Monday, February 25, 2008

First Solo!!!

I did it! I soloed for the first time yesterday! It was GREAT! I'll get more into it in a minute, first I'm going to recap.

A storm was rolling in this weekend, so Thursday night I spoke to Chris and tentatively scheduled a Saturday morning lesson and a Sunday afternoon lesson, hoping the storm would come Friday. Well, it did (in fact, I got a half-day at work). But it continued until late Friday, and some flurries on Saturday morning kept me grounded. I meant to make a post then, but it just slipped my mind. Instead I took off to Philly for Erica's birthday party.

Coming back Sunday morning, I headed straight for OXC. The sky was clear the whole way, though I knew wind could still be an issue. I called ATIS (Automated Terminal Information Services: the automated airport weather information) and it said there was a 10knot crosswind. Not perfect, but not too bad. I just hoped it wasn't too much to solo in.

I'm going to side-track for a minute... bear with me:
It's a tradition that when a student solos for the first time, the tail of his/her shirt is cut off and signed & dated by the student, instructor and anyone else around. Chris has never done this, because he has several female students (and doesn't want legal problems of cutting off the clothes of female students), but I thought this tradition seemed like fun (just because it's so strange), so he agreed to uphold it when I first soloed.

Anyway, back to the story...

When I got to the airport, Chris was with finishing up with the student before me, so I took the time to change my shirt in the bathroom. I've been carrying a plain white shirt in my headset bag for a while, in preparation. (See? That's why I covered the shirt tradition first.) Then I did the preflight -- everything looked good (even the oil and fuel levels), as usual.

My lesson started with Chris telling me the conditions this morning had been perfect, and he'd sent another student to solo for the first time in it. This lead me to believe I wasn't going to be able to today after all. Crap. Anyway, we talked for a little while, then got into the plane. Chris even had me turn it on, something I'd only done once a long time ago, and severely botched; this time I knew what I was supposed to do (a little instruction goes a long way) and was spot-on.

Diverging again a little...
Chris is a fun guy. I mean, he's always talking, laughing and having a good time. He loves what he does and it shows. During my first several lessons with him he was all smiles in the plane, streaming instructions I tried to take in like a sponge. As I've approached my solo though, he's turned into a statue: barely talking, almost never touching the controls, never smiling and spending all his time looking out the window to the ground. Every time I ask if everything's OK. "Yup" is all I'd ever get in return. He would assure me that this was all part of the instruction, but I still didn't like how depressed he looked.

Chris was especially quite during this flight. Even though I hadn't flown in almost two weeks (and not at Oxford for about a month), I felt comfortable and did pretty well. We flew the pattern (I was coming in high cause I turned to base too soon) and I was telling Chris that I noticed it, and I could handle it (he told me to speak aloud to explain my reasons for all my actions, so he would know I knew what I needed to). He told me to do a go-around, so I did. I knew I would have been able to land it, so I asked why. "Practice." Made sense... it was only the second go-around we'd ever done together, and if I was supposed to solo, I wanted to know how to go-around if my approach to landing wasn't comfortable.

As we got to mid-field (the half-way point of the traffic pattern), Chris told me to radio "requesting full-stop, taxi back to 36" so I did, thinking that meant "taxi back to where the plane was parked" hoping that Chris was going to get out and tell me to solo. Nope: "taxi back to 36" meant "taxi back to the runway for another take off" (which makes sense, since 36 is the runway we take off on). Damn. I was too hopeful.

So we did that another time, taxiing back to 36. My landings weren't the best I've done, but they weren't the worst either. Then Chris said "request full stop" but no "taxi back to 36." This felt too short to be a full lesson. All I could think of was soloing. He had me taxi back myself (usually he does it, cause I already know how) and he logged our flight time: 0.7 hours, a VERY short lesson.

I noticed when he filled out our 0.7, he started the next line in the log book. He was going to let me solo, I knew it. Still, I got out slowly, waiting for him to tell me "no, you stay in" (maybe I mis-saw what he wrote?) but he never did. Once we were out of the plane he said, "you're ready." I said "now?" "Yup." We went inside and talked for a little while. He told me to keep talking to myself during the flight to help keep things in order. He also instructed me to tell ground (there's two radios: ground and tower) about my plans and that I was a first-time solo, so they knew to look out for me. He's be tuned into the tower comms so if I needed to talk to him I could (but I shouldn't need to, and I shouldn't do it). I let him know I saw him start my entry into the log book, he laughed. "Any last questions?" Chris always asks that. It's a sign of a good instructor. "Nope." "Good luck."

This was it. I walked out to the plane and got in. I was already talking to myself. I took a moment to meditate/breath deeply/stop shaking and started reading off the checklist. I radioed ground: "Oxford Ground this is 48984 at Classic Air with information Gulf, requesting taxi to runway 36; I'm a first time solo and will be doing 3 landings." The ATC (air traffic controller) called back "984 taxi to 36, and congratulations." I taxied to the runway, did my run-up to make sure everything was in order, then called the tower: "Oxford Tower, 984 holding short of 36, requesting closed pattern." Not another plane in the sky, so I got immediate clearance. I got center line (centered on the middle of the runway) and gave it full throttle. About 5 seconds later, my wheels were off the ground. I was soloing!

Chris, my materials and other pilots had all warned me: the plane feels much better when your instructor gets out. No matter how many times I heard this, I was still amazed at just how much better it was! The plane climbed MUCH faster, wasn't nearly as bumpy and was so much more fluid. It was less like I was controlling the plane, and more like I was saying "hey, you mind going left?" and having it agree with me. Absolute bliss. In addition, I was flying - ALONE. The fact that I was solo isn't what was exciting: several times already Chris and I have gone up and I've done all the work; no, what was exciting was that for the first time, I was the pilot in command (PIC). I had no real safety-net. And that was AWESOME.

I flew a much tighter pattern, because I wanted to do as many landings as I could (I know I had requested 3, but Chris said I could go for an extra if I was feeling really good). At mid-field I radioed tower: "Oxford Tower, this is 984 at left-mid-field, requesting touch-and-go." Not another plane in the sky, so I was cleared. I set up my landing perfectly, despite realizing that this was the most dangerous part of flying, and I was doing it as the PIC. I took comfort in knowing I could do a go-around if I needed to, but I didn't. I glided in perfectly - the best landing I may have ever had. I slowed down a little, then gave it full-power and took right off again.

I did 3 more touch-and-gos before I came in for a complete stop (a total of 5 landings, but I didn't think Chris would be mad) following a Gulfstream, no less. My 2nd landing was the worst, my 3rd and 4th were OK, but the 1st and 5th were beautiful. I taxied back to Classic Air after getting a congratulations from the ATC. Chris was standing outside and directed me to parking with hand-gestures (I haven't studied those yet, but they seemed easy enough to get). I killed the engine, logged my time and got out. Chris and I pushed it into the parking spot, then he started laughing at me.

"You did touch-and-gos!"
"You weren't supposed to!"
"Huh? What was I supposed to do?"
"Full stop and taxi back. That's why we practiced it!"

Turns out the insurance doesn't cover touch-and-gos for students soloing. Chris thought about calling the tower to tell me to do full-stops, but decided I was safe enough anyway.

We went back inside, talked about it for awhile and he cut my shirt. Step one down, only about 99 left to go.

Now I've officially been a PIC.

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