My First Solo Short-Field Landing: You Really Can Solo Again!

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.


I am a student pilot on the East Coast, working toward my privatepilot ticket. Why? Well, the whole idea was my husband’s brilliantnotion of "togetherness." After nearly five years ofmarriage as the poster children for Opposites Attract, Inc., hedecided we should "find something we could do together."Learning to fly was it. And for some unexplainable reason, I boughtit.

Now it’s too late — we’re both hooked, and approximately half-waytoward our private pilot certificates. As a matter of fact, thispast week, my CFI and I did some heavy-duty flying.

Having flown away from the nest precisely once by myself — andeven then, all I did was venture out about 15 nm, take a lookaround, then bravely run straight home — we flew to threedifferent 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 controlledairport: tower, military presence, and a hard surface runway 150’wide by 7200′ long. By comparison, the three strips my CFI tookme to visit this week were roughly the equivalent of your nextdoor neighbor’s driveway after three centuries of neglect, bothin dimensions and surface quality. Really. Trust me.

My second solo

After practicing short field take offs and landings at Essex SkyPark — a.k.a. "W48" — a.k.a. "Theplace that time, hedge trimmers, and modern conveniences forgot"— my CFI looked at me and said, "Well, are you ready forme to hop out?"

Huh? Hop out? I thought we were going to hop home! He didn’t reallyexpect 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 wasready to tackle Essex Skypark solo.

As he climbed out of the right seat, he turned around and wavedhis little aviation band receiver. "Now, I won’t be ableto talk to you, but I can hear you, okay?" he said, thengave me a thumbs up and a grin before removing his headset andslamming the door.

Hmphf. He can hear me. Great! Was that supposed to makeme feel better? God help me, because obviously my CFI wasn’t goingto.

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 onupwind, downwind, and — cheating a little — on "base tofinal." I also remembered not to succumb to the optical illusionthat the runway was further away than it actually was. It wasjust 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 inone piece. Didn’t even damage the plane. As I back-taxied downthe runway (you have to announce that, too), my audience-of-oneon the ground doffed his hat and gave me a sweeping bow. If nothingelse, I was relieved to discover that neither chivalry nor I weredead!

Beginner’s luck?

Now that I had proven myself solo in the dragon’s lair, my confidencetentatively rose with the plane to pattern altitude for a secondtry. I flew the pattern smoothly, still grateful no witnesseswere in the vicinity. And as I turned onto final, I cautiouslybegan 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 boardsspray-painted florescent orange and jammed strategically intothe ground.)

According to the center board, I was perfectly positioned to landapproximately eighteen miles beyond the runway, right in the ChesapeakeBay.

I was not in a seaplane. Uh-oh.

Hrrmmm. Quick decision: go-around, or fix it? Which did I havetime for?

I had only done two go-arounds that I could remember (both atmile-wide MTN), and was still mastering the flow and feel of it.Another glance at that menacing center board convinced me — andin one smooth motion (not!), I shoved the throttle in, the carbheat off, and milked up the flaps 10 degrees at a time. As I glancedat the ground and trees rushing past, I aimed for Vx and hauledass outta there.

Whew! Deep breaths, Maria, deep breaths.

On upwind, I jumped when the radio crackled to life with my instructor’svoice: "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 breakout 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 anotheruncontrolled field. This particular field had an up-slope, plusthe added consequence of slamming into a hill and sliding acrossInterstate 95 if you landed long!

Are we having fun yet?

Lessons learned

Okay, so what did I learn?

  • I learned that a pilot must really pay attention toand think about the runway dimensions on the sectional chart —looks can be deceiving, especially if you’re accustomedto one field.

  • I learned there is no shame in going around. Better to bealive and aloft than determined and dead.

  • I learned to like Essex Skypark. Really! Once I overcamemy fears, the charm of the place took over, and I now appreciatehow 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-referencewhat you see.

  • I learned to trust my CFI. He has never put me in a situationI couldn’t handle, and has always read my abilities, potential,and breaking point just right. Trust is a hard thing to earn fromme, but after this week, I think he’s done it.

  • I learned that you don’t need as much flare when you’re landingdownhill. (Duh!) The ground slope takes care of a bit of thatfor you. Vice-versa landing on an upslope.

  • And lastly, I learned to be grateful for the tower controllersat my home base, whom I had heretofore called "grumpy."It’s no easy feat keeping track of everyone up there, and thatextra pair of eyes and authority are worth the few bad days thosefellas might have.

Next Lesson: Magnetic Dip! Oh, yippee. 🙁