Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Thrill Of Solo

Do you remember your first solo flight?

I'd like to say I remember my first solo experience as if it happened only yesterday, but in truth, yesterday was a long time ago, and the memory isn't that vivid. Though flying for me was a dream from the age of seven, the years have dimmed the recollection, suppressed the memories and reminded me that there are far fewer flight hours ahead than behind.

I do remember some things about it; the Piper Colt I rented for $4/hour (in 1966), how much better the little airplane climbed without my instructor's 200 extra pounds, the strange sensation of looking down at him standing by the runway at Long Beach rather than sitting in the right seat on my first solo approach, and how the stub-winged Piper floated a few feet above runway 25L at the lighter weight.

I also remember the feeling of exultation, after 14 hours of dual, of finally achieving the first of many goals: permission to learn about what I hoped would be a life in the sky. I knew that first solo was only a small step for a man, and I was eager to achieve the giant leap, the realization of a dozen-year dream.

I had begun flying from the back seat of a J3 Cub in Alaska at age 13, mostly observing during what were euphemistically called search-and-rescue missions for the Civil Air Patrol squadron in Anchorage. We never rescued anyone, but I spent two years and perhaps 20 hours in the back of that little Cub, a few of them actually flying the J3, but many spent watching the owner's every move and seeing how it affected the airplane, always trying to learn, always wanting more.

Like so many flying addicts, my need to fly was insatiable, but like many of those same folks, I couldn't afford to learn. Dad wasn't a pilot with a Bonanza, so there was no nepotistic trickle down to me. It took 12 years after that first flight in Alaska, plus two incomes, before I could justify starting my aero education.

My instructor in Long Beach was a moonlighter (a Douglas Aircraft employee in his day job, just as I was at the time), but he loved teaching, and he would have done it full time if he could have made a living at it. He was excited about flying, and he imparted to me his infectious joy that Bernoulli was right, his sheer enthusiasm at the miracle of leaving the earth below, of being, if only in thought and fantasy, a creature superior to those confined to the ground.

After my official, 14-hour presolo apprenticeship, he hopped out, and directed me to make three full stops and taxi backs. Sheer joy. I had no fear as I took the runway and pushed the throttle up for my first solo takeoff. The landings blurred into one another, some the most ethereal touchdowns ever performed by mere humans, others nearly as good. I was Scott Crossfield, I was Chuck Yeager, or at least, I soon would be. Flying the X-15 would be child's play for me.

Bert didn't stop me at three landings, so I made five, before he waved, laughing at my enthusiasm, and pointed toward the ramp. I remember taxiing in on the edge of my seat, surprised that there was no honor guard, brass band or low pass by the Blue Angels.

Now, it's many years and quite a few hours later, and my wife, Peggy, is where I was so long ago, just recovering from the inevitable high of passing her written test and making her first solo flight.

To my delight and surprise, Peggy took to flying from our first date, a quick dinner flight in my Mooney to Borrego Valley, out in the desert near Palm Springs. My Peggy is a veterinarian with a practice in Palos Verdes, Calif., and she eagerly embraced things aeronautical, not just because she cared about what I do for a living, but because she was genuinely interested about learning the ways of the sky.


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