The Pilot’s Lounge #15:
A First Solo

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“Afirst solo is like the birth of a baby.”

The usual suspects were sitting in the Lounge discussing the fact that we areseeing more students at the airport when old Hack dropped that line on us. Itdid stop conversation for a moment. We generally enjoy the process ofchallenging 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’sremark, then commented that the process of dual prior to solo is the gestationphase. It is sometimes painful, sometimes happy and seems to drag on forever. Ihad 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 joyto watch, sometimes you have to avert your eyes.

Student and InstructorBarb grinned; she kind of liked Hack’s analogy and continued. Some students, aswith miscarriages, simply don’t make it. Most prevail through the challengesuntil, finally, one day the student makes the flight around the local patternall alone. A new, bouncing – yes, that is a good description, bouncing – babypilot is born. The instructor still has to change the diapers by supervisingsome solos, but the baby develops rapidly, exploring the sky with the excitementof a newborn discovering her toes. Cross-countries are the sex education ofearly adolescence, introduced carefully by the instructor with some trepidationbecause the instructor knows so well the penalties of poor choices by thestudent pilot. Then, the teenager is given the keys to the car and allowed tofly an airplane, alone, to far away locations. Amid some mental turmoil on thepart of the instructor who has been delegating more and more of theresponsibility and authority for each flight to the student, the apron stringsare 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 ofaviation. College may follow with advanced ratings or the newly certificatedpilot 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 ofreasoning wasn’t all that weird after all. Between sniggers, some of theearthier folks asked about the conception of the new baby pilot. Barb wasprepared for that one. She simply pointed out that the conception is thatexciting, exuberant, blissful time when someone makes the decision he or she isgoing to learn to fly. There is no thought of the consequences; the poor suckeris too wrapped up with the seductive idea of flying. Reality will follow duringgestation. That shut up the raunchy ones and didn’t even embarrass the moreformal. For we have been blessed with a reasonable number of baby pilots overthe last several months. Student starts are up, the demand for professionalpilots is up and, around here at least, we are happy to see propellers turningmore frequently than has been the case for many, many years.

Passing The Torch…

Private PTSWe’ve also noted that there seems to be a different mix of folks who are comingout to learn to fly. We are seeing a lot of kids, as is usual, but we are alsoseeing a substantial number of generation Xer’s and baby boomers. The Xer’sfinally have money and are doing something they’ve dreamed of for years. Theaging boomers have kids who are old enough that some of the nagging burden ofresponsibility has eased a little, or the kids have departed the nest. Theboomer has always sort of toyed with learning to fly, but listened to societyand the reports of “danger” and didn’t fly until now. We have a numberof moms who come out during the day, study like crazy, review the CDs, take alesson, demand a detailed debrief from the instructor and then scoot home tomeet the school bus. They are most fascinating because of the hoops they jumpthrough 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 Loungedetermined to tell someone how well things went. The student will describe stallrecoveries where the ball stayed in the center, turns around a point duringwhich altitude and ground track were absolutely nailed, or crosswind landingswhere the upwind wheel just started rolling out of the flare and the airplanebalanced on that wheel for some time before the downwind wheel finally toucheddown. That student has to talk to someone or burst. We in Lounge are more thanhappy to be that someone. Having a chance to listen to a student enthuse over agood lesson is a great for all of us. Being able to then encourage the studentmakes those times very special.

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

ClemWe either get an earful about how the student couldn’t even fly straight andlevel at the same time, or the neophyte just stares into the coffee cup. Thoseare the days we speak softly to the student, often one-on-one, to remind him orher that bad days occur for lots of reasons, that Germany’s Red Baron of WWItook 25 hours to solo and wrecked an airplane on his first solo and that, allplatitudes aside, it will get better.

Yes, we agonize with the fledglings on the bad days and celebrate with them onthe good. It is all a part of flying. Every single one of us here went throughthe John the Wayne days when everything we did went exactly right and the ClemKadiddlehopper days when we couldn’t even figure out how to fasten the safetybelt. So, there is a lot of support, and, hopefully, because there is a lot ofsupport, 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 finallyachieving a lifelong goal of learning to fly. She has a spirit of adventurethat is pretty strong, for she has run at least one marathon, something thatstuns the denizens of the Lounge, for their idea of strenuous activity is havingto pump the landing gear down. Yes, most of us are, sadly, in that peak ofphysical condition that causes us to get breathless jumping to a conclusion.

Runway judgesTina’s spouse, as with many others, isn’t crazy about flying. She is flying witha good instructor, John, who has found that he enjoys teaching more than hecould have imagined. She has worked extremely hard. He has worked extremelyhard. Sometimes things have gone well and sometimes things have simply gone fordog meat, to use the vernacular. A week ago she came in convinced she was nevergoing to solo. Somewhat akin to the basketball player who only had three thingswrong with his game, the inability to shoot, pass or dribble, she had had alesson where she couldn’t hold altitude, airspeed or heading with any degree ofconsistency. Her instructor had tried to help but it just wasn’t comingtogether. She came into the Lounge terribly distraught, particularly because shethought 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 wasany hope. She was well past the “average” for first solo (tryexplaining that the time to solo bears no relationship whatsoever to eventualskill as a pilot to a student quiveringly desperate to solo), her spouse wasn’tsupportive and she was considering hanging up this flying nonsense for good.

Fortunately, some of the more knowledgeable regulars of the Lounge were here andthey spoke to her for some time. They found that the iron will and determinationthat got her through a marathon were a part of her very fiber, so she wasn’tgoing to quit. After that they talked with her about technique, thoughtprocesses and procedures.

Her angst triggered something in me, so I took a walk. As I suspected, I foundher instructor wandering behind the more distant hangars. He, too, wasdisappointed. He had watched her struggle and had read and talked with otherinstructors and worked to come up with a teaching style that matched the wayTina learned. He knew she put unreasonable pressure on herself. This had beenone of the worst lessons she’d had in a while. For her instructor it wasdepressing. He and I talked for quite a while. He impressed me with the degreeto which he wants his students to succeed. We often think of instructors as theogres of the right seat. Few realize how badly they want to create a positivelearning environment so their students do well.

Instructors bear a lot of responsibility for creating the correct environment toencourage their students to learn. And, believe it or not, they feel the samehighs 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 flightthey are applying body English to make the airplane go the right way. On theground they are thinking about their students, worrying whether they are makingeach minute count, knowing that this learning to fly stuff is expensive andhoping they are giving their students their money’s worth. So, in addition tobeing broke, when mealtime comes, many times they just don’t have a lot ofappetite.

At Last, Success

A Pilot Is Born…

Tina did solo. In fact, her solo was at an 1,800-foot strip with some trees. Shedid it. When she came in here she was ecstatic. Her feet still weren’t touchingthe ground and the landing graders and bench sitters and Lounge regulars wereall grinning worse than the inmates of the “feebs and droolers” wardat the fool farm on the other side of town. Everyone was happy. She hugged herinstructor. Everyone made appropriate “oohh” and “aahh”noises, pictures were taken and insults exchanged, so the joy was universal. Tomy minor dismay, no one cut off her shirttail, for there is nothing quite likethe constant reminder of the cold, fake leather of the seat against a bare backduring 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 dinnerfor a relative. I wondered whether the relative would understand that thisreally 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 amongus. Tina has seen the world in a different way than the vast majority of humanbeings. She has done something only a tiny percentage of people on this planetwill ever do: cause a flying machine to rise into the sky, command it to takeher where she desired to go and then return to our planet with a degree ofpanache. 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 onepercent of the world’s population ever make an aircraft to enter its element andreturn safely.

…And Soon Will Grow

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

The process of learning to fly, before soloing, involves some of the highesthighs and lowest lows a person ever experiences at any time in life. Prozaccannot be used to even out the peaks, thankfully, because those peaks andvalleys must be experienced.

Change Is Good

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

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

Those who do solo will discover that they will subtly start to grow apart fromthose who do not fly, because the others cannot escape their waterbug-on-the-surface-of-life perspective on all that they perceive. The solo pilothas seen the world and acted on it in a way very unique to a few. At the time ofsolo they know this intellectually. Soon they will begin to realize itemotionally. It will affect their lives and change them, and it’s too damn lateto do a thing about it. They will notice that they desire to socialize withother aviators. At cocktail parties they will see through the inanities and findthe usual superficial social conversations trite and a waste of time. It issometimes a difficult transformation.

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

Welcome … And Congratulations

Tina Gonsalves, welcome to aviation. Welcome to a perspective and a way of lifeshared 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 ofthe Pilot’s Lounge.

See you next month.