My first solo (or should I say, “solos?”) was two years, five months, 13 days and nine hours in the making. And some of that was pretty exciting stuff.
Just shy of my 15th birthday, I had quite the proposal for my parents “Mom, dad, I want to learn how to fly.” I might as well have suggested I wanted to do brain surgery next week on Uncle Bob. Not that he couldn’t use a little tweaking of the gray matter, but the look I got from my parents, who truly believed that aircraft flew by magic and should be left to those creatures born with wings, was nothing short of bewilderment.
Not to be deterred, I presented my case. It was the usual argument: “But I wanna be a pilot!” “Flying is safer than driving,” I said and reminded them that it was a hobby that would keep me out of trouble, away from drugs and on the right side of the law (all of which it did). They still hadn’t said “no,” so I continued with my closing arguments. I wanted it bad.
After much debate, they finally acquiesced. My $5 (that’s not a typo) introductory flight was scheduled for Saturday at 9 a.m. I felt like a cork in a champagne bottle at 2 minutes to midnight. The five days to Saturday were the longest days of my 14 years. I didn’t sleep a wink Friday night. But, before I knew it, it was Saturday, and my dad was driving me to Gary Airport (KGYY) for my first flying lesson.
The receptionist pointed us to my newly assigned instructor’s office. He was relaxing with his feet on the desk, seemingly waiting for the phone to ring. For the record, his phone never rang during our entire visit.
After pleasantries, with my dad attempting to determine if this person could be trusted with my life, we began discussing what was to occur on my introductory flight. While my goals for this flight were different than my dad’s—he was just hoping for my safe return to terra firma—flying fever was already taking hold of me. It would prove to be one of those days that shaped my life, a life decades later filled with accomplishments and fond memories of those early flying days.
Since I knew that the regulations stipulated a student pilot must be 16 years old to solo a powered aircraft, my instructor, Pete, suggested that, in order to not get too far ahead of the syllabus or my budget, I fly just 30 minutes each week, slowly building up time and experience while still having me on track to solo on my sweet 16th.
The weeks ticked by, with the typical ups and downs that all students experience. I weathered the weather, managed the maintenance downtimes and sailed through the typical instructor turnovers. After a year or so of my weekly 30-minute habit, I was starting to feel comfortable in the left seat, impatiently awaiting my special day.
On a crisp autumn morning, my relatively new instructor, John, greeted me with an interesting proposition. “How would you like to fly the Arrow today?” As I found out, his reasoning was to give me something a bit more challenging during the buildup to solo age, while prepping me to solo both the Arrow and the 140 on my sixteenth birthday. I was all over that idea. The new goal, if I could pull it off, would make it a birthday worth remembering.
With three months to go until my birthday, my weekly flying lessons consisted mostly of 30-45 minutes in the Arrow, doing circuits in the pattern. Nothing worse than an overly confident almost-16-year-old. Nothing worse for an overly confident almost-16-year-old than an instructor who is even more confident than they and with a lesson plan packed with humility and terror.
With Arrow N7609J preflighted and ready to roll, I scurried up the wing and slid into the left seat. John followed with casual nonchalance. We began our taxi to runway 30. During the five-minute taxi, he kept pointing out trivial tidbits of meaningless minutiae outside the cockpit.
“Seriously,” I thought, “let’s get this bird in the air.”
Little did I know that a valuable lesson was soon to follow, the impact of which would stay with me to this very day.
One of my favorite moments in flying is when you arrive at the departure runway, runup complete, and begin the takeoff roll, which I did that day. The sightline of the runway centerline tucked under the nosewheel and the acceleration as you firewall the throttle is a vision that never gets old. My peripheral vision as the runway lights passed by in a rhythmic fashion was followed by a positive rate of climb and, as I’d grown used to doing, flipping the gear lever up to retract the Arrow’s gear.
John had other ideas, though. At approximately 75 feet above the runway, he calmly reached over and retarded the throttle to idle. I used some non-standard pilot verbiage to express my dismay while silently thinking, “I sure hope I initialed the ‘accept’ box on the optional damage waiver coverage on the rental agreement for this flight.”
Regardless, I did lower the nose and kept the shiny side up, but in the back of my almost-16-year-old mind, I could not understand why my multi-thousand-hour instructor hadn’t yet bailed me out of this mess. Descending quickly with nowhere to go but straight ahead (plenty of runway), I lowered the nose, nailed the speed and was confident I could safely land straight ahead.
There was only one thing, but it was a huge thing: I’d forgotten to put the gear lever down. (In retrospect, I’ve often wondered if there would have been enough time for the gear to fully extend prior to impact anyway.) Well into the flare, I was fully expecting to hear the crunch of the underbelly as it slid across the length of the runway. Instead, what I heard was sweet music. “Chirp, chirp, chirp.” No crunch. A beautiful landing. But…what happened?
On the taxi back in, the best I could muster was, “Why did you do that?” It was a question quickly followed by a baffled observation. “I thought the gear was still up.”
Not all flight instructors have sadistic tendencies, but many of them do. Maybe it’s for the good. Without the tough love they sometimes impart, maybe we wouldn’t learn the hard lessons that one day might save our lives, or the lives of our loved ones.
He proceeded to tell me that even after much verbal coaching, on numerous flights, he noticed that I always retracted the gear way too early after takeoff, in many cases with thousands of feet of runway still ahead of me. A lesson to be taught. He also admitted that during one of his minutiae moments during our taxi, he pulled the landing gear circuit breaker. Therefore, when I raised the gear lever after rotation, the gear remained in the down and locked position. I guess I didn’t need the damage waiver after all. He did compliment me on a very nice “emergency” landing. Thanks, pal.
With that lesson learned, I continued my march toward my 16th birthday with the anticipation of soloing the Arrow and the Cherokee 140. The day finally arrived. It was a Monday. I played hooky from school (with the full support of all involved).
My instructor thought it would be more fitting to solo the Arrow first. A quick circuit around the pattern to prove to him I still remembered everything learned in the preceding months, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting alone taxiing back to the active. A casual glance over to the right seat as I taxied into position was a bit unnerving. I was cleared for takeoff. As I pushed the throttle forward, watching those familiar runway lights in my periphery, I remembered that lesson months ago and waited for the appropriate time to retract the gear. Lesson learned. I’m airborne. I’m solo. With the familiar sights and sounds, I continued my pattern, ultimately completing three full-stop landings without incident.
I taxied back with undoubtedly the biggest smile on my face, greeted by instructor John and ready for my solo flight in the 140. With a full audience in view, as I clambered out onto the right wing to deplane, my footing slipped, and I nearly faceplanted into the tarmac.
Another circuit in the 140 with my instructor (to make the signoff legal), and I was taxiing back to the active for takeoff on my own, and this time with the gear permanently down and locked. My third full-stop landing was probably one of the smoothest, nicest landings I had made to date.
As I taxied back to the FBO, I had a sense of accomplishment that few 16-year-olds ever experience. I jumped out onto the wing, making sure to avoid the earlier embarrassment, and was greeted by my instructor with scissors in hand. For those too young to remember, it was common practice to cut the tail of your shirt and have it signed by your instructor, commemorating the achievement of your first solo. It ruined a perfectly good shirt, and I didn’t care a bit.