Every pilot remembers their first solo as probably one of their most memorable aviation moments, so I thought it only fitting to tell my story. I started my flight training November 5, 1996 at Flying Cloud Airport (KFCM) during a typical Minnesota winter. Anyone from Minnesota knows that means daytime highs near zero with wind chills in the teens below zero. So getting good flying days is like winning the lottery – you know it happens just not when or where. The winter of 1996-1997 was the 5th worst in Minnesota history, so flight training rarely occurred more than once a week. After a while all of those lessons added up and my time came.
My instructor, John Convery of Thunderbird Aviation, must have thought he taught me enough over a three-month period, because on February 2, 1997, while we were doing closed pattern work, John decided I was ready. Everything I learned was going to be put to the test. If I screwed up, John wasn’t going to be there to fix my mistake and God would beat the FAA to the crash site.
The air was calm, scattered clouds, the temps were in the high 20’s, and everyone who had a plane decided it was a good day to fly. John and I had just finished our second go around the pattern when he said to park in front of Thunderbird. After parking, John grabbed my logbook, endorsed it, and told me he was going to the control tower to watch me solo.
At first I wasn’t sure I heard him right. That was a quality of John’s – I had no time to react or question, I only had time to do. He said I was ready and suddenly I felt ready too.
John told me to do another pre-flight so he had time to get to the tower. So I did another quick pre-flight of the plane. While climbing in and closing the door of the Warrior, it occurred to me that I was closing the door and not John. I was going to be alone for the next 40 minutes or so. Sitting there in the silence, for a moment, I pondered my endeavor. This was my big moment.
I flipped on the master, and can distinctly remember hearing the gyros spinning up. I checked my fuel gauges, set the mixture to rich, and called ‘clear’. Looking over to my right, I saw another instructor give me a ‘thumbs-up’. I started the engine on the tiny four-seat plane and suddenly it felt like I was sitting in the cockpit of a 747. The airplane felt huge and I felt very small.
Everything was in the green and I called ground control, “Flying Cloud Ground – Warrior 2208V – at Thunderbird with Information – closed pattern traffic – FIRST SUPERVISED SOLO”. I know they must have been giggling (or calling the fire department) in the tower because it seemed like it took a full minute for them to respond.
When the silence broke they responded, “Warrior 08V – taxi to 27 right via alpha – cross runway 18 – good luck”
I released the brakes and tapped them once more for good measure to be sure they were working – I will need them later. I was rolling and taxied toward the run-up area. Remember when I said that it was a “good” flying day in Minnesota? Well that meant a very long line. There were 7 planes waiting to take off – 3 of them were waiting to get into the run-up area. Time passed and I had a chance to think about all of my flight training up to this point and how proud my grandfather would have been of me. You see, he was a pilot too and if anyone loved flying more than me – it was my grandfather.
Before I knew it I was in the run-up area and going through my run up checklist. Everything was in the green, all of my flight controls worked, magnetos were good, vacuum was in the green, carburetor heat was working, and everything that was supposed to be on was on. What was left? Nothing – I was just nervous. Just to be sure I went through the list one more time. Satisfied that I was squared away, I glanced around to see where the other planes were lining up and looked over at a pilot of a Beechcraft only to receive a thumbs-up from him too. They all knew, everyone knew I was the new kid on the block. My nerves calmed as I realized that every pilot before me had been in this exact situation. I pulled in behind another Cherokee and waited for the radio chatter to clear.
I called the tower, “Warrior 2208V ready for takeoff in sequence”.
“Roger 08V – Your third in line – good luck”, came the reply.
Sooner than I expected I was next in line holding short for landing traffic. As the landing planes wheels touched down I was cleared to taxi into position and hold. I taxied out and that 3,600 ft. runway seemed to disappear off into the horizon. The landing traffic cleared the runway and the call came, “Warrior 08V, make right traffic, cleared for takeoff”
“Warrior 08V cleared for takeoff”, was my reply as I applied full throttle.
Once the Warrior’s engine was powered up, it seemed to rocket down the runway. Before I knew it, I was airborne and climbing. The trees and the buildings got smaller as I climbed to my pattern altitude. I was turning crosswind and looking for traffic when I looked over to see John’s reaction – only he wasn’t there. This was all me and I was going to do it right. Abeam the numbers I started to power back and recheck my altitude. I was about 100 feet high of the pattern altitude. Not too bad, I thought. Starting my decent, I checked my airspeed, put in my first notch of flaps and took a deep breath.
Every word John had ever used to talk me through a landing was coming back to me, “Pitch for airspeed – Throttle for altitude”. If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn it was coming though the radio. All of the radio traffic kept me on my toes, then my call came, “Warrior 08V you are cleared to land – number two behind traffic on short final”.
I looked for the traffic, found it and acknowledged my clearance. By now I was pitched almost perfectly, turning base and adding a second notch of flaps. My airspeed dropped a little more than I expected. I heard Johns voice again, “Pitch for airspeed – Throttle for altitude”. A little push forward on the yoke and a bit more on the throttle and I was set.
I turned final and that huge runway I was once sitting on was now just a short strip again. I added my last notch of flaps, looked for my ‘red over white’ – then realized I was still high on the approach. No problem – pull off a little throttle and I’ll be back in line, right? Wrong. Pull back on the throttle and I started to slip past the glide-path. More throttle put me back where I wanted to be. My landing checklist was completed on downwind so all I had to do was fly the plane. Sounded simple enough at the time.
On short final I was more confident than ever and ready for my first solo landing. I crossed the numbers and could feel my sink rate slow as I entered ground effect. A little float and my wheels were on the ground, not once but twice. “I wonder if I could log that as two landings?” I broke my own personal tension as I realized that my landing was just fine.
My next two takeoffs were picture perfect. The landings weren’t exactly squeakers, but I was piloting with the adage that, “Any landing you can walk away from is a good one – Any landing where the plane is re-useable is a great one.” They were all great ones.
I taxied off the active runway after my third landing and switched to ground control. The controller told me to go back to the tower frequency. I switched back and the female controller on the other end congratulated me. Right there for every other pilot to hear, I was given a pat on the back that would last a lifetime. I switched back to ground control frequency and taxied to Thunderbird knowing I was making my grandfather very proud – I was a pilot! Now I know what he and every other pilot before me must have felt on their first solo.
When I got back to Thunderbird, there were three or four other instructors waiting there to greet me and congratulate me. Wow – What an experience! All the handshakes and pats on the back were putting me on cloud nine and nothing could have compared to what I was feeling at that very moment.
Three more months of training passed and I took my check-ride on May 25, 1997. My single greatest personal accomplishment was complete – I was added to the list of those who call themselves pilots.