Every student pilot who learns to fly at a big airport really should go through an experience like this before being cut loose by his flight instructor. Or, as in this case, hers.
September 22, 1996
I am a student pilot on the East Coast, working toward my private
pilot ticket. Why? Well, the whole idea was my husband's brilliant
notion of "togetherness." After nearly five years of
marriage as the poster children for Opposites Attract, Inc., he
decided we should "find something we could do together."
Learning to fly was it. And for some unexplainable reason, I bought
Now it's too late we're both hooked, and approximately half-way
toward our private pilot certificates. As a matter of fact, this
past week, my CFI and I did some heavy-duty flying.
Having flown away from the nest precisely once by myself and
even then, all I did was venture out about 15 nm, take a look
around, then bravely run straight home we flew to three
different airports all uncontrolled in two days!
My home base is Martin State Airport (MTN) in Baltimore, Maryland.
It's a controlled airport...make that a very controlled
airport: tower, military presence, and a hard surface runway 150'
wide by 7200' long. By comparison, the three strips my CFI took
me to visit this week were roughly the equivalent of your next
door neighbor's driveway after three centuries of neglect, both
in dimensions and surface quality. Really. Trust me.
My second solo
After practicing short field take offs and landings at Essex Sky
Park a.k.a. "W48" a.k.a. "The
place that time, hedge trimmers, and modern conveniences forgot"
my CFI looked at me and said, "Well, are you ready for
me to hop out?"
Huh? Hop out? I thought we were going to hop home! He didn't really
expect me to put this thing on the barely-visible numbers alone,
did he? What was he, nuts!?
Apparently so. After one more dual landing, my CFI decided I was
ready to tackle Essex Skypark solo.
As he climbed out of the right seat, he turned around and waved
his little aviation band receiver. "Now, I won't be able
to talk to you, but I can hear you, okay?" he said, then
gave me a thumbs up and a grin before removing his headset and
slamming the door.
Hmphf. He can hear me. Great! Was that supposed to make
me feel better? God help me, because obviously my CFI wasn't going
Hear this, Will!
Well, as it turns out, Will is a pretty good judge of character.
On my first pass, I actually remembered to radio my position on
upwind, downwind, and cheating a little on "base to
final." I also remembered not to succumb to the optical illusion
that the runway was further away than it actually was. It was
just smaller than what my eye was accustomed to at MTN.
Okay, significantly smaller.
When all was said and done, I cleared the trees and landed in
one piece. Didn't even damage the plane. As I back-taxied down
the runway (you have to announce that, too), my audience-of-one
on the ground doffed his hat and gave me a sweeping bow. If nothing
else, I was relieved to discover that neither chivalry nor I were
Now that I had proven myself solo in the dragon's lair, my confidence
tentatively rose with the plane to pattern altitude for a second
try. I flew the pattern smoothly, still grateful no witnesses
were in the vicinity. And as I turned onto final, I cautiously
began to believe all would be well with my world.
Until I looked at the "VASI."
(The high-tech VASI at Essex Skypark consists of three old boards
spray-painted florescent orange and jammed strategically into
According to the center board, I was perfectly positioned to land
approximately eighteen miles beyond the runway, right in the Chesapeake
I was not in a seaplane. Uh-oh.
Hrrmmm. Quick decision: go-around, or fix it? Which did I have
I had only done two go-arounds that I could remember (both at
mile-wide MTN), and was still mastering the flow and feel of it.
Another glance at that menacing center board convinced me and
in one smooth motion (not!), I shoved the throttle in, the carb
heat off, and milked up the flaps 10 degrees at a time. As I glanced
at the ground and trees rushing past, I aimed for Vx and hauled
ass outta there.
Whew! Deep breaths, Maria, deep breaths.
On upwind, I jumped when the radio crackled to life with my instructor's
voice: "Good call, Maria," he said from inside the FBO.
I nodded (yes, I know you can't see people nod on the radio),
announced my new position on crosswind, and told him to break
out the Valium.
Well, by day's end, I had nailed a few more solo landings at Essex
(then got out to walk off my jell-o legs!), and visited another
uncontrolled field. This particular field had an up-slope, plus
the added consequence of slamming into a hill and sliding across
Interstate 95 if you landed long!
Are we having fun yet?
Okay, so what did I learn?
I learned that a pilot must really pay attention to
and think about the runway dimensions on the sectional chart
looks can be deceiving, especially if you're accustomed
to one field.
I learned there is no shame in going around. Better to be
alive and aloft than determined and dead.
I learned to like Essex Skypark. Really! Once I overcame
my fears, the charm of the place took over, and I now appreciate
how the site honed my skills.
I learned some basic pilotage skills (that's another story!).
Landmarks on the ground come up faster and smaller than you anticipated.
Trust your time and distance calculations, and always cross-reference
what you see.
I learned to trust my CFI. He has never put me in a situation
I couldn't handle, and has always read my abilities, potential,
and breaking point just right. Trust is a hard thing to earn from
me, but after this week, I think he's done it.
I learned that you don't need as much flare when you're landing
downhill. (Duh!) The ground slope takes care of a bit of that
for you. Vice-versa landing on an upslope.
And lastly, I learned to be grateful for the tower controllers
at my home base, whom I had heretofore called "grumpy."
It's no easy feat keeping track of everyone up there, and that
extra pair of eyes and authority are worth the few bad days those
fellas might have.
Next Lesson: Magnetic Dip! Oh, yippee. :-(