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First Flight as (Actual) Pilot in Command – Solo!

I’ve only added about 5 flight hours to my logbook in the weeks since my last post, but they’ve been quite eventful.

Just after my last post, when we had spent several lessons in a row just practicing takeoffs, a combination of bad weather, the next 100-hour maintenance and other factors conspired to cancel the next several lessons. When I finally flew again three weeks later, we had space for just two lessons before the plane was going to be out for another three weeks to get a new radio stack. We spent a Thursday afternoon practicing landings again and I felt like I was starting to get a better hang of it, and during the debrief afterward John surprised me: he told me that the next day, after some additional landing practice, if the weather cooperated, and if he felt good about it, and if I felt good about it, that I might fly solo.

I was understandably a little jittery at work on Friday. My wife happened to need to be near the airport end of town that evening anyway, so I told her to bring the kids by the airport around sunset and we’d all go out to eat from there…and by the way, maybe, possibly, I might fly a plane solo just before that. :-)

So Friday afternoon at 4:00 we jumped in the plane and started some dual landing practice, just like normal. [Sidebar: unlike with a car, for a (safe) pilot, “jumped in” means “spent 30 minutes discussing, preflighting, and running-up”]. After the 5th landing, John asked me to taxi over near his hangar, and asked how I felt about things.

I had gone into the afternoon’s lesson knowing that I’d be tempted to say I was ready even if I wasn’t, since me and John both knew that not soloing that day would mean another 3 week delay before we could try again, which would also mean, because of the canceled lessons, only 3 flight hours across six seeks. Such a long delay would probably mean several more lessons to regain decayed skills before I could try to solo again. If you read up on pilot decision making, that’s a classic “external factors” accident in the making, so I told myself all day long that if I wasn’t certain I was ready, I’d be the one to call it off and try again another time. But when the time came, it wasn’t a hard call, because here’s the thing about practice: it really does work, to build both skill and confidence. It’s like a magic spell. During those two days before I soloed we did 15 trips around the pattern together. In that time, one or two of my landings had been good and none had been horrible, and after the first time or two around the pattern, once I’d shaken off the cobwebs, I felt ahead of the airplane the whole time. I could feel it, and John noticed and commented on it too. Unlike previous practice sessions, there were no trips around the pattern where I reached the end of the downwind leg and realized I hadn’t yet done my CGUMPS checks (a checklist of switches you’re supposed to flip and things you’re supposed to do to ensure you’re ready for landing). The wind was mostly right down the runway but I was confident I could handle the slight crosswind that kept popping up intermittently. I was nervous, but I was confident that I was ready to go.

So John endorsed my logbook, checked that I had my medical and student-pilot certificate in the plane with me, opened the canopy and climbed out. As he walked away, I closed and latched the canopy, and then it was just me and a running engine.

There’s not much else to say after that. I taxied and did my radio calls by the book. Takeoff was uneventful. And it’s just possible that there’s a record on liveatc.net of me broadcasting “Yeehaw!!!” over the radio just after calling my first turn to crosswind by myself. But I don’t know how it got there and I’ll deny it if you ask.

It turns out I had enough time for three trips around the pattern that day. Official sunset was at 5:30, and I pulled off the runway at 5:29. My wife had arrived with the kids and took some pictures. Per tradition, John cut my shirt tail off and I decorated it for him to hang on his wall.

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