“Good luck!” – The two words that stood between my training and my life. On an impeccable Brisbane summer’s day shortly after passing that black belt test (see previous post), I was about to wind up my third and last day of the school holiday flying training program run by the local flying school. I was fortunate enough to be given a spot in this program for my birthday and Christmas presents, and subsequently attended four holiday programs over the preceding year. Every time you attended one of the three-day programs you would get that much closer to a new trainee pilots’ first real test; your first solo. Sounding more like the Holy Grail to a new trainee pilot, I never really saw this as a challenge or something to be nervous about, rather that it was a step to getting my licence and taking up passengers.
On this summer’s morning, my instructor pilot, DG, and I were refining the basic art of flying a circuit. Essentially a lap of the field, the circuit is the foundation to flying. Involving the take-off, climb, turns, descent and landing (or “touch and go” if you wanted to do it again), the circuit allowed you to practice all the fundamentals in a six minute period. DG and I completed our sixth circuit, landed, and taxied to the flying school to debrief on where I could improve on my flying in the circuit, and then briefed for the afternoon flight of more circuit training. After the staple trainee pilot diet of a cheese sandwich and lemonade, I pre-flighted the old Cessna 152 and squared everything away ready for take-off. Back in the same rhythm like a song on repeat, DG and I completed circuit after circuit, up and down, up and down. If you are prone to motion sickness and are not the one flying (when you are in control of the plane you are likely not to feel ill as your mind is occupied) you may start to taste that cheese sandwich. Not me – I was completely in my element. On the fifth circuit, DG instructed me to make this a landing (not a touch and go anymore), so I proceeded to gently place this old bird on the deck and taxied clear of the runway. As we were heading back to the flying school, DG told me to pull off the bitumen taxiway onto the short fresh cut grass and come to a stop. I thought I’d missed a check or done something wrong so I followed his instruction to the letter and turned to look at him in anticipation as I stopped.
DG spoke a few quick codes and words to the tower, of which I recognised the following, “Student pilot will conduct first solo now, and I’m getting out here.” Like a slap to the face, I hadn’t expected this would happen today. As DG undid his harness and opened the door, he turned to me and said, “You’re doing well enough not to have me sitting next to you. Go up, do one circuit, then come and pick me up. Good luck!” And with those choice words, DG slammed and secured the door and walked off. As noisy as an aircraft engine is, it became very quiet. My mind was focussed on not stuffing this up. One part of me was saying don’t make a fool of yourself in front of your trusted instructor or the controllers in the tower. The other part of me said just don’t kill yourself. So with a scan of the instruments, a run through the taxi and pre take-off checklists, and the departure calls to the tower made, I taxied away and lined up on the runway. Here I was, facing one kilometre of searing hot runway, looking across to an empty seat to remind myself that there is no fallback, then looking back to the runway. “Foxtrot Uniform Delta, runway 10-left, clear for take-off.” Responding to the commands of the tower, I pushed the throttle to full power and spoke to no-one in particular about my take-off run checks, “full power set, static RPM within limits 2280-2380RPM, temperatures and pressures in the green range, aircraft on centre line, airspeed….. there it is, indicating, centre line”. When there is only one of you in such a small aircraft, the speed and climb performance becomes far more enhanced and this added a few more drops of adrenaline to the excitement I was feeling.
I leapt into the air and at 500-feet started my left turn. I vividly remember looking over at the empty seat next to me as I turned thinking there is nothing except my training between landing and crashing. A fragile mind could evoke fear and irrational thought in this situation, but I was just fighting the urge to do a high performance turn (as high performance as one can get out of an underpowered training aircraft) onto the downwind leg of the circuit. Flying the rest of the circuit and greasing the landing like there was an instructor on board, I was so excited that I just flew by myself and began laughing with joy as I taxied back to the flying school, barely remembering to pick up the now sunburnt DG on the way in. Both the control tower and DG congratulated me on a solid first solo. I felt amazing and full of confidence, hungrier for my next airborne adventure. Training, discipline and desire; the same things that helped me get my black belt helped me to stay focussed and nail my first solo. Soon, I would come to understand that whilst flying can be fun, it can be far more challenging than just a six minute circuit.