Learning to Fly – Day Eight – Alone?

It was Friday. It was exactly one week since I started at the school, and we were flying at eight in the morning.  I got up at the usual 6:00 to read, relax, shower etc. I got my stuff ready for today’s flying before making and eating breakfast.  My Italian flat mates, who are over here for hour building, come in at 03:30 every morning after having been out partying all night.  This morning, however, they had 401 all day from 8:00 and for the first time ever I saw and heard life from their rooms as early as 7:30. I hope they remember the pilot rule: 8 hours from bottle to throttle! They remind me distinctly about someone from work (Yeah, you know who you are!).  Anyways, having to wait for the guys vacating the bathroom I was a little late for my 8:00 appointment at the school, but I was sent on my way straight away to check the plane out.  I had bought a bottle of champagne for my first solo but I did not bring it that morning. A couple of reasons: One, I always assumed that your first solo should be your last flight of the day for various reasons.  You are on a high and might not be as concentrated as normal for any further flying and also, if you make a nice first solo flight (and landing!) you have nothing to gain by getting a second chance to screw up your record.  Also, though I felt improved, I still wanted to see for my self that I could make every landing and not just 4/5. We did 90 minutes of landings.  At a standard rate of about one landing per 5 minutes that is 18 take-offs and landings.  They were improving and we would have walked away from all of them. One was a go-around as I was ballooning. However, I initiated it myself, so that was OK.  Another was a wind shear cross wind landing where I managed to slip down the runway by turning into the wind with the wing while at the same time applying reverse rudder… without my instructor telling me. He was suitably impressed. At the end of the morning session, I knew within myself a couple of things: I was ready to go solo and I could do it safely. I spent the break from 10:00 to 14:00 relaxing, reading up on the FAA written test, cooking lunch and just all sorts of things trying to calm myself down. At 13:40, I started to pack my bag and check my equipment and at 14:00, I was ready at the flight school. I had brought the bottle of champagne and without anyone noticing put it in the school’s fridge. Off we went for another session of patterns and landings.  Almost every pattern was good, occasionally I would drop the speed at downwind a bit but everything, including the landings, was OK.  There was a fair amount of wind-sheer from bushes just before the threshold of the runway and there were significant thermals on the last parts of downwind to blow you 1-200 feet up just as you got ready do descent.  The wind was from 110 so we should have used runway 11 and Gerry asked me if I wanted to change from 04 that we had been using.  Less crosswind etc. I wanted to stay on 04 as the wind was only 6 knots and I was getting used to the crosswind landings. After about 13 touch and goes, Gerry made the call for final before I got to it and called a full stop.  I just knew this would be it. I took her for landing, slipped down the middle and placed her right down the middle in one of my best landings yet.  “My controls” Gerry said, and braked hard to make the first turn off runway 04. As we turned into the taxiway… the engine stopped.  Fancy that, eh?  If it had to do something like that, I could have thought of worse times to do it. Like on base, or at any point while I was flying solo.  Gerry was very perplexed. “I have never seen it do that before… in a Piper”.  Great. Very re-assuring.  He got it running again after a few restarts and none of the checks threw up anything. Carb heat was off, primer locked, fuel sufficient, mixture rich, throttle ¼ open… I was thinking, that if he told me to fly solo now I would tell him to stuff it. Well, he did not. We taxied back to the runway for a test pattern which he flew except for final, where he “your controls” me and I landed though not as nicely as the one before.  He did the 2nd turn in and said we needed another test ride but I could do it myself; he was getting off. So this was to be it. Gerry out of the plane, doors closed. I called “Winter Haven Traffic, Warrior 32990, taxiing runway 04, Winter Haven” and was on my way. I didn’t need to do the power-up checks so switching the xponder back on to mode C, I called departure and was zooming down the runway at about 80 miles/hour before pulling back on the column and I was airborne.  I was actually alone in an aircraft. I was PIC (Pilot in Command). Without Gerry’s weight, I got to the pattern altitude very quickly on cross wind, I turned relatively sharply into downwind making the calls for both. I knew Gerry was on the ground with his radio and if he thought I was out of line or in trouble, I would hear from him. Downwind checks completed, flaps extended one notch at threshold, watch out for the thermals and it was time turning to base. Power down, flaps 2nd stage, speed at 80knots, and look for the runway as an indication to turn into final. Oops forgot to call base. Ah well, as they say: The order of priority is Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. Turned into final a bit too soon so I had to correct quite a lot as the wind was coming in cross from the right.  Glide path looked good, speed 70knots, descend rate 500ft per minute… yeah, I might just make it.  Oops, forgot to call final too, guess I was concentrating heavily on the aviating bit right now. Over the f…… bushes with their wind-sheer, cut power completely, keep nose down… down… closer… closer… now, level off flying over the runway and just as I was flaring I heard “pitch, pitch, pitch” over the radio.  Gerry just could not risk it and had to remind me.  Never mind, I did a good landing, turned at the last exit (I hate hard braking, as I am always afraid the propeller will come down to the ground and they cost $3,000 to replace) and picked Gerry up on the way. “Do you want to do another one?” he asked. I declined quoting the reasons listed above. From my point of view, the most interesting thing about that first solo pattern was that it felt much less stressful than when I was with Gerry. I felt relaxed and comfortable knowing that I could turn in when I thought it was right instead of anticipating Gerry telling me “turn in” which always felt like a failure. I now have to do 5 hours solo patterns before moving on to solo cross-country. That is 60 take offs and landings. Everyone tells me I am going to be sick of it and I hope I am. Being bored doing circuits will mean that there is nothing to challenge me which means I am in control of the whole thing. And hey! That’s exactly where I want to be. We had our bottle of champagne (I had ½) and together with Erwin, the mad Dutchman who passed his final skills test today, we are off to celebrate at our local Japanese restaurant with good food, sake and (more) beer. Erwin is such a crazy beast that for those who read this diary for the non-flying bits I should be able to have some good stuff for tomorrow. Tomorrow it will be back to the patterns for me and pick up at the training grounds for our exercises and cross-country stuff. How does it feel to be a pilot solely at the controls of an airplane? Indescribable. It was the main motivator for this whole venture and it is just such a fantastic feeling to have achieved it. I have studied and passed seven written and one practical exam. I have flown concentrated for over 20 hours in one week and the first level has been achieved.  Now it seems, the rest will be easy.

It was a Good Friday for me and summary after 8 days:
Flown: 3 hours and 12 minutes.
Total flying time: 22 hours and 13 minute.
Solo: 0 hours and 6 minutes.
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