I’m on the verge of soloing. Actually, I’ve been on the verge of soloing for almost three weeks, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about a state that most pilots are only in for a few minutes.
I’ve read stories about instructors who surprise their students, unexpectedly hopping out of the plane (on the ground) and saying, “Now fly around the pattern three times.” I can see why instructors do this, because anticipating a solo is stressful. The first time I thought I was going to solo, I was more nervous driving to the airport than flying. If you’ve just made some good landings with your instructor, you might actually feel relaxed. Now that the right seat is suddenly empty, you’re too busy to be nervous. Set the trim, check the fuel selector, and get on with it.
Oh yeah, and remember that the plane is now significantly lighter. My father clipped a tree on his first solo, which was in a two-seater. I’m flying a four-seater with a petite instructor, so the fuel I burn during a lesson weighs almost as much as she does.
My instructors were stealthy at first. I passed my pre-solo stage check without even knowing I had taken it. One day I happened to have a lesson with the head instructor, because my regular instructor was off that day. He had me do some things I had already covered, including stalls and engine-out procedures. At the time, it seemed like we were just reviewing random stuff. In reality, he wanted to see me demonstrate all the skills you need before you solo. He was taking me through a stage check in the guise of an ordinary lesson, because my regular instructor had already told him I was about ready to solo.
My next lesson was on my regular instructor’s last day before going on vacation. She told me that I would probably solo before she got back. I had kind of read the syllabus, so I asked, “Am I supposed to have a stage check or something?”
That’s when the cat was out of the bag. “Well,” she said, “I don’t want to make you nervous, but John told me your last lesson counted as a stage check.” So this was it — my next lesson was likely to be my first solo. It was time to start wearing an old shirt and being nervous on the drive to the airport.
This was twelve days before my forty-second birthday. I was born on my father’s forty-second birthday, so number 42 was a big deal to me. I’m not big on setting goals, but I was hoping to solo by then. My father is an old pilot, so I guess soloing was something I wanted to have in common with him by that day.
Have you heard of get-there-itis, the dangerous tendency for pilots to take off when they really shouldn’t? Part of me worried that wanting to solo by a certain date was a form of get-there-itis. I tried not to worry about the date, but I had a lesson scheduled a few days later, and of course I wanted to solo.
The day of my lesson, my day to be nervous, happened to be a windy one. It was also a weekend, and for a small airport, things were a little busier than I would have liked. A couple people were doing IFR approaches, so they were intersecting the pattern but not following it. Somebody from out of town came for a check ride. Even the ionosphere seemed to conspire against me, as we were picking up radio chatter from another airport that’s a couple hundred miles away.
With an instructor — one of the part-timers who come in on weekends — I taxied out to the hold-short line, announced that I was taking off, and then realized that I had forgotten the run-up. It was a big omission, and it made me feel like I wasn’t on my game. I did the runup and announced my takeoff for the second time. By this time, I really didn’t think I was going to solo, just because it was so windy, and I was kind of glad.
Flying around the pattern a few times, I thought my landings were pretty rough, but apparently the instructor was happy with them. Surprisingly, he told me I could solo if I wanted to.
For the first time in my life, I had the option of flying an airplane all by myself. I could solo before my forty-second birthday. And you know what? I didn’t. With the wind, the traffic, and worrying that I might forget something — as I had with the runup — it just didn’t seem like a good idea. I made a few more landings with the instructor, but the wind was getting worse, and pretty soon we both thought it was time to quit. In my logbook, the instructor gave me credit for crosswind takeoffs and landings.
At the beginning of my next lesson, a warning light came on in the plane while we were still on the ground, and we didn’t take off. At least that lesson was free. After that, I had a lesson that got cancelled due to low clouds. Someone I know soloed at another airport that day, so I was a little jealous. Then there was a Saturday morning with perfect weather, but I was busy. My forty-second birthday came and went. I had another day with low clouds, and we flew the pattern at 700′ AGL to stay in Class G airspace, gaming the system in terms of cloud clearance rules. We had to stop when rain moved in and reduced the visibility. Then my regular instructor came back — she had been gone for two and a half weeks — and I told her I still hadn’t soloed. She said she was actually kind of glad, because she wanted to be there for it.
Not surprisingly, my instructor’s first day back was another windy day. I had some more gusty landings, and we saw a wild turkey near the runway, but it was mostly uneventful.
After a full-stop landing, as I was about to taxi back to the beginning of the runway, my instructor gave me the choice again. She said I could solo if I wanted to. We were approaching a fork in the taxiway where I could either turn left and drop her off or turn right and go straight back to the runway. My instructor said, “Left or right, it’s your choice. There’s no pressure. I’ll close my eyes.” I was too busy taxing to see if she really closed her eyes, but I think she did.
By this time, I was used to not soloing. I’ve come to realize that even though the first solo is a big deal, it doesn’t need to happen at a certain time. I’m learning and progressing. According to the syllabus, I’m working on stuff that comes well after the first solo, so really I’ve just kind of skipped the solo and moved on.
The lesson was going better than the day when the other instructor had offered to let me solo, or at least I was less nervous. However, the wind was getting a little worse each time I went around the pattern. It had started out blowing straight down the runway, but it was becoming more of a crosswind and getting a little stronger. My instructors haven’t touched the controls in a long time, so in theory, I should be able to do all this by myself. But what if the wind got worse? What if the instructor’s timely advice helped me get through the flare, as it often does? I wanted to solo, but I wasn’t totally comfortable with the situation, and I wasn’t in a hurry. I turned right, back toward the runway, with the instructor still in the plane.
Just like before, the wind did get worse, and we only made a couple more landings. Now that I think about, the gradually worsening wind was great for practice.
After the lesson, my instructor endorsed my logbook for soloing. The school has stickers with text on them so the instructors don’t have to write too much, and she got out the number two sticker. In other words, she skipped the usual first solo endorsement and essentially gave me the second solo endorsement, allowing me to fly with a little more wind than the usual first solo. After all, that’s the kind of weather I’ve been flying in for a while.
Pretty soon I will solo, and in a way it will be a surprise after all. It might not happen on a calm day, but it will happen on a day when I feel good about it. And I won’t mind if it’s not the next lesson.
Update: The day after I wrote this, the wind was zero, but the ceiling was only 200′, so we cancelled my lesson. The next time I had a lesson, my instructor showed up in flip-flops, thinking she was just there to watch me solo. That happened to be the day that an aerobatic club came to town, so no pattern work was allowed. We flew to another airport and worked on stuff that’s supposed to come after the first solo. Ah, patience…