Nat Friedman

First Solo

First Solo!

I’ve been taking flying lessons on and off this year.

My first flight was in San Francisco in March. Most people don’t realize that you get to control the airplane almost the whole time during your first flight. I think more people would give flying a shot if they knew that.

I got to fly over the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge and it was obvious at that point that I had to keep going until I earned my license.

Since then I’ve been grabbing a few hours of lessons whenever I’m in the US. Over the last eight months I’ve flown out of four main airports with seven different flight instructors in ten different planes. There have been long gaps of no flying in between. This is not the most efficient or cost-effective way to earn your pilot’s license, but I do have the benefit of a lot of different perspectives.

Over Christmas we were in Charlottesville, Virginia and I decided to try to solo. I took a few trips around the traffic pattern with my instructor and he said “You’re ready. You should have solo’d a long time ago.”

So Christmas Eve I went up for a stage check with another instructor. He had me fly to nearby Louisa Airport by pilotage (following the railroad tracks), do a few landings in a gusty crosswind, demonstrate power-on and power-off stalls, and then land again in Charlottesville. He said “You’re ready.”

The gusty crosswinds had shaken my confidence a bit. It had been 12 knots gusting 22 and my landings hadn’t been all that pretty. I drove to a nearby pizza place and had a couple slices. I drove back to the airport and looked at the windsock. It was limp. Ok, I guess it’s time to do this.

I got into the airplane, alone, and started the engine. I have a habit when I’m taking a flying lesson of narrating everything that I’m doing, on the theory that my instructor can better understand and correct my mistakes if I’m explaining them. This time I was talking to myself, and that continued for the whole flight. I considered hooking my iPhone voice recorder up to the headset so I could have an audio recording of my first solo flight, but I’d never tried that before and didn’t want to introduce any new variables this time around.

The ground controller cleared me to the runway and I taxi’d up to the line and ran the before-takeoff checklist. One of the items on that checklist is “seats, belts, and doors,” and it’s just a basic check to make sure that the airplane and passengers are secure. Only this time, when I checked the passenger door, I discovered that it was open! Well, that’s why we have checklists, I guess. I closed the door, got my takeoff clearance, and pulled onto the runway. I had considered telling the controller that I was a student on a first solo, but when the time came, for some reason I didn’t.

The first takeoff and trip around the pattern was a rush, but I was focused on my procedures. Rotate at 55, climb at Vy, turn crosswind at 500ft AGL, climb to traffic pattern altitude, turn downwind, call midfield. Ok, looking good. Abeam the numbers pull the throttle to 1500RPM, 10 degrees of flaps, pitch for 70 knots. Turn base, 20 degrees of flaps, turn final, pitch for 65, 30 degrees of flaps, round out after the cutoff, wait for the sink, flare, wait for the mains to touch HOLY CRAP I just landed an airplane by myself!

I bounced the first landing, and the second one was a little rough. The third landing was good though. Mostly my landings are pretty smooth, so I chock it up to nervousness during a first solo.

We’re still in Southwest Florida, and in between visiting the Everglades and the beach, I’ve found time for a couple of flying lessons, including a cross-country flight last night in a Diamond DA40, which has visibility like an IMAX movie. It’s incredible.

So, yeah, I’ve got the bug. A friend of mine recently said, “You’d have to be crazy not to want to fly.” I agree.

31 December 2010
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