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.
When Peg first expressed her interest after that initial flight, I explained what an AOPA pinch-hitter course would teach her. She made it clear that wouldn't be enough. She wanted to earn her private pilot's license. I had struck gold.
As with so many successful professionals, Peggy's primary restriction is time, and learning to fly has been a long-term process. She soloed on May 28 at Long Beach, and her reflections shine a slightly different light on the process of taking that important step toward the private license.
"My instructor, Alan Wilson of Aero Aviation, is an easygoing guy with the patience of Job," Peggy comments, "and he certainly had his work cut out for him with me. Unlike Bill, flying wasn't a lifelong dream of mine, since I'd only been recently introduced to it.
"As much as I wanted to do more than just warm the right seat, I had my doubts," says the student pilot. "I was sure I could never learn to land until I did; then, I was positive I'd never pass the written test until I did; and finally, I knew I'd never be able to solo.
"No matter what dumb thing I did, Alan is a great mentor. He kept reminding me that flying was supposed to be fun, and gradually, it started to be. He never became frustrated, stayed cool when I had trouble with power-on stalls and generally maintained an even keel. I always felt a little out of my depth in the 152 and, of course, in Bill's Mooney, but Alan did a great job of putting me at ease in the little Cessna.
"Despite my reservations, there came a day after I'd made several reasonable landings, when he asked, 'How about I get out?' I almost replied, 'How about I get out?'" Peggy laughs, "but I knew it was probably time for him to take me off the leash (sic).
"I'm not sure what I expected from the 152 on my first solo takeoff, but it turned out to be business as usual. When I roused all the hamsters for departure, the Cessna accelerated a little quicker and jumped off the ground a bit cleaner without Alan's weight, but the difference wasn't that dramatic.
"Like any baby bird," says Peggy, "I did become a little hyper about an engine failure as I flew the downwind, especially when they extended me for other traffic, but I was flying next to perhaps the world's largest general aviation airport, with 10 runways extending in all directions. Certainly, I should have been able to hit one of them.
"Of course, the little airplane worked perfectly, and I was amazed at how relaxed I was, even into the flare," Peg comments. "My three landings went by in what seemed five minutes, and I was proud of all three. The feeling of accomplishment and exultation was overwhelming."
Peggy says she received plenty of support from clients at her hospital. "Many of my clients are retired or current airline pilots, doctors or businessmen with Bonanzas, Cirruses or Aerostars, and their enthusiasm has been consistently contagious. Everyone is very supportive and encouraging. I gained immediate club-member status when I mentioned I'd soloed.
"I'm far from a kid, but I can imagine how difficult it is for young people to afford flight training. Before I stepped down to the 152, I was renting a new-generation Skyhawk with air-conditioning and the G1000 glass panel at $160/hour. Add the instructor, and I was paying $235/hour.
"The current airplane/instructor costs about half that," Peggy emphasizes, "still not inexpensive, but believe me, the first time you climb into the sky with that right seat empty, you'll be guaranteed it's all worth it."