.
Abeam the numbers... time to pull
carb heat out. I do so by feel, without looking
down. Throttle back, keep the nose up to slow into the white arc...
first notch of flaps.
Hey, why do I suddenly feel hot
air? I look down... and realize I've pulled the
similarly-sized-and-shaped cabin heat lever, instead of carb heat. I roll
my eyes as I correct my error.
"Grand Prairie Tower, SportStar 676EV
turning left base 17, request the option."
As I'm the only aircraft around, Tower
quickly clears me for the option. Second notch of flaps in. The
southerly wind requires a healthy crab toward the field, and a little more
throttle to maintain my descent rate than I had wanted, to keep from being
blown wide of the pattern; I had turned to base a bit too late.
Fortunately, it all comes together as I turn
final; a slight slip to the right keeps me tracking the centerline until
about 100 feet off, and then the crosswind dies out.
I pull out the last bit of throttle
once I know I have the runway made. Once over the numbers, I begin the
flare. Not too fast... I admonish myself.
Level off... stick back... back... keep it from landing...
keep it off... main wheels down... keep the nose up... yeah!
The SportStar is lined up perfectly on
centerline as the nosewheel touches down. I silently cheer to myself as I
push carb heat in... and then kick myself as the plane veers
slightly left, just as it has many times before. Other students I've
spoken with say they do the same thing; Jay has assured me I'm not the
only victim of the "SportStar swerve" (my term).
Flaps back to takeoff position,
throttle in... and I'm off the ground again,
well before the midway point on the field. The SportStar reaches for the
sky like an eager bird, and I realize I'm grinning like a fool. God,
this is more fun than I should be having on a work day...
My second "first solo" came almost exactly
four months after my first. I had to look at my logbook to remember the
exact date: November 20, 2004.
One week after I soloed at Belen that first
time, I was driving a moving truck from Albuquerque to Dallas, due to a
job relocation. After a month of settling into life in Texas, I restarted
lessons with Monarch Air in McKinney, TX.
Of course, I had to go through flight
training again... and my work schedule didn't give me a lot of time for
lessons. I flew with my instructor, Ryan, five times over two months
before earning his blessing to take flight alone, again.
Compared to my lucid memories of my first
solo... details of that second solo flight, at the controls of N5187E,
escape me. I can't even recall whether I took off from runway 17 or 35 at
TKI. I do remember still being nervous, although I felt much more
self-assured than I had been that first time. By that time I was also a
little better with flaring on landing... but I'm sure at least one of
those three landings was flat.
I soloed several more times over the next
several months at TKI, both in the pattern and in the practice area over
Lake Lavon. I learned a lot on those flights (including an interesting
experience landing with a sudden tailwind -- a story for another time.)
The last time I flew 87-Echo was May 2005,
just before my student pilot certificate lapsed. I had intended to get
another one... but I got busier at my job, and money was tight anyway. Two
months later, I went to Oshkosh with ANN; that quenched my thirst for
flight somewhat. By January 2006, though, I was planning once again to get
another student certificate and restart lessons yet a third time.
And then, as they say,
life happened... and my best
laid plans were tossed askew.
The second time around the pattern at
GPM goes much the same as the first, except this time I turn base leg
closer to the runway, to compensate for the wind. That seems to do the
trick; just a blip of throttle keeps the plane on a steady 500
foot-per-minute descent rate, and by the time I turn final the throttle is
pulled completely to idle.
This time, I keep the slip in all the way to
the runway; the right crosswind is back, and I keep the stick moving to
compensate. I land straight, but flat.
Carb heat in, flaps in one notch,
let's try that again. Just to make life
interesting, an inland gull swoops in front of me as I rotate for takeoff,
about 200 feet ahead; it glides to the left well before it's a threat,
although I bank the plane slightly to the right just to make sure.
Gotta make this one count,
Finfrock, I think to myself as I turn
crosswind. It's a pity Jay told me to go around the pattern only three
times; I feel like I could do this all day.
"Grand Prairie Tower, 676EV turning base for
17, would like to make this one a full stop."
"6EV, cleared to land."
I manage to perform a successful full-stall
landing, albeit a tad left of centerline. I clear the runway, clean up the
plane as per the post-landing checklist, and taxi back to parking.
Jay is waiting for me in the office. "Good
job," he tells me. "Let's see your logbook."
It's 8:35 am by the time I turn in the keys
to 6EV... and I still feel the day should have some more flying in store.
"Does anyone have the plane scheduled at
9:00?" I ask hopefully.
By sheer luck, the schedule's open for the
next hour (this is a rarity; as I've said before, Aviator's SportStar is a
VERY popular aircraft)... so I ask Jay if it would be all right for me to
go out there once more, ostensibly to perfect my flare technique.
OK, I'll admit it now... I mostly wanted to
have some more fun.
"Sure!" Jay tells me, grinning.
I eagerly accept the check-out receipt and
keys. By now, the startup process seems very familiar... and the Tower
sounds a bit surprised when I call in once again, requesting permission to
Five more times around the pattern -- for
eight total -- and I reluctantly call it a day. But only because now I
REALLY have to get back to work; Jim's going to send the hounds out if I
stay away too much longer.
It hits me as I drive home. I flew an
airplane, all by myself... No matter how many times I've done that
before, and will again in the future... it's still incredibly cool.