Monday, June 06, 2005

Two Hundred Pounds Lighter

Sorting through the hard drive uncovered this e-mail I wrote to my Dad about my first solo. This is as good a place as any to reprint it for the sake of posterity. Enjoy!

Early on the morning of November 7, 2001, I achieved a dream that I had had since I was a small child. I flew an airplane. Alone. By myself. With no one else in the cockpit. Yes, I soloed. An incredible milestone in the pursuit of a private pilot's license.

I had thought that perhaps I was getting close. On Monday's lesson, I achieved some sense of accomplishment with getting the landings right. I did six in a row with no major gaffes. Tires were still intact, no one chipped any teeth, and the person who was next scheduled to fly the plane could - without a visit to the maintenance shop. Hey, progress. My confidence level was boosted when my CFI, Mike, remarked "One or two more days like that, proving that today was no fluke, and I'll let you

So, when Wednesday morning rolled around, I wasn't 100% sure that today would be the day. I thought it was more likely that he'd sign me off on Saturday, if Wednesday went well.

After an uneventful takeoff, we started with a normal landing on runway 24R. I really like that runway, its 6100' long and 150' wide. That extra width allows a little bit more focus on the flare and landing without having to worry about being exactly on the centerline. I know it's important to stay there, but I can polish the details later, after I master the specifics.

Second time around the pattern, as we approach the reportig point, Mike says, "Ask for the option this time." Uh oh, that means he's up to something.

"Cessna 589 is midfield downwind, requesting the option."

"Cessna 589, runway 24 right, clear for the option."

"24 right for the option, Cessna 589."

As we get appraoch abeam the numbers, Mike pulls the throttle to idle. "Engine out. Let's make an emergency landing." OK, only we've never had to do this before.

"Tell me what to do," I say.

"Turn base now, no flaps until short final."

So I do what I'm told, and somehow manage to get it right.

Third time around to 24R, Mike calls for a no flaps landing. Again, something we haven't done before. This is something of a challenge because you come in faster and steeper. (Flaps are used to change the wing camber and lower stalling speed. That means you can come in slower.) Once again, after getting the necessary instructions from Mike, I pulled this one off.

It also involved a slip to landing, otherwise known as a forward slip. It's a procedure for losing altitute quickly. You apply a slight bit of aileron into the wind, and lots of opposite rudder. All the way to the ground, in fact. It feels a little wierd, the opposite pressures of varying intensity. But you change from a descent rate of 300 to 400 feet a minute to as much as 1000 feet per minute. You don't need to do it for very long, 10 or 15 seconds, although it feels like an eternity.

Trip four was a go-around. No problem there, even though we hadn't done one in a while. Like everything else in aviation, there's a silly little saying to help you remember what to do. This one is "cram, climb, clean, call and confess." Basically, when you decide that the landing is no-go, you apply maximum throttle (cram), turn the carb heat off and slowly retract flaps (clean), then make a radio call and announce you're going around (call and confess).

Trip five was another enginge failure landing. Again, I've got it.

Trip six, and ATC decides to throw one at us. "Cessna 589, make a short approach, clear runway 24 right."

I acknowledge, "Short approach. Clear to land 24 right. Cessna 589." Then ask, "Mike, what do we do now?" Yet another thing we haven't done yet. (Mike did one once early one, but we haven't covered it since then.)

Basically, a short approach implies just that. You want to set the airplane down as close to the runway threshold as you can, as slow as the plane will let you. It's a technique used on short runways and/or when there's traffic coming in on a direct final. So, instead of flying downwind until the runway numbers are 45 degrees behind you and then turning base, you chop the throttle when you are abeam the runway numbers, turn base immediately, and aim for the runway threshold. It's not unlike the no-engine landing. After it's all said and done, not that big of a deal and I nail it.

"Controller decided to jump on the bandwagon today and threw one at us as well," Mike remarks.

Felling a little cocky, I simle and say, "You guys are going to have to try a little harder to get me today."

"OK," Mike says. "You in a hurry to get back to work?"

"Not really. It's a little quiet this week."

"Feel like soloing today?"

Gulp. Wasn't expecting that. "Uh, sure. Why not?"

"Then make this landing a full stop."

ATC clears us to 24L this time, and we make a fairly normal landing. Not as nice as some of the earlier ones, but still fairly respectable. As we leave the airplane, Mike says, "I'm going to leave my headset here as a reminder of my presence."

We go inside the office, and Mike endorses my student license and logbook for solo flight. The restrictions aren't too bad: headwinds <>

Mike's last words to me were: "Don't worry, you'll be fine. I'll be right here watching. And remember, the plane's performance will be a little better without me. After all, you're two hundred pounds lighter. Give me three touch n' goes and we'll call it a day. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, c'mon back."

I go back outside to preflight the airplane. As I'm walking, I'm surprised that I'm not nervous. Rather, it's a strange, eerie calm. As I'm following my normal routine, I see something moving out of the corner of my eye. I lookup and it's the Fire Rescue Squad with their big rescue truck on the tarmac. Great, I think. This is a real confidence builder.

Preflight complete, I call for clearance from the tower. I wonder if I should add, "Caution, student pilot on first solo." Nah, I figure, why attract any additional attention.

After preflight, I get the weather information. Hasn't changed since earlier in the morning. That's good, I know where the wind is coming from and can deal with it. I taxi out to the run-up area and complete the run-up. Nothing else left to do, I make the call.

"Tower, Cessna 94589, ready for takeoff."

"Cessna 589, clear for takeoff, runway 24 left, make right traffic."

"Runway 24 left, Cessna 589."

I move out onto the runway, align with the center, and smoothly apply power. At 55 knots, I apply back elevator and -- whoosh -- up into the sky I go. It's amazing, the plane really does perform better without the second body in there. I climb to 1200 and turn right. Then it's up to 1500, turn left, lower the nose, and gain airspeed to Va (manuevering speed), 104 knots.

"Cessna 589 is midfield downwind."

"Cessna 589, clear to land, runway 24 right."

"Clear to land 24 right, Cessna 589."

Abeam the numbers, I apply the first notch of flaps. When we get to 45 degrees from the numbers, I lower power, drop the nose, add a second notch of flaps, and turn base.

Soon, it's time to turn final. OK, I've got my aiming point in sight. Remember, pitch for airspeed, power for altitude. Add a little power on short final when the plane wants to start sinking. OK, OK, getting close, start to flare. Hold the nose up, bleed of the speed. Hold it, hold it, hol...thump. A nice quiet two-wheel landing. I keep the nose off to slow down some more, then the nose gear falls.

ahort field landing implies just that. Ah, sweet success, a near-pefect landing.

Up flaps, carb heat off, full throttle, let's do it again!

Second trip around was uneventful, a mirror image of the trip before. Calm, quiet, and peaceful in the sky. A nice landing, another good takeoff. One more like that and we'll call it a day.

Only the controller has other ideas.

"Cessna 589 is midfield downwind."

"Cessna 589, make a short approach to runway 24 left."

Oh great. With only one such landing under my belt, he decides to make me do another. And then I hear him clear a jet for a 5-mile final approach to 24 right. Now I know why he wants me out of the way. And I want to cross over 24 right as soon as possible to get out of the way.

So I turn base right away. Frankly, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed this time. I had wanted just three, plain vanilla landings, and he throws in a little chocolate. Thanks alot, Mr. Controller.

I'm high, I can tell. I chop the power more, drop flaps. Still high, drifting left. Apply more right rudder, get back over the center line. The aiming points jumping up and down, which means I'm not holding a constant descent angle. Stabilize, stabilize, stabilize. The key to a landing, at least according to all the books and magazine articles I have read, is a stabilized final approach. And this one isn't.

Eventually, I manage to put the plane on the ground. It wasn't very smooth or pretty, but I still managed not to mangle the plane.

After I taxi to the ramp and park it, Mike's there, with a big smile and handshake.

And that's the story of my first solo, November 7, 2001.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You made me feel like I was right there with you. Four years later, but I am SO proud of you for your accomplishment.