I had trouble sleeping, my total sleep time during the night was approximately 2 hours. Bleary eyed, I gazed at the dim red light emitted from the alarm clock - 5.30 am, it was time for work. As usual, if a flight lesson day, I grab my flight bag and head for work. Today was different than the previous days I had undertaken flying lessons, today is my birthday, today I learned from my wife Laurie, that my birthday present was a trip to Las Vegas in October to see Elton John in concert, and to fly through the Grand Canyon in a helicopter, and today I was going to solo.
Laurie my wife, had arranged to take the day off work so she could liaise with me at the airport for the solo (video for posterity). A couple of friends, Linda and her husband Bob also attended. When I pulled into the parking lot at Taylor, the first thing I did was look for the windsock, the last thing I wanted was a heavy crosswind to ruin my solo! The winds were gratefully very calm, but, and a BIG but, the damn winds were pointing the other way! No big deal right? Wrong. For the past 5 lessons, I had been practicing touch and goes - on runway 17. My site picture on base to final was finely tuned for 17, my site picture for short final was ingrained in my brain for 17, I had dreamed about the landing process, all based upon 17. Today it seemed for the first time ever, I would be landing on 35! OK, no big deal one may say, but considering I would hopefully be soloing after a couple of practice touch and goes, I could have really done without the extra pressure being added to the list of a totally unfamiliar process.
We started the initial practice landings, the process of course was simply a mirror of the 17 pattern...left hand pattern instead of right etc. The most difficult part for me, was the left turn to final, since the highway 79 runs perpendicular with the runway, and is about 200 yards from the numbers. So turning to final, gives you an awesome, yet dramatic, but un-needed view of the highway traffic far below, and as we all know, base to final requires acute awareness of airspeed in order to avoid joining the dreaded 'stall of fame'.
On touching down after the second landing, Bruce asked me if I was ready? I acknowledged with a weary grin, "good a time as any" I said. With that, We taxied back to the ramp, where Bruce got out, shook my hand, and his final words were "don't forget to radio call on EVERY leg." The right seat door was then unceremoniously slammed shut - I was on my own.
I was sweating, my heart rate could be felt in my jugular vein as I steered the Cessna 150 following the center line off the ramp to the runway. For a micro second I had the jitters, and had an overwhelming urge to stop and postpone the solo, but that feeling past as quickly as it came. The full length of the runway came into view, this was it. My trundling 5mph taxi turned into a canter, then a gallop, as I buried the power into the firewall. I could still hear Bruce in my head - right rudder...right rudder..center line John...
Speeding down the runway for the first time on my own, was an interesting feeling. It was similar to my skydiving experiences - nervous on the ride up, but as soon as you are in the door ready to go, all nerves disappear. Rotate speed came very quickly, due to there being 175 pounds less of CFI to lift off the ground. So bye the time I was about 40% down the 4000 ft runway, I was lifting off. I looked over to the right, the seat was empty. A Cessna cabin is probably only 43 inches at the shoulders, but without Bruce filling that right seat, it sure looked like the size of a ballroom right now...
The weather was really hot, a typical Texas summer's day in fact - all sweaty and plenty of thermals to throw me around. I had gotten used to fighting these thermals over the weeks, so I wasn't really bothered by them. I got to my chosen altitude bye the time I had reached the start of my downwind leg - 1500 MSL. Now was the time to correctly follow all of the procedures for landing...drop RPM to 2500...hit the carb heat...10 degrees of flaps..maintain 80 knots...I look out of my left window, waiting for the end of 35 to line up abreast with me on this downwind leg...I am now lined up with the end of the runway...I wait a couple of seconds then cut the power to idle, immediately turning to base...30 degrees of flaps..keep that darn nose down John...keep 70 knots...turning to final...full flaps...a fleeting look at the highway 79 below me was enough to take my gaze of the airspeed indicator for a split second, looking back at the airspeed, I was at 65...I nosed down a little...70 again...good...windsock 'looks dead', but was at a slight crosswind before it died...so banking slightly into the wind...rudderrrrrrrrrr....levelling off...pulling on the yoke to stay with the horizon in front of me...I hear and feel a subtle fleeting skid as the wheels touch, and they stay there...gradually pulling fully back on the yoke..bleeding speed off...the nose finally drops gently onto the nose wheel. I am down.
There is no time for jubilation, as I am too busy removing carb heat, raising flaps, and adding full power - Bruce had instructed me to try 2 or 3 landings before finishing. During this down wind leg I heard something quiet bizarre on the radio traffic, some guy was calling his final on 35, but in a full blooded English accent that was akin to British Royalty! Looks like I wasn't the only Englishman in the skies of central Texas at that moment! This approach turned out to be high, but my altitude was spot on, only thing I could think of was that I may I have drifted in a little to the runway during the down wind leg. During final I realized I was going to be way past the numbers, it looked like I was going to touch down half way down the runway. For a brief moment I thought about going around, then dismissed that option, realizing that the runway was 4000 ft - plenty of room, but maybe not enough room for another touch and go...2 goes was enough for today anyways I thought. The landing was good again. This time I could relax and savor the moment. Taxiing back to where Bruce and Laurie were videoing was like a lap of honor at the Formula 1 Grand Prix...
When I got out of the plane, I had of course a feeling of euphoria. Bruce then took me inside the hangar to complete the paperwork, and gracefully cut off the tail of my shirt. He then wrote on the patch of material the solo date etc. This is now framed, and will go on a wall somewhere in the house. The funniest moment was when Bruce told me that on the next lesson I would be soloing again. My reaction was: "What? Again?"...as if one solo was the 'be all and end all' of it. I instantly realized what I had said, and how silly it sounded.lolol
I have to say the nicest moment has to be when my wife Laurie seemed to be genuinely proud of me. She has been kind of a self declared pilot widow, ever since I started flying, and had interests in building a plane. So this show of support really meant alot to me.
I have done something that I had dreamed about for years, but was never in a position to fulfill, but now it has happened. The sense of accomplishment stands on the same level of a couple of my other notable events in life - skydiving, graduation day at University, and marrying my wife Laurie. I know there will be other landmark solos coming up, but there will only ever be one 'first solo'.