The Thing About A First Solo

I already did a post about my own first solo, but a comment on another post got me thinking about it again. In my first post, it had just happened, and I was excited and it was all about me. Now, in my last post I mentioned, a few weeks ago I got to be in the circuit with a young man going on his first solo, and it’s just interesting to be on the other side, watching someone else do it.

A pilot’s first solo is a big deal – it’s the first time they take the plane up alone. There’s something a little bit sacred about that moment. It’s a moment a pilot will remember for the rest of their lives. It’s like a graduation day, or a birthday. Only there’s some things that make it different.

One of the things about the first solo is when it happens, it’s not necessarily planned ahead. The day you’re ready might not be the day the weather is calm enough for you to handle it, or you’re having a rough day and aren’t flying well, and the instructor decides it’s not the right day. But because they never know until you go flying that day, whether this is going to be the day, that means they don’t tell you ahead of time that this is going to be the day. No one wants to put pressure on you, so there’s not a lot of fanfare.

And since you can’t plan it, your friends and family don’t come out to see you do it. The witnesses are your instructor watching from the ground, ATC watching from the tower (if applicable) and anyone in the circuit with you.

So in that way, to be a witness to someone doing their first solo, it’s kind of less like attending a graduation, and more like being in the right place at the right time and getting to see a foal born. Or being online checking the eagle cam while the eggs are hatching, or spotting loons doing a mating dance, or catching a baby’s first steps. It’s a special moment you don’t see every day, and if you ever get to see it happen, it’s only because you happened to be in the right place at the right time. And normal people will never be in that place. The only people who will see it will be other pilots, and ATC. I got to see something that few other people will see, and witness a moment in a stranger’s life that I know he will remember. He may even remember for the rest of his life, that someone said “congratulations” over the radio when he got down. He’ll never know who it was, but that’s okay.

At a time like that, it’s neat to be able to be there, and with so few witnesses, to acknowledge that “Yeah, I saw what you did there. Good job.” He’ll get it from his instructor, but sometimes the words of random stranger – it’s funny how that can mean so much sometimes.

And that all makes me think of other things that I get to experience as a pilot, that no one who doesn’t pilot an aircraft ever will. I didn’t realize what a cool thing it would be, but taking passengers up with me is really fun. Getting to share this world with them, being the pilot is just so different than going for a plane ride. And lots of things I’ll get to see, like a water bomber flying by, or sharing the same airspace as the Winnipeg traffic helicopter. And one of the most special things in the world, I swear, is taking someone flying for their first time. No one gets to do that but a pilot.

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First To Solo Challenge

So, this happened.

There was an award presentation, with several awards today. One for St. Andrews Airport for being the most women friendly airport for sending over 600 women and girls up for rides during the women in aviation week events, one for a helicopter pilot that took up something like 300 women and girls that day, and one for me for being the first of the women who participated to fly solo after the event.

It was also the day that they were doing the discovery flights for any girls who signed up for that at the event in march, so my instructor was there doing some of those, and she got to do the presenting of my snazzy new headset (fancy expensive one – it’s so nice!) and said nice things about me while people snapped pictures. I was nervous, and I had kind of wondered if I was supposed to say something but no one had told me I should have anything prepared. So when someone from the crowd called out asking if I would say a few words, what came out was entirely on the fly. I froze up at the camera flashes at first too, horribly nervous – I’m not a crowd person. But once I found my words, I think there must have been enough emotion in my voice that it wouldn’t have mattered what i said. Afterward, two different people came up to me to tell me that I made them cry, so even if I was nervous, it sounds like I still got my point across.

I also got introduced to a woman from Calm Air, who’s invited me to come out to Winnipeg International Airport to their facility for a tour to “check out what kind of job prospects are in my future.” I’m not sure I would know if I was being scouted, but it would be awesome if that’s what it meant. And of course I jumped at the opportunity. In any case, I’ll meet people, and make connections, and that’s what gets one jobs in aviation, apparently.

Nathan, my husband commented on the positive vibes surrounding the event. He often feels a little bit alienated by feminism (even though he is, by beliefs, a feminist himself) on the internet, because of the negativity that comes out there, but that’s largely because the anonymity of the internet brings out a lot of men who feel the need to tear down women, and the women are reacting to that. Here though, there’s very little of that men tearing women down, and when there isn’t that, and there is instead men supporting women, then the atmosphere is very different. That helicopter pilot was a man given the title of “Most supportive male pilot”. Here, instead of women being forced to point out where they are being mistreated, they have the opportunity to point out and celebrate where men are being supportive and welcoming women to come stand by their sides as equals. And we feminists really do wish we could do more of that, because feminism is absolutely not “anti-man” – it’s just women wanting equality. And it’s important to bring attention to men who treat women as equals and hold them up as examples.

I am proud of myself. And being the centre of attention that way was such an unfamiliar feeling. I remember being a young woman, and going to events like that where someone was getting an award – times where I was supposed to look up to that person as a role model. Now there was a crowd consisting largely of women and girls who had just flown an aeroplane for their first time, and I was the accomplished one up front, supposed to be leading the charge that people pointed to saying “see, you can be like her.” And I felt, not so much an obligation, but a responsibility if you understand the difference, to say something to them. And I wanted to even though I was afraid. I always say, fear is a terrible reason not to do something. Everyone said how inspirational I was when I took the microphone, and I’m glad because if I said anything that helped give any of those girls and women the confidence to pursue aviation if that’s what they want to do, then it was worth the stage fright and letting everyone see me nervous!

First Solo

Without disruption of air traffic, this fearless, forthright, indomitable and courageous individual did venture into the wild blue yonder in a flying machine. Furthermore, this skillful individual did safely land said flying machine at the St. Andrews airport incurring no significant damage to self or machine. Thus completing a first solo flight!

Or so says the adorably tongue-in-cheek certificate they gave me when I got back to the ramp this afternoon.

My twitter followers have already heard, but yes, my category 1 medical certificate came in the mail early enough this afternoon to take it with me to my scheduled flight today. Paper-work was done, and I have a student pilot permit now that allows me to legally act as pilot in command of a single engine piston aeroplane.

First step after that was the pre-solo checkout. If your instructor is a junior instructor, you go up with one of the senior instructors for that – basically, do a few circuits, prove to them that you’re ready. My instructor, Sandra, is rated such that she’s allowed to make that call, so I did the pre-solo checkout with her. No pressure, she says. *g* I’m lucky – I tend to perform at my best under pressure.

We took C-GZLF, which I haven’t flown for a while, but when I looked at my logbook, I realized it was the plane we took, not for my discovery flight, but for my first lesson. Did a bunch of circuits. We also did a power off landing, and while it wasn’t by any means perfect, I did make the runway and we didn’t need to backtrack. The last landing, she asked ATC for “the option” which means we might do a touch and go, or we might do a full stop, and finish up. What she was doing was, if I messed up that landing, she’d have me do one more, so that we left off on a good landing, with my confidence up.

I didn’t mess up that landing though, and we got off on taxiway H to head back. Then she had me bring her to the ramp and drop her off.

A student’s first solo is just a single go around the circuit – one take-off, fly a rectangle to come back, and one landing.

I was pretty excited. The most eerie thing was I remembered I was supposed to buckle the seatbelt in the empty seat, because that counts as loose objects, and needs to be secured. It makes it hard to forget your safety net, that person who can fix anything you screw up, isn’t there. Just as well I didn’t have time to dwell on it. I had this feeling like I was supposed to be scared, but that voice in my head that tells me I can’t do something was stuttering over the question “and why not?” and coming up blank. The vicious logic of the aspie brain can be great sometimes, no? Mostly I just tried not to focus on the nervous thoughts and distract myself with what I was doing – flying the plane.

It went fine – was even one of my better landings. I’m definitely less distracted without my instructor there. I’m always one ear paying attention to anything she says, and half the time I forget things is when I’m listening to her and forget what I’m doing because it’s not automatic yet. That’ll come though. It’s starting to – I’m not feeling so overwhelmed by all the things I have to remember in the circuit like I was when we started.

Anyway, I did it, I didn’t die, didn’t crash the plane, and did good. Didn’t bounce or balloon, or drift across the runway, or anything. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. (No, really, they gave me a t-shirt!) Here’s the pic of me right after landing.

So what’s next for me? It’ll be more hood time, and cross country training mostly, plus building hours flying solo. Weather permitting, I’ll be doing 2 flights on Friday solo circuits. Then it’s flight test prep. I wish I could say this is the end of the road blocks, but I’m sure more will come, and whatever comes, I’ll take it head on.

Week 2 Update – Throwing Yourself At The Ground And Missing

“There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Pick a nice day, [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] suggests, and try it.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Well, after spending the first week learning something new every day, week two was all the same thing every day. And that was take-offs and landings. We call it circuit work, or touch-and-go’s. The circuit is the rectangular pattern we fly around the runway when lining up to land – in the US they just call it the pattern. So we fly around and land, then take-off again without stopping on the runway. And then we do it again.

I’m getting better.

Actually, landing is the hardest part. That spin video in my previous post? That’s easy. A little scary at first, sure, but ultimately and easy to learn maneuver. The instructor had me do it about three times, at which point she said, ok, you’ve got the idea, lets move on to the next thing. Take-offs, even, are not that hard – keep it straight on the runway with the rudder, full power, pull up just a bit when you hit about 55 knots to get your wheels off the ground, and let it climb on it’s own once the wheel-drag is gone and your airspeed picks up.

Landings, I can see where a lot of the stuff I was taught in the first week starts to come together – the speeding up, slowing down, learning how attitude and power affect airspeed and altitude in tandem, not independently, and then the other tools available, like the flaps to lower your stall speed and create drag to slow it down, but that can’t be used above a certain airspeed, and the carb heat that needs to be on anytime you’re throttling back below a certain RPM. Keeping at a level altitude while in the circuit, turns of close to thirty degrees of bank but no more, ascending turns into the crosswind, descending turns into base and final, the cockpit checks, the radio. All of these were easy to learn one at a time, but now I have to do them all at once.

My first few landings were pretty sucky, and I had to overshoot more than one (pull up and go around to try again). Every day I got better, and made different mistakes, and more often than not, the next mistake I made was trying to hard to do the opposite of what I did wrong last time and going too far in the other direction. But I’m starting to get a feel for it, and leveling the plane out more consistently at the right height and all that. It’s coming along. Yesterday I got it on the ground a couple times all my myself, without the instructor touching the controls. Today got even more consistent, with more than half of the touch-and-go’s being with nothing but verbal help, and some with none at all. It does take practice – you have to get a feel for how far out you are, and how high, and how fast you’re descending, and as I get a sense for that, then I can correct it earlier and have to do less correcting at the end when I’m trying to hit the ground as gently as possible.

I’m getting there. Sandra figures I may be ready to solo next week.