The first time you are trusted to fly an aeroplane solo is a significant and memorable moment in any pilot's career. Whatever your opinion might be, the instructor has decided that you are skilful and safe enough to execute a circuit* in sole command of a valuable aircraft without undue hazard to life or property. It can't be an easy decision for them.
For the student, it's an exciting but nerve-racking experience, the aim being to do nothing new or different, just get the thing around and back down safely. Only there is no-one to correct your mistakes, point out deviations or help you out on the radio any more, it's all down to you. There is no-one to talk to either, but I still chunter away just the same.
I wasn't expecting to go solo today, partly because there was too much crosswind on the runway, and partly because recent lessons had not gone as well as I had hoped. But a lot time spent at the weekend "chair-flying" around imaginary circuits seemed to pay off.
I flew six circuits with the instructor; two normal powered, two without use of flaps and two glide circuits where the engine is cut at some distance from the runway and the rest of the landing executed "dead stick".
You might think that a glider pilot would be at some advantage here, but a Piper Warrior with the engine idle is no glider — it descends laughably steeply, something like 1 in 10, and my first attempt was headed well short of the runway threshold. At least I got to practice a 'go-around' (abandoned landing) which is a very important manoeuvre used to get the hell out whenever things are not looking good during a landing.
So I was a little surprised when at the end of the lesson the instructor said "good job", pointed out that the wind had dropped, and sent me off to do a circuit alone. Despite the fact that I have had two "first" solos already — in gliders and motor-gliders — there was enough new and different about this experience to make me just a little nervous.
It's normal practice to tell the control tower it is a first solo, so they can try to get you around without any holds or modifications to the circuit. But this did mean holding short and waiting for quite some time for a big enough gap in the traffic. With no airspeed there is no ventilation, the doors and windows are shut and it is 36C outside. By the time I was cleared to take-off I was melting.
Normally we fly lessons with two students, one instructor, 200 lbs of fuel and a fair bit of baggage. On this flight I was alone with 60lbs less fuel, so the plane was somewhat more... lively. The 'rotation' (take-off) speed of 65 knots came around very quickly and when I reached the cross-wind turn at 500' I was still over the runway.
The circuit was, as required, boring and conventional and I don't think I fluffed any radio calls today (at last). The approach was one of my better ones though the ensuing landing, while in no way dangerous, certainly left no doubt that I was back on the ground. All that remained was to taxi back to the parking where my instructor was waiting, looking mightily relieved.
After a couple of hours of consolidation training in the circuits the next hurdle awaits... progress test one.
* A 'circuit' consists of a take-off, a rectangular loop around the airfield usually to the left and a landing. You get to practice taking off, various check-lists, lots of radio work, flying the climb, levelling off, traffic awareness, holding altitude, turning, descending, use of flaps and of course approach and landing. Most of the key pilot skills in fact, crammed in to just five or six minutes.
|The standard circuit|