When I was a kid I remember thinking that flying your own airplane would be the coolest thing possible. Unfortunately it took another 40 years to have the ability to do something about it. I got flying lessons started last summer, but work got too busy and life too complicated. I had to take a break, which I know sets you back in your progress.
I recently got back into the lessons at Land and Sea at Merrill Field. I figured it would be about the busiest airport I am likely to use in Alaska, so if I get comfortable there, everywhere else should be less complicated. Getting comfortable using the radio was the my first challenge. Some people say the radio is the hardest part of flying.
Last week we were doing pattern work in preparation for solo, but I had an off day, and almost all the landings sucked. They were worse than most of the landings I had done previously. I think I made most of the mistakes possible. I came in too fast, I leveled off too high, I flaired too soon and ballooned up. I guess it was good experience, but it sure was frustrating. I finally did it right at the end and called it a day.
Yesterday we went up and the first four landings were good. Everything seemed to be different even though it was the same weather, the same Cessna 172, the same instructor. Mark, my instructor, said I was ready any time I wanted to solo. I decided to get it over with right away, so the next landing was a full stop. Mark signed off on my license and got out.
I was nervous, but I knew it was mostly a psychological issue. I just focused on flying the plane and did not let my mind wander into the "what ifs." I got my clearances, taxied and took off. Now I was committed because I had to get back down somehow.
I knew the airplane would be more responsive because of the lighter weight, but the difference surprised me. I had a much better rate of climb and the plane reacted more quickly to control input.
Right after turning crosswind the tower called and said there was a helicopter taking off and another airplane to the southeast. I spotted the plane as I turned downwind, but the helicopter was white against a white background. I spotted it as soon as I told the tower that I was looking. I pulled the carb heat, dropped flaps and remembered to breathe as I finished the downwind leg.
I turned to base and started my descent. The tower was talking to other pilots in the meantime. I am surprised they did not say, "watch out for the guy in the Cessna," but everything was actually going well. The better response of the airplane made it even easier. I dropped some more flaps and turned to final right on the glide path.
I got lined up with the center line and dropped the rest of my flaps. I checked my speed and was right on target. I brought the plane down to the numbers and leveled off just right. I started the flare and was careful not to pull up too fast. The stall warning started buzzing as I continued to pull back. The main wheels touched down gently. I held the nose up for a little bit, then let it settle to the ground.
I let my brain celebrate for about a second before getting back to flying the plane. I think it was my best landing ever, and I did it all by myself!
However there was no time to relax yet. I had two more to go. I pushed in the carb heat, raised the flaps and pushed in the throttle. Before I knew it I was in the air again. I concentrated on doing everything right. This time on final there was a little more wind to correct for. Even so the landing went well. Two down and one to go.
Everything went well in the pattern, but I turned to base a little above the glide path. I pulled more power and dropped the rest of the flaps to settle into the glidepath. This time the wind was a little stronger and gusts pushed my tail unpredictably. Just as I was over the numbers a gust of wind lifted my right wing some and made me yaw. I pulled up a little high to get level and straight again. I added a little power because I was high and felt the plane settling to the runway. I added a little more power and pulled up the nose even more. I touched down on my left main first followed by very quickly by the right. I pulled all power and held the nose up for a few seconds before letting it drop gently to the pavement. Not the prettiest touchdown, but it landed fairly softly and nearly level. I had maintained control even with the last-second gusts of wind.
I remembered to follow protocol getting off the runway and taxiing back to the tiedown. I didn't want to forget and screw up the simple things. Thank goodness for checklists. I taxied to the tiedown where Mark was waiting with a handshake and a "congratulations!"
We secured the plane and gathered my gear. Now the adrenilen rush started kicking in. WOW!!! Mark and I went back to the office, settled up the bill and filled out the logbook. Then out came the scissors. I had been wearing my least-favorite shirts for the last few flights just in case. Off came the shirt tail and I was on my way back to work. I was so jazzed that I could not eat a free home-made brownie on the way out. (Those who know me know that I never turn down free brownies!)
I know there will be other milestones in getting my license, but the first solo will be hard to beat. I was on a high for the rest of the day.
You know I was right when I was a kid. Flying an airplane by yourself is totally cool!