Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Always A Student
Reflections of a first solo flight, thousands of hours later
The frost on the wings looked like pearl dust. Andy watched as I moved the ailerons up and down to ensure they were free. I ran my hand along the edges of the prop blades to make sure they were smooth. I bent under the wings, inserted the fuel tester, and drained a few ounces, looking for the blue color of 100 octane low-lead gas and the absence of water. "I think she's ready." Andy agreed, and we climbed into the little Cessna 150.
I was in the left seat, and Andy was in the right. I read the engine-start checklist out loud as Andy watched carefully. I called, "Clear," started the engine, and the propeller spun with a load roar. Even though I had started up this airplane many times before, it still gave me a thrill to hear the power and feel the vibrations.
When tower cleared me for takeoff, I aligned the small plane with the center of the runway, checked that the compass agreed, and pushed the throttle forward. It didn't take long to reach almost 60 mph and become airborne. Being in command of an airplane as it takes off is an experience that never gets old.
Whenever Andy asked me a question—which seemed like all the time—he would follow my answer with, "Are you sure?" That always made me think hard before answering. Flying isn't like driving a car, motorcycle or boat, where there's a way to just stop to see what's wrong and fix it. I can't pull over in the Cessna 150. But, on this particular day, I was always sure of my answers and felt good.
Andy had me fly circles around the intersection of two country roads, even though the wind was trying to make me fly long ovals. As we returned toward the airport, he pulled the power to idle, and instructed me to find a place to land. I spotted a pasture, and began a controlled descent just as I had been taught.
After we returned to home field and taxied to the FBO, Andy opened his door and said the words I had been waiting for: "Okay, now you take it around for three touch-and-goes." My first solo!
I was scared. Not afraid enough to refuse, but plenty worried that I might have trouble. Still, I respected Andy, and I knew that if I couldn't do it, he wouldn't ask me to. So off I went, heart racing, and palms wet with sweat. "I'll be fine, I'll be fine." I kept telling myself.
Andy must have called the tower and told them that I was a student taking his first solo. They were very accommodating and spoke slowly. I rolled down the runway and took off to the same thrill I always had, only this time it was magnified tenfold because I was alone. I made my pattern turns, did the radio calls and landed with no problem. I could feel myself relax. If I did it once, I could do it again. Two landings later, I taxied back to the FBO, where Andy and others congratulated me and did the ceremonial cutting of my tail feathers by snipping off the tail of my T-shirt. I was so proud of myself! I thought that for sure I was now a pilot.
As I look back on those first 10-15 hours, I'm amazed at how confident I was. I soon came to realize how far away being able to take off and land is from being a real pilot. When I had accumulated 100 hours, I thought then that I definitely knew what I was doing. But when I got to 250 hours, I looked back at my skill development and was amazed at how little I knew at 100 hours. At 1,000 hours, I felt the same way about 250, and so on for thousands of hours more. It never changes: Flying is something where one is always learning and getting better. And even more interestingly, it always remains a challenge to have a perfect flight where every little detail is accomplished, just as it should be. Even though checklists are always used, it still seems that on each flight, there's some little thing that could have been done better—adjusting the prop sooner, tuning the radios in advance, changing altitude more efficiently, studying the arrival airport a little better and so on. I guess that's why I like flying so much—it's always a challenge, and there's always something to learn. Thankfully, I'll always be a student pilot.