How I Learned to Fly: My First Solo

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

My first solo scared me so much, the second didn't come for another 28 years!

TrainingI was 47 when I did it for the second time one fall Saturday afternoon in Cessna 152 N93114. My instructor flew with me the first few times around then got out and let me take it. I taxied back onto the runway and took off, did three landings, taxied back to the parking area and got my picture taken. During the flight I talked to myself a little bit and asked God if he wouldn't mind coming along which He did because it went all right. But I was unafraid because I was prepared. The first time was a little different.

I was 19, living in South Georgia, and had just finished my freshman year of college. I had a well paying summer job with Georgia Power when I got a wild hair and decided to learn to fly. You could get an introductory ride in a Cessna 150 for $5; I enjoyed it. I told my parents that I wanted to fly and they did not like this idea at all. Dad, who had always pretty much let my brother and me do what we wanted as long as we paid for it or accepted responsibility, tried a ploy by saying that he would pay for it if I would just wait until next summer, hoping that I would lose interest. But I wouldn't wait saying that I wanted to pay for it myself anyway.

The flight school that I chose was new and the owner had trouble finding CFIs that he had confidence in, so I actually had three different instructors in the first 12 hours of my flying experience. I remember the ground school was good, given by a guy brought up from Florida but I don't recall very much on the mechanics or physics of flight. More time was spent on regulations and things to pass the private pilot's test.

I remember doing a cursory walk around, but I do not recall doing a detailed preflight checklist. We did not run through emergency procedures. I do remember using flaps for landing with one instructor but not the others. My third instructor was a friendly guy in his mid 50's who was technically a good pilot with one flaw. He drank. He actually did not drink while flying with me but I know he would take a drink before going up himself because he told me so.

Back then student pilots bragged on how quickly they got to solo. For example, a couple of years later I talked to a girl at the airport in Athens, Georgia, who was very proud of the fact that she had soloed with only four hours of lessons. Now I know that there is no way that girl could be safe to do anything but go around in a pattern at an uncrowded small airport. But back then as I started on my 12th hour of dual flying with my third instructor, I was beginning to feel a little slow.

We did a few maneuvers, shot a few landings, and then taxied back to the flight school hangar. The instructor jumped out and said "You take it around." I said, "Gasp!" I mean, "Ok," and took off (almost literally) down the taxiway. I realized that I was going too fast almost too late. I jammed on the brakes and slid broadside onto the runway. The engine stalled and shut off. I ducked thinking that some incoming plane was going to land on top of me any moment!

I couldn't remember how to start the engine but fear of failure (and of being hit by a landing plane) moved my hands, so I started pushing knobs and twisting switches and the engine jumped up with a roar! I pushed the throttle in full and away I went down the runway and up into the air!

By now I realized that I had to get a hold of myself and fly this airplane. I still couldn't remember anything, so I pretended that the instructor was in the seat next to me after making sure the microphone was not on so that no one on the ground heard me and knew how scared I was. I literally talked to the seat next to me.

Things started calming down as I discussed the different legs of the landing pattern and the altitude. I started down on final but could not quite get the plane to touch down, instead pushing in the throttle and doing a go around, still talking to the phantom instructor. Again, I did OK until the flare (probably just a little too high), chickened out, and gave it full throttle only a few feet above the ground and went around the second time.

Now, I was determined that I was going to land that plane. I turned onto final the third time and there was a Southern Airways plane on the end of my runway about to take off, sitting right where I was to come down! Oh, My God, I hadn't been told what to do if this happens! I turned on the mike, summoned my calmest voice, and told airport control that I decided to "break out of the pattern and fly around a little bit." And that is what I did. Flew out a couple of miles and circled around until I saw the Southern airliner takeoff and clear the area.

By golly, I was mad and tired of this silliness. It was time to show them. This plane was going to land. I took it back and reentered the pattern, executed the flare (still just a tad too high), and put her down with a bit of a bounce. But I was on the ground and safe with an audible sigh of relief. I taxied over to the hangar and shutdown the engine. The instructor opened the door, shook my hand, and said, "Great job."

In Valdosta, Georgia, if your parents belonged to the Country Club, if you were a reasonably good kid and in college, you could buy a beer if the bartender liked you. So, in celebration, I took the instructor out to the Country Club (he didn't turn me down), introduced him to Robert the barkeeper who liked me very much and said it was OK. We drank a couple of beers and the instructor told me stories but I never told him the whole story of that landing.

About a week later I had another lesson and we landed just before the rainstorm. I jumped in the car and fastened my seat belt, something I had not done until I started flying. The click of the buckle must have clicked something in my mind and I must have thought that I was still flying. I took off down the road, went around a curve too fast just as the pavement became wet, and wrecked the car in the ditch, a total loss.

A family behind me saw the wreck and gave me a ride home. The little kid in their backseat said, "He's not too good at driving," and I agreed. I went directly to my father and told him that I had totaled the car. Years later Dad said that he was very proud of the way I accepted full responsibility, but you couldn't tell it at the time. I was so disgusted and ashamed that I exiled myself from flying... until I was 47.