A student pilot experiences many plateaus and barriers to progress along the path to earning the Private Pilot certificate. None, however, are more symbolic than the first solo. Everything before the first solo flight is geared to it — everything after it is based on it. AVweb's series on primary flight training by Tina Gonsalves continues, as we ride along with a brand-new student during her first few flight hours and through her Private Pilot checkride.
What a wondrous feeling it must be to to fly alone. To have earned a flight instructor's confidence and to have achieved the skill level necessary for solo flight. And I was there; I was ready to go. I had the skills for solo flight. It was the solo landing that had my instructor in knots. And no wonder; even I was scared witless at the idea of flying and landing solo. I had 10 hours in my logbook and had latched onto the notion that I should be soloing soon. It didn't matter to me that nothing about landing the airplane felt right. I had 10 hours; it was time to start thinking about the S-word. I was focused on my logbook instead of on my flying.
Regardless of how my inner-Tina felt about flying solo, I started asking pilots, "How long until you soloed?" I tried to place myself on a timeline to gauge when I might expect to solo myself. Yes, that was a bad idea. I knew that then and yet I asked anyway. Thankfully, most refused to answer the question, although my friend Mike did confess that it took only one hour until he soloed. He went on to explain that it took his CFI one-hour to pry Mike off of his neck to get him to fly alone. Then Mike reiterated how irrelevant it was, and told me to get a life.
Whether or not I should have established a time-based goal for my first solo is a moot point. It was there and my world started to spin around the accumulating hours. At first I thought maybe 10 hours would be a respectable soloing spot. When that milestone passed, I switched to 20 hours. Now there was a time I could really get my arms around. It seemed like something to aim for. It still didn't matter to me that most of my landings were spectacles of uncoordinated terror. I'd fallen into a pattern where I'd lock up on final, trying to hold everything "just right." I wasn't really flying the airplane; I was simply holding it in one position until it "crashed" onto the runway. If I wanted to be pilot in command, I should be piloting the airplane, not simply holding on and hoping that everything worked out all right.
This passive flying contributed greatly to my fear of solo. John, my instructor, was never going to get out of the cockpit if I kept that up. To be honest, until I took control, I didn't want him getting out. It was a two-edged sword. On one side, the logbook said I should be soloing. But on the flip side, I wasn't ready; I knew that in my heart. The thought of it filled me with fear but I put on my brave mask and feigned that I was ready, even anxious. When I was truly ready to fly alone, that fear would be replaced by a focus, people said. What I needed to remember was that I was learning to fly, not learning to solo. With one will come the other. When I was ready, this fear will head right out the window along with my instructor. Okay, maybe John will use the door; he is a little large for the window of a Cessna 152.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I wasn't going to solo the airplane until I learned how to land it with some degree of consistency. Landing is probably one of the hardest things to learn, aside from learning good judgment. It was easy to practice slow flight and landing at altitude but those same maneuvers take on greater importance the closer to terra firma I came. The lower my altimeter read, the higher the moisture content of my palms became. My hand shaking as I held the throttle belied my confidence and displayed my true nervous nature. I attributed the quiver to having had "too much coffee" when in retrospect it was merely not having enough confidence in my ability to land the airplane without John's intervention.
But I was landing it alone, and without setting off the ELT, or damaging the airplane. However, it was not without John saying, "How's your airspeed," "Bring it over to the right," "Add power," "Take out power." Not that he physically helped me land the airplane but I voluntarily gave him control on each landing by relying upon his words to land us. This contributed to my less-than-stellar flying.
Another factor was the externally imposed pressure to solo that I had accepted and internalized. My logbook started comparing itself to other logbooks. Did I measure up? Where did my training fit on that bell curve of life? With each dual turn of the Hobbs meter I felt less and less capable of flying. I wondered what was wrong with me, and why this landing thing simply wouldn't click as everyone promised it would. Perhaps I was genetically incapable of getting it right. I started to wonder if I wasn't John's worst student, turning his brown hair shades of gray.
Oh great, more pressure. I felt like I had become a burden to my instructor. That put undue pressure on me to show him how well I was learning. I was trying so hard to be perfect that it distracted me from flying the airplane. If only he would get out, I would solo much sooner.
I did find the less that I thought about the motions, the better I became at performing them. Early on, I was completely obsessed with each component of flying. Everything had to be done exactly as prescribed, with no deviation. On landing John taught me to power back to 1,500 RPM when abeam the numbers. That caused me to stare at the tachometer and pin 1,500 RPM exactly, watching for the magic number. I wasn't satisfied with 1,510, nor 1,490, but it had to be 1,500 on the nose. I wasn't paying attention to the sounds of the engine, or the feel of the airplane; I only paid heed to the numbers on the tach. Do you know how much valuable flying time that takes from a student pilot? By the time I had that number pegged I was behind the airplane racing to catch up again. Inevitably, I would unintentionally lose altitude, causing John to chide me for being at 1,200 feet rather than pattern altitude of 1,300 feet. "Tina, how will the airplane slow down if you don't maintain altitude?"
So much for our honeymoon when Tina could do no wrong. We were well ensconced in our flying relationship and John had no qualms about pointing out the errors of my ways. Isn't that always the way? The old ball and chain. Of course this was necessary to the learning process. In order for me to progress I must be pushed a bit. John had to constantly raise the standard of my performance, demanding greater effort from me. Where once my flying skills garnered "great job" and "well done" accolades, I now found myself being browbeaten for substandard performance.
Oh, did I mention that it was me who was doing the browbeating? I was essentially psyching myself out. Ask me how my flying was going and I would reply, "Great, if I ever learn how to land the darn thing!" Well, I did know how to land the darn thing; I'd done it many times. I simply didn't have a nice feel for it; my landings weren't nice and smooth. But each landing was safe and always ended with the shiny side up, the rubber side down and we could use the airplane again, the hallmarks of a "good landing." But here I was degrading my performance to the world. And do you know who was listening? My instructor John, that's who was listening. And how could he be convinced that I was a safe solo pilot when I wasn't convinced myself?
Finding the Groove
Every "good landing" was an adventure. I was having trouble consistently doing a reasonable flare to landing. I had no feel for the flare or when to even begin it. I'd either plomp it onto the runway without ever flaring, or I would do a beautiful full stall landing about 10 feet above the runway. Finally John and I tried an experiment. John kept the airplane straight down the runway. My job was to look out the side window and keep the tire from touching the pavement, just a couple of inches above it. A bit of playing with that and I became better attuned to "the feel." It was time to move my landings from spectacles of uncoordinated terror to respectable exercises in getting an airplane on the ground in one piece.
One major bit of assistance was in remembering to use trim on the airplane. Somewhere I had gotten into my head the idea that trim was extra. Almost as if trimming the airplane was a bit lazy, a mental comparison to cruise control on a car, I suppose. When I finally began trimming the airplane properly, I found that many other pieces started falling into place better. The herky-jerky movements on the yoke diminished. I wasn't fighting the airplane for control. The landing drill became to fly downwind and, when abeam the numbers, apply carburetor heat and reduce the throttle to about 1,500 RPM. Apply three turns of trim to help maintain altitude until the airspeed bled off to the top of the white arc. Now add one notch of flaps and one turn of trim to overcome the balloon effect of the flaps and keep the airspeed at about 70 knots before turning base.
When the end of the runway is at about 45 degrees behind me, turn base and reduce airspeed to 65 knots with a descent rate of about 500 FPM. Level the wings and check for traffic and turn final. At this point I am about 500 feet AGL and lined up with the runway. Add another notch of flaps and another turn of trim to hold air speed at 60 while maintaining alignment with the runway. Pick a spot about 50 feet short of the end of the runway and watch it in relation to a dead bug on the windscreen. If it appears to be moving downward, I am too high and need to reduce power. If it appears to be rising in relation to the spot, I am too low and need to increase power to maintain altitude until the spot seems to be stationary. Once the spot is stationary, I am at the correct altitude and descent angle and all I need to do is pull power and flare.
They say the flare is like a common home activity; the longer you can hold off the finale, the more satisfying it is. Holding off and not letting the airplane land by constantly pulling back on the yoke and it will land itself smoothly and with great satisfaction. The keys were trim (so I wasn't working so hard) and airspeed. I had to become comfortable with constantly checking airspeed and runway, airspeed and runway. It was too easy to fixate on one or the other but my eyes had to be constantly moving until the flare and touchdown.
Something's Still Missing
So here I was, with many of the pieces necessary to solo. A student pilot certificate. A pre-solo test completed, and a gaggle of flying skills to boot. What I didn't have was confidence. Without that, my landings simply would not click in. Part of the difficulty I had in gaining confidence was that my instructor talked a lot. I just wanted to show him I knew what I was doing, but instead I was being told what to do each time. For instance, about the time I was to perform the pre-landing checklist John would ask, "How about a GUMPS check." Argh, I was just about to do one.
But maybe I was too green to know that I needed the advice. The fact remains that towards the end I was threatening to bring a roll of duct tape if that was what it took to hush him up. Each time John would talk to me during my landing, I would hand over to him my responsibility as pilot in command. Of course it was a subconscious thing, but upon retrospection I can clearly see that was my M.O. Once he started advising me in the air, I would mentally hand over the controls to him and have to be "talked down."
There was once some research done on why some youngsters fall off of playground equipment in the presence of their parents and others did not. Researchers observed the interactions closely. They discovered that little kids have figured out gravity. They got that part when they were learning to walk. So, when climbing, the child knows if she lets go she's going to get hurt. The child also knows to pay attention when Mom or Dad says something. Turns out that the kids who were left alone to climb fell pretty rarely. The kids who had to listen to Mom or Dad say "Be careful" or "Don't fall" or "Hold on tight" or such other redundant foolishness were the ones falling and getting hurt because their attention was divided. The one who was trying to help was acting in a counter-productive manner.
Was John being counter-productive to me at the time? I doubt it. But it sure was a frustrating time for us both. [For the instructor's view of this event, see Rick Durden's recent column, "A First Solo."] Trouble was that John had become my voice-activated autopilot. I just sat there, waiting until he told me to do something. Was there a reason behind his talking? Did I need the direction at the time? Perhaps it was his inexperience that was talking. I was the third or fourth student that John was taking to term. With a smaller experience base he was understandably more cautious when it came to his students. Of course the verbal spanking I gave myself after each landing didn't contribute to the air of confidence in the cockpit either.
I now had to put all of the pieces together and show John that I was no longer a pre-solo student. I awoke one morning, put the dog outside, listened a bit to the song of the red-winged blackbird and breathed in the day. There was solo in the air! I went to the airport and John had me do the preflight and the run-up alone. I'd never started the engine without him in the cockpit with me. I'm feeling quite confident today. Even wore my pretty undergarments, just in case they revived the shirt-cutting ceremony for me, John's first female pre-solo student.
After starting the engine, I glanced up at the windsock to see which direction to point the nose for the runup. Ahhh, the wind is coming from the north. Good, and it's a nice solid wind too, straight down the runway. I have a definite direction to aim N67396 for the run-up. And what do I do? I aim the airplane in exactly the wrong direction. Perfect example of a brain fart. I looked at the windsock, and "misread" it. In my excitement to solo, I made a stupid mistake. John calls out to me over the unicom, "396, is that where you are planning to do the run-up?" Oh darn, I must have done something wrong. I check the windsock again and see the wind is still nicely from the north and I confidently say, "Yes." I thought that John was just trying to test me. "I'll be right out," he says. Then the stupid light kicks on and shines on my mistake. That's the way to give the CFI confidence in my abilities, huh? He hops in and I continue with the run-up, trying to forget that mistake and move on to recover the lesson. Not even off the ground yet and I'm feeling discouraged. We head up for pattern work and I land us safely each time, but still not confidently.
As we taxi back, John spots his former instructor, one who has moved on to the big leagues and is an airline pilot now. John thinks it would be great if I could take a ride around the pattern a time or two with Jonathan. So the much-anticipated "John getting out of the cockpit" is rather disappointing because Jonathan has climbed in. It was a great experience, however. Jonathan had no pre-conceived notions about the mistakes that I make. Therefore, I didn't make them. Jonathan concluded that I had all of the skills to solo and that I will make a wonderful pilot one day because I am so very hard on myself.
John climbs back in and we fly around the pattern a few more times before he has me pull off the active and head back to the hangar, much to my dismay. I really thought today was going to be "The Day." As we taxied to the hangar, John was talking but I wasn't listening. I was so deflated that I saw his lips moving, but I wasn't hearing a word. I shut down the airplane and I dragged back to the office, avoiding the glances of the other pilots nearby. He hustled his next student out to preflight and sat down to talk with me. In the office, I didn't want to talk. Actually, I couldn't talk. I was trying hard to swallow some disappointment tears. He made me talk, however. We discussed the flight and I felt a little bit better. He explained that I am much like he was, pretty darn good at everything except the landing part.
On the drive home I started thinking. Flying is supposed to be fun, and here I was making it work. I will solo when the time comes. I need to take some of the emphasis off of the event and just continue learning to fly. Although I wanted like heck to solo that day, I was still quite nervous about it. I wasn't emotionally ready.
What's That Noise?
The next lesson started without a hitch. I did the pre-flight all proper-like and off we went to practice some maneuvers. I tried to take the focus off of soloing, as did John. We went out east of the airport and practiced steep turns, something I've always enjoyed doing. Afterwards we returned to the airport to shoot some landings; no pressure.
Now I don't know if John heard it or not, but I swear there was a distinct CLICK in the cockpit as I finally got "it." Everything worked together to make for some very solid landings. Truly it felt as if my airplane was riding in on rails as we simply glided down to the earth. Of course there was no one there at the airport watching this time. Just like the person who plays golf alone for one round, that's when the hole-in-one happens. (This proves there either is a God or that there isn't — I've forgotten which.) Regardless, John was there to experience these landings and I do believe he was pleased because after three dual landings, John reached over and unbuckled his seat belt. He reminded me to use the checklist as he disconnected his headset, smiled, and exited the aircraft shutting the door behind him.
I became Pilot In Command that day. And it was a beautiful thing. Not one bit of me was nervous, not a second of fear or dread. The fear was replaced by focus, just as "they" said it would. I taxied down to runway 19, held short and ran through my preflight checklist. Deciding upon a short-field takeoff, I dropped in 10 degrees of flaps and called, "Ellington traffic, Cessna 6420L position and hold, runway 19, Ellington."
What an echo there was in the cockpit. What silence there was beside me.
Climbing out after taking off, I did think that there was a problem with the airplane. There was a severe vibration that seemed to be coming from the tail. I kept my cool and maintained the climb. Once I got a few hundred feet up I looked around and tried to figure out what was going on. As I looked down, I saw my right leg shaking uncontrollably. The vibration was actually coming from me. Whew! What followed were three of the absolute best circuits of the pattern I've ever flown. Everything worked perfectly and, when it didn't, I fixed it. Just as I knew I could. And John had to watch them from the ground. It appeared that I had achieved sky-goddess status for that day. (I occasionally will have sky-goddess days still or, shall I say, sky-goddess moments. But they are fleeting things, mere flashes of inspired performance that lend texture to an otherwise featureless plane of gray mediocrity that occasionally dips into awesome incompetence.)
But on Solo Day, I shined. As I cleared the active runway my radio call was, "Ellington traffic, Cessna 20L who is on the ground after flying all by herself, is clear the active runway, Ellington."
Two more times around before John let me get out and hug him. Then I hugged, Mike, Trevor, Ted, anyone who got close enough was hugged. They took photos afterward, but no shirt-cutting. Good thing, too, because I was wearing my prized marathon T-shirt.
When people asked why my feet weren't touching the ground, it was hard to explain. Pilots already knew the reason, but it was a mystery those who do not fly. I have now seen the world in a different way, this time alone. And I will never again be the same.
Additional articles in this series by Tina Gonsalves include: