The Pilot's Lounge #15:
A First Solo

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It's an exciting time at the Lounge: More and more people, young and old, are learning to fly. Watching students progress from pre-solo work to cross-countries is a lot like watching a child grow into an adult. In fact, says AVweb's Rick Durden, it transforms a person. Not just into a pilot, but into a different type of person altogether.

The Pilots Lounge"A first solo is like the birth of a baby."

The usual suspects were sitting in the Lounge discussing the fact that we are seeing more students at the airport when old Hack dropped that line on us. It did stop conversation for a moment. We generally enjoy the process of challenging oddball analogies, so we wanted to toss this one around a bit.

Flight Training As Maturation?

Barb, normally a hard-boiled realist and mother of twins, thought about Hack's remark, then commented that the process of dual prior to solo is the gestation phase. It is sometimes painful, sometimes happy and seems to drag on forever. I had the mental picture of trainers staggering around on a hot summer day, burdened by the weight of two inside. It's true, sometimes presolo dual is a joy to watch, sometimes you have to avert your eyes.

Student and Instructor Barb grinned; she kind of liked Hack's analogy and continued. Some students, as with miscarriages, simply don't make it. Most prevail through the challenges until, finally, one day the student makes the flight around the local pattern all alone. A new, bouncing yes, that is a good description, bouncing baby pilot is born. The instructor still has to change the diapers by supervising some solos, but the baby develops rapidly, exploring the sky with the excitement of a newborn discovering her toes. Cross-countries are the sex education of early adolescence, introduced carefully by the instructor with some trepidation because the instructor knows so well the penalties of poor choices by the student pilot. Then, the teenager is given the keys to the car and allowed to fly an airplane, alone, to far away locations. Amid some mental turmoil on the part of the instructor who has been delegating more and more of the responsibility and authority for each flight to the student, the apron strings are finally cut and the student goes through a rite of passage, the checkride. Checkride passed, the student has graduated from high school and is now thrust hopefully prepared, but still terribly naive into the real world of aviation. College may follow with advanced ratings or the newly certificated pilot may chose the way of hard knocks, picking up experience and acquaintances, either good or bad, as he or she reaches out to life.

We, here in the Lounge, listened to Hack and Barb and decided their line of reasoning wasn't all that weird after all. Between sniggers, some of the earthier folks asked about the conception of the new baby pilot. Barb was prepared for that one. She simply pointed out that the conception is that exciting, exuberant, blissful time when someone makes the decision he or she is going to learn to fly. There is no thought of the consequences; the poor sucker is too wrapped up with the seductive idea of flying. Reality will follow during gestation. That shut up the raunchy ones and didn't even embarrass the more formal. For we have been blessed with a reasonable number of baby pilots over the last several months. Student starts are up, the demand for professional pilots is up and, around here at least, we are happy to see propellers turning more frequently than has been the case for many, many years.

Passing The Torch...

Private PTS We've also noted that there seems to be a different mix of folks who are coming out to learn to fly. We are seeing a lot of kids, as is usual, but we are also seeing a substantial number of generation Xer's and baby boomers. The Xer's finally have money and are doing something they've dreamed of for years. The aging boomers have kids who are old enough that some of the nagging burden of responsibility has eased a little, or the kids have departed the nest. The boomer has always sort of toyed with learning to fly, but listened to society and the reports of "danger" and didn't fly until now. We have a number of moms who come out during the day, study like crazy, review the CDs, take a lesson, demand a detailed debrief from the instructor and then scoot home to meet the school bus. They are most fascinating because of the hoops they jump through to learn to fly; we sometimes think they lead a double life.

...And Learning To Listen

We get to watch the intense ups and downs the students experience as they fly. There are the days a student jumps out of the airplane, pats it on the flank, speaks happily to it, debriefs with exuberance and walks into the Lounge determined to tell someone how well things went. The student will describe stall recoveries where the ball stayed in the center, turns around a point during which altitude and ground track were absolutely nailed, or crosswind landings where the upwind wheel just started rolling out of the flare and the airplane balanced on that wheel for some time before the downwind wheel finally touched down. That student has to talk to someone or burst. We in Lounge are more than happy to be that someone. Having a chance to listen to a student enthuse over a good lesson is a great for all of us. Being able to then encourage the student makes those times very special.

We in the Lounge are also there on those inevitable bad lesson days. We see the student get out of the airplane, glare at it balefully, and know that the student is either considering using explosives on the airplane or giving up flying forever. There will be a time for the debrief, then the student shows up in the Lounge, pours a cup of our lousy coffee and plops into one of the big chairs.

Clem We either get an earful about how the student couldn't even fly straight and level at the same time, or the neophyte just stares into the coffee cup. Those are the days we speak softly to the student, often one-on-one, to remind him or her that bad days occur for lots of reasons, that Germany's Red Baron of WWI took 25 hours to solo and wrecked an airplane on his first solo and that, all platitudes aside, it will get better.

Yes, we agonize with the fledglings on the bad days and celebrate with them on the good. It is all a part of flying. Every single one of us here went through the John the Wayne days when everything we did went exactly right and the Clem Kadiddlehopper days when we couldn't even figure out how to fasten the safety belt. So, there is a lot of support, and, hopefully, because there is a lot of support, we don't have a lot of students drop out before getting the rating.

Plateaus And Other Low Spots

The last couple of days have been interesting. Tina is a mom who is finally achieving a lifelong goal of learning to fly. She has a spirit of adventure that is pretty strong, for she has run at least one marathon, something that stuns the denizens of the Lounge, for their idea of strenuous activity is having to pump the landing gear down. Yes, most of us are, sadly, in that peak of physical condition that causes us to get breathless jumping to a conclusion.

Runway judges Tina's spouse, as with many others, isn't crazy about flying. She is flying with a good instructor, John, who has found that he enjoys teaching more than he could have imagined. She has worked extremely hard. He has worked extremely hard. Sometimes things have gone well and sometimes things have simply gone for dog meat, to use the vernacular. A week ago she came in convinced she was never going to solo. Somewhat akin to the basketball player who only had three things wrong with his game, the inability to shoot, pass or dribble, she had had a lesson where she couldn't hold altitude, airspeed or heading with any degree of consistency. Her instructor had tried to help but it just wasn't coming together. She came into the Lounge terribly distraught, particularly because she thought she would probably solo that day. Not only had she failed to solo, she hadn't even come close. She was so down that she wondered whether there was any hope. She was well past the "average" for first solo (try explaining that the time to solo bears no relationship whatsoever to eventual skill as a pilot to a student quiveringly desperate to solo), her spouse wasn't supportive and she was considering hanging up this flying nonsense for good.

Fortunately, some of the more knowledgeable regulars of the Lounge were here and they spoke to her for some time. They found that the iron will and determination that got her through a marathon were a part of her very fiber, so she wasn't going to quit. After that they talked with her about technique, thought processes and procedures.

Her angst triggered something in me, so I took a walk. As I suspected, I found her instructor wandering behind the more distant hangars. He, too, was disappointed. He had watched her struggle and had read and talked with other instructors and worked to come up with a teaching style that matched the way Tina learned. He knew she put unreasonable pressure on herself. This had been one of the worst lessons she'd had in a while. For her instructor it was depressing. He and I talked for quite a while. He impressed me with the degree to which he wants his students to succeed. We often think of instructors as the ogres of the right seat. Few realize how badly they want to create a positive learning environment so their students do well.

Instructors bear a lot of responsibility for creating the correct environment to encourage their students to learn. And, believe it or not, they feel the same highs and lows as the students. Ever notice why a lot of instructors are skinny? It's because they get emotionally involved in the learning process. In flight they are applying body English to make the airplane go the right way. On the ground they are thinking about their students, worrying whether they are making each minute count, knowing that this learning to fly stuff is expensive and hoping they are giving their students their money's worth. So, in addition to being broke, when mealtime comes, many times they just don't have a lot of appetite.

At Last, Success

A Pilot Is Born...

Tina did solo. In fact, her solo was at an 1,800-foot strip with some trees. She did it. When she came in here she was ecstatic. Her feet still weren't touching the ground and the landing graders and bench sitters and Lounge regulars were all grinning worse than the inmates of the "feebs and droolers" ward at the fool farm on the other side of town. Everyone was happy. She hugged her instructor. Everyone made appropriate "oohh" and "aahh" noises, pictures were taken and insults exchanged, so the joy was universal. To my minor dismay, no one cut off her shirttail, for there is nothing quite like the constant reminder of the cold, fake leather of the seat against a bare back during the drive back home to keep one pumped up about the accomplishment.

This time it wound down too fast. Tina had to go home and make a birthday dinner for a relative. I wondered whether the relative would understand that this really was Tina's birthday dinner. For Tina had been born. A new human being, with a new perspective and understanding of life and the world was walking among us. Tina has seen the world in a different way than the vast majority of human beings. She has done something only a tiny percentage of people on this planet will ever do: cause a flying machine to rise into the sky, command it to take her where she desired to go and then return to our planet with a degree of panache. Few people ever get to look out of the front windows of an airplane. Fewer still ever grasp the controls in fevered hands. And something under one percent of the world's population ever make an aircraft to enter its element and return safely.

...And Soon Will Grow

Those who have not soloed some sort of aircraft can never, ever emotionally understand the transformation that takes place in a person.

The process of learning to fly, before soloing, involves some of the highest highs and lowest lows a person ever experiences at any time in life. Prozac cannot be used to even out the peaks, thankfully, because those peaks and valleys must be experienced.

Change Is Good

Humans did not spend thousands of years of evolution in the sky; flying is not an inborn trait. Twisting a control wheel and shoving rudder pedals makes up only a fraction of what goes on in the process of learning to fly. The greatest change is within a person's mind. It begins to adapt to the sky. The student pilot must learn to see the world in a different way: to think and plan ahead in a fashion different than anything he or she has ever done. The mind begins to truly comprehend the third dimension. This occurs in an amazingly brief period of time in the sky. Yet it changes the person forever.

Many people who start to learn to fly simply cannot make the transformation in thinking, understanding and feeling needed to solo. The low lows chase many away before they can ever fly alone.

Those who do solo will discover that they will subtly start to grow apart from those who do not fly, because the others cannot escape their water bug-on-the-surface-of-life perspective on all that they perceive. The solo pilot has seen the world and acted on it in a way very unique to a few. At the time of solo they know this intellectually. Soon they will begin to realize it emotionally. It will affect their lives and change them, and it's too damn late to do a thing about it. They will notice that they desire to socialize with other aviators. At cocktail parties they will see through the inanities and find the usual superficial social conversations trite and a waste of time. It is sometimes a difficult transformation.

For the newly soloed pilot there will be more tough times in the process of getting a rating, and there will be some intense challenges afterward. However, the process of soloing is a demonstration that the new pilot can jump some pretty impressive hurdles. That fledgling pilot doesn't know it yet, but the other hurdles are a little less high. He or she has made it over the toughest one.

Welcome ... And Congratulations

Tina Gonsalves, welcome to aviation. Welcome to a perspective and a way of life shared by only a few. You've earned it.

John Lampson, congratulations on soloing another student at Ellington, Connecticut.

A lot of us are very proud of you and very glad you have added to the magic of the Pilot's Lounge.

See you next month.