I have been hard at work training several students recently and 2 of them have made great strides towards the first big achievement of soloing. So thanks for bearing with me as it’s been a while since the last post but I think your going to enjoy Patricks story.

The trip to my first solo in the Skyhawk 172 (tail N4660G) was more memorable than the solo itself. Taking flight by yourself for the first time is a dubious prospect at best, never mind the fact that the hardware you are flying is older than you by a considerable amount, and you recall far too much about the metallurgical effects of cyclic stress and strain on rigid bodies from some sleepy materials engineering class a few years ago.

Alone in the cockpit

Perhaps it is simply the fear of not having the right hand seat occupied for the first time that makes you think of the endless list of possible catastrophes (self induced or otherwise) that could cause your tiny plane to go careening into the ground with a sickening crunch.  But on the 16th of June 2013, I decided it would be a good idea to try my hand at some real flying.

I suppose the act of soloing the airplane is akin to a test in which the results can — by nature — only be binary: you either “sink or swim,” you “crash or land,” which is where (I think) some of the hesitation and nervousness must come from for students.  It is literally a test of skill from which there can only be two outcomes.  More importantly, I felt it was a demonstration of my learning over the past few months – a critical milestone to build confidence in the aircraft and myself as a pilot.

After endless loops around runway 31 in Palo Alto, endlessly hearing Ron’s voice in my headset: “right rudder,” “centerline,” “look at your airspeed,” “CENTERLINE!” my time to become a “pilot in command” seemed to be drawing near.  It really seemed more like an inevitable point in my training, not necessarily something I was building to.  To be completely honest, I hadn’t given the occasion much thought or reverence and was very at ease about the situation (an indication of Ron’s excellent CFI skills) – “sure” I thought, “I’ll fly this airplane, by myself, I guess?”

So, after a few runs around the pattern, Ron asked me to taxi to the “J” row and let him out so he could observe from the safety of the ground.  We shook hands, Ron wished me luck, signed my endorsement, then I secured the passenger side door.

The pattern was already buzzing with some traffic, one student was already in front of me on the taxiway waiting for his solo takeoff clearance as well.  Pretty soon, I heard “Skyhawk 60G, Palo Alto tower, winds variable at 4, runway 31, cleared for takeoff, right closed traffic.”  I responded with the crispest pilot voice I could muster despite the fact that I was excited beyond words: “cleared for takeoff, Skyhawk 60G, runway 31, right closed.”

From here on, it was all automatic for me as the checklists are engrained into my brain at this point: “power set, right rudder, gauges OK, airspeed alive, 55 knots, rotate, tap the brakes.”  My tiny C172 shot up into the sky like a Saturn 5 without Ron in the passenger seat!  In no time at all, I was sitting at 800 feet and on downwind.

Patrick on takeoff

I get my clearance for the option right away.  Abeam the numbers, I throttle back and expect the airspeed to drop to my flaps extended range and add 10 degrees.  Again, almost as quickly as I gained my airspeed on takeoff, I lost my airspeed.  I was abruptly reminded that momentum is indeed the mass times the velocity.  Base turn and final were completely uneventful as was the landing.  I asked myself: “that was it?”

And indeed it was, after careful training and prep work, I soloed an airplane for the first time.

Ron greeted me with an exuberant high-five and the ceremonial shirt tail cutting and I became a student pilot!

Solo is done!

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