How I Learned to Fly: My First Solo

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 Saturdayafternoon in Cessna 152 N93114. My instructor flew with me the firstfew times around then got out and let me take it. I taxied back ontothe 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 alongwhich He did because it went all right. But I was unafraid because Iwas prepared. The first time was a little different.

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

The flight school that I chose was new and the owner had troublefinding 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 theprivate pilot’s test.

I remember doing a cursory walk around, but I do not recall doinga detailed preflight checklist. We did not run through emergencyprocedures. I do remember using flaps for landing with one instructorbut not the others. My third instructor was a friendly guy in his mid50’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 takea 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 theairport in Athens, Georgia, who was very proud of the fact that shehad soloed with only four hours of lessons. Now I know that there isno way that girl could be safe to do anything but go around in apattern at an uncrowded small airport. But back then as I started onmy 12th hour of dual flying with my third instructor, I was beginningto feel a little slow.

We did a few maneuvers, shot a few landings, and then taxied backto the flight school hangar. The instructor jumped out and said “Youtake it around.” I said, “Gasp!” I mean, “Ok,” and took off (almostliterally) down the taxiway. I realized that I was going too fastalmost too late. I jammed on the brakes and slid broadside onto therunway. The engine stalled and shut off. I ducked thinking that someincoming 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 startedpushing knobs and twisting switches and the engine jumped up with aroar! I pushed the throttle in full and away I went down the runwayand up into the air!

By now I realized that I had to get a hold of myself and fly thisairplane. I still couldn’t remember anything, so I pretended that theinstructor was in the seat next to me after making sure themicrophone was not on so that no one on the ground heard me and knewhow scared I was. I literally talked to the seat next to me.

Things started calming down as I discussed the different legs ofthe landing pattern and the altitude. I started down on final butcould not quite get the plane to touch down, instead pushing in thethrottle and doing a go around, still talking to the phantominstructor. Again, I did OK until the flare (probably just a littletoo high), chickened out, and gave it full throttle only a few feetabove the ground and went around the second time.

Now, I was determined that I was going to land that plane. Iturned onto final the third time and there was a Southern Airwaysplane on the end of my runway about to take off, sitting right whereI was to come down! Oh, My God, I hadn’t been told what to do if thishappens! I turned on the mike, summoned my calmest voice, and toldairport control that I decided to “break out of the pattern and flyaround a little bit.” And that is what I did. Flew out a couple ofmiles and circled around until I saw the Southern airliner takeoffand clear the area.

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

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

About a week later I had another lesson and we landed just beforethe rainstorm. I jumped in the car and fastened my seat belt,something I had not done until I started flying. The click of thebuckle must have clicked something in my mind and I must have thoughtthat 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 carin the ditch, a total loss.

A family behind me saw the wreck and gave me a ride home. Thelittle 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 hadtotaled the car. Years later Dad said that he was very proud of theway I accepted full responsibility, but you couldn’t tell it at thetime. I was so disgusted and ashamed that I exiled myself from flying… until I was 47.