Leaving the Nest: My First Solo
by Kate Bernard
On June 2, 2000, I took my first solo flight in a Cessna 150 with 12.8 hours in my logbook. 4.8 of those hours came from sporadic flights over a one-year period, while the remaining 8 hours were regular lessons beginning May 9, 2000. A little less than a month after I started regular lessons, I left my instructor on the ground and fulfilled my dream of solo flight.
I've lost my baby bird fuzz and grown my flight feathers.
It was eight o' clock in the evening on Friday, June 2nd, 2000, and I had just landed with my flight instructor, Bill. I had done the last traffic pattern and landing all by myself while he pretended to be asleep. This landing, my fourth for the lesson, was good. I stopped on the taxiway to clean up the plane, as usual-- carb heat off, flaps up, trim reset, transponder to standby-- just one of the routines I had practiced during the past eight hours of my training. I did everything correctly without being told what to do.
I was ready to put the Cessna 150 away for the night. I wanted to go home and get ready for a good night's sleep. Knowing that my first solo would be the next morning, I wasn't sure if I'd even be able to close my eyes.
But before I let go of the brakes again, Bill asked a shocking question: "Do you want to go tonight?"
"WHAT???" I uttered, dumbfounded that he was going to let me solo now instead of tomorrow.
He added, "Well, you just proved to me that you can do this yourself."
As I stared blankly, the possible answers ran through my mind: "Yes, no, yes, no... I can't believe this!" For a second I thought, "Maybe I shouldn't. Am I really ready for this?" Then I thought, "I've been looking forward to this ever since I started flying. Finally the day has come. I'm going to take the opportunity!" The weather was good now, and who knows what surprises tomorrow's forecast would contain. I gave Bill a simple "Okay, I guess."
I had completed my pre-solo test and obtained my medical and student pilot certificate. The only paperwork left involved an endorsement and some signatures from Bill. I dug out my logbook, and he signed me off to solo. What an awesome privilege those signatures represented!
I had the pattern to myself earlier, but suddenly the airport was busy. Bill listened to the other pilots then said on the radio, "Clintonville, this is two-seven-sierra, we've got a young lady here who's about to take her first solo."
The lady flying the Cessna Cardinal in the pattern said, "Congratulations! We'll give her some room."
"Thank you," I told her.
"Congratulations Kate," Glenn radioed from his Skylane, coming in for a landing.
Invisibly, I was shaking as Bill climbed out of the cockpit. The engine was still humming. He stood next to the door and gave me some instructions. First he said to reduce the power to about 1500 RPM instead of 1800 when I descend. Then he said, "This plane's really gonna want to go, see? It'll be like a sports car." About my airspeed on base and final, he repeated what he had drilled into my head before: "No less than 60, no more than 65." I nodded with everything he said. Each tip reinforced what I had already learned.
Glenn taxied past me and we waved to each other. I probably reminded him of his first solo. He's come a long way since then, climbing all the way to an ATP certificate. It thrills me to think I can follow in his footsteps.
I could hardly believe my eyes as Bill slammed the door shut and walked away. He stood on the grass next to the taxiway. I let go of the brakes and left him behind me. I would be flying this airplane all alone. All alone! I didn't know what to think.
There seemed to be something wrong with the fact that the right seat was empty. I looked at it, and for some reason I burst out laughing. My right arm wasn't squashed up against me, and no one's leg was touching mine. I smiled and shook my head. Seconds later I laughed again, realizing the magnitude of what I was about to do. My eyes almost welled up with tears of joy. Two years and dozens of obstacles, and now this.
Glenn was doing his runup and blocking the taxiway, so I waited for him. He taxied onto the runway and back-taxied to the end. We waited for the Cardinal to land.
I could have taken off before the Cardinal landed, but I thought, "No, I don't want to rush this. I'll just wait and get my thoughts together."
As the Cardinal landed, another plane pulled up behind me. Seeing my N-number, its pilot said, "Two-seven-sierra, good luck."
"Thanks," I answered, smiling. I loved everyone's warm wishes.
"Have a nice flight, Kate," Glenn said before announcing his departure. He took off as soon as the Cardinal cleared the runway. Then I made my radio announcement and taxied onto runway 32 for takeoff.
"This is it," I thought. "If I take off, there's no turning back." With confidence in my ability, I pushed the throttle all the way forward.
Was this still a Cessna 150? After zooming down the runway it took off and climbed like it had never climbed before. I could hardly force it to stay under 70 miles per hour. I was amazed to see the vertical speed needle pointing above the number five. The plane was finally earning the nickname I gave it weeks earlier: "Little Spunky."
I had never felt so free in my life. "Pilot in command" finally meant something to me. I was truly in control, completely responsible for every decision. This was my flight. Bill wasn't in the airplane to comment on my every move. Finally I could have some peace and quiet.
I turned crosswind earlier than usual because the plane reached 500 feet AGL so quickly. So far, so good.
It was a gorgeous evening for flying. As I flew over the town, I looked at the long shadows of buildings and trees. The low sun made the colors dark and rich. Now and then the sun hid behind a high cloud. But most of the time, it stayed in full view and glared into the cockpit. The wind had died completely, as evidenced by the wrinkled windsock hanging straight with its pole.
I wasn't the only one taking advantage of the good weather. There was almost constant chatter on the radio. Along with the pilots sharing Clintonville's pattern with me, pilots at other airports were using the frequency. My thumb hovered over the push-to-talk button as I turned downwind, waiting for a chance to talk. The radio seemed to repeat "Clintonville traffic" like a broken record. The other pilots were especially helpful in letting me know where they were. Glenn in his Skylane, the lady in the Cardinal, and I were practicing landings all at once. As I listened to the other pilots on the frequency and made announcements myself, I suddenly realized what an elite club I belong to.
The altimeter needles indicated 1800 feet much earlier than usual, and by the time I was abeam the runway's midpoint, my altitude had crept up to 2,000 feet. Whoops! 200 feet too high. Oh well, not bad for my first solo. I pulled the carb heat knob and reduced power to 1500 RPM. By the time I added the first notch of flaps, the plane was still abnormally high so I reduced the power to 1400 RPM. Now I definitely believe the plane flies differently when it's light.
My airspeed and altitude were perfect as I turned base. I added the second notch of flaps. When I turned final I knew everything was going well. The plane was lined up with the runway in a stabilized descent.
Another plane was waiting for me to land. My perfectionism kicked in. I wanted to do a nice landing with that pilot watching me. I didn't land as perfectly as I had hoped, but the plane did touch down without a bounce or a thud. I was safely back on the ground. "I did it!" I thought. What an enormous relief.
Following Bill's instructions, I taxied back to him. I had a huge smile as he walked towards me. He opened the door, praised, "Good job!" and gave me a hug. I think he was more excited than I was! He asked me if I wanted to do some more landings. I said yes and asked if I could do a touch-and-go. He said I could. Then he said he was going to walk back to the hangars and that I should taxi to the fuel pump when I'm done.
After another trip around the pattern, I made an excellent landing. Immediately after touching down, I applied full power, pushed in the carb heat knob, raised the flaps, and adjusted the trim. Since I had practiced this procedure so many times, I hardly had to think about it.
The traffic pattern was a little emptier now that Glenn and the Cardinal had left. That took away some of the stress of constantly wondering where everyone else was. In my little 150, I always feel like someone's chasing me!
My third and last landing was my best. I landed just past the numbers, softly and with a perfect squeak. I was amazed at the two flawless landings I had just made. I thought, "Wow, I'm getting good at this!"
I taxied to the fuel pump where Bill was waiting for me. He volunteered to fuel the plane this time. I was still so excited that I probably wouldn't have been able to do it. I could hardly think straight. But he was excited too, talking to me instead of watching the fuel level closely. He accidentally let fuel spray from the top of the tank like a fountain and plunge over the flap like a waterfall. Both of us laughed.
Later, when we got out of the plane by the hangar, my "hangar neighbor" Mike and a lady were standing by Mike's 170. Bill got out and told them I had just soloed. They congratulated me. Then Bill took out his scissors, and in front of the two witnesses, cut off the bottom half of the back of my shirt. While he wrote on it, I started filling out the rental slip for the plane. My head was still up in the clouds so much that I couldn't even subtract numbers to find the flight time. I had to get out my calculator to make a simple calculation!
I could hardly stop smiling as we put the plane away. Bill filled out my logbook and talked about the next lesson. The sun was setting as we closed the hangar doors-- a perfect ending for a perfect evening. I was already excited about the next day's flight, when I would go up for a half-hour lesson and then take a second solo flight. This time, it would be in front of my mom, her friend, Steve and Frank from work, a handful of other pilots, and two newspaper reporters. It would be preceded and followed by interviews, hugs, handshakes, and pictures, not to mention smiles.
I don't know what I was feeling as I drove home. Words can't describe it. Whatever it was, I had never felt it before. I had never experienced such a great accomplishment. Two years after my first flight, after pushing past several obstacles, I had finally soloed an airplane. I could finally call myself a pilot.
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