The First Time

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by Stu Simpson

A strange coincidence occurred a few days ago that caused me to remember a long passed and very important day.

I was driving to an appointment and looking at the sky. I was judging the weather as I often do, as to it’s suitability for flying. The ceiling was high overcast, the temperature around +5 degrees, and the winds were light. In short, an excellent day.

Here’s the strange part. The conditions were exactly – and I do mean exactly – the same as the day I soloed. Sensing something of the dramatically weird, I later checked my log book and nearly fell over when I discovered the day in question was the seventh anniversary of my first solo flight. Bizarre, eh?

March 23rd, 1986 was a day I’d dreamt about my whole life. Or so it seemed. I arrived at Indus airport that spring day with more than a few butterflies in my stomach. This was the day I was scheduled to take an airplane up all by myself. If everything went well I would also land the plane and walk away afterwards. I was both excited and scared.

I walked toward my mount – a bright yellow single-seat Beaver with a 35hp motor – and wondered if it was as anxious as me. I forced myself to calm down and began my pre-flight.

When the pre-flight was finished my instructor, John Reed, came over to offer some last minute advice. He suggested I get away from the field after take-off and get used to the airplane. He warned it would handle more aggressively than the two-seat trainer version. I should do some basic manoeuvres, he said, and return to the airport for a few circuits. He even told me to have fun.

I fired up and climbed in. I secured my helmet and straps and began my taxi. A few minutes later I found myself at the button of runway 10 with 1900 feet in front of me and no excuses left.

I eased the throttle ahead and the little Rotax screamed happily. The ride was rough as the Beaver’s wheels pounded at the runway’s ruts and holes. Everything became suddenly smooth as the wings finally bit and yanked me skyward. I was flying – alone.

My heart soared as I realized, with concrete certainty (and no small amount of pride) that I could fly. The dream was now reality.

I angled to the right to avoid some power lines, pleased to be applying a lesson learned in training. I climbed out eastward to clear the circuit. Reed wasn’t kidding when he’d mentioned the control discrepancies. The two-seater had sluggish, mushy controls. But this plane, with it’s push-pull tube activated ailerons, was a fireball – sensitive and snappy.

The air remained perfect, with only a hint of wind. I practiced climbs, descents and turns. Then I went through the pre-stall checklist and gritted my teeth. If I screwed this up and wound up in a spin there would be no one to help me, no one to blame.

Ease the gas back, come back on the stick – tap the rudder to keep it straight, don’t want to depart – there’s the nibble…and the break! Stick forward, add power, and pull out gently. Piece of cake, I said to myself. I was gaining confidence and competence every minute.

I did a few more stalls and became acquainted with some of the plane’s idiosyncrasies.

I re-entered the circuit a few minute later and flew it as though Reed were still in the back-seat. I recited the pre-landing checklist to myself (something I still do): “No aircraft in the circuit, none about to enter it. Seat-belts are secure (I gave the straps a tug). Wind direction is from the south-east. Nearing key position”.

A couple more descending turns and I lined up on final to runway 10. The glide path looked good. I eased the throttle back as I coasted over the fence, then the numbers. The Beaver floated for a few yards as lift slowly surrendered to gravity. The mains kissed the grass smoothly – no, perfectly – and the plane settled gently on it’s springs.

To tell the truth, that first solo landing was a work of art. I can’t really remember another one that was better.

I blasted off again and performed two more touch-and-go’s before packing it in for the day. Reed was there to shake my hand and congratulate me when I shut down.

A pilot’s first solo quickly becomes a memory as his flight learning curve arcs sharply upward. His log book fills with tales of cross-country flights, group flights, and many more adventures found only among the heavens. But the first solo is a moment a pilot never truly forgets. Maybe because he can never repeat it.

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