Dick’s blog: a solo or a new beginning

I am writing this on October 25, 2011.

On October 25, 1951 I, a rebellious 17-year old juvenile delinquent, walked into the flight school office at Harrell Field in Camden, Arkansas, to take a flying lesson. My instructor, Rudy Peace, a wonderful person and pilot and later a fine friend, awaited.

Also waiting was Aeronca Champ (7AC) N1154E. It was to be my third flight in this airplane. I had flown ten dual flights in a Cessna 140, N1808V, but someone had hurt that airplane so it was unavailable.

Aeronca Champ 7AC
The Aeronca Champ.

We went out and did circuits in the Champ for about 40 minutes. Then Rudy had me stop by the runway. He said the time had come, he made a slight adjustment to the trim to compensate for his leaving, and told me to fly a pattern and come back in and land.

When I opened the throttle I felt like I was in a different world. The 65 horse Continental made its usual threshing machine sounds, though, and after a little roll I raised the tail. I knew it would pull to the left when the tailwheel lifted off but was slow reacting so there was some swerve in the takeoff. I was relieved when it came time to fly.

Straight ahead to 400 feet, turn 90 to the left, continue climb to 600 feet, level off, turn downwind leg.

The runway looked far away and even strange. Rudy, my protector, was but a speck by the runway. I had an “aw shucks what have I done moment” and then collected my thoughts and continued.

There was a stationary front to the southeast with a high overcast covering the area. The wind was light northeasterly so I knew I would have a slight crosswind on the north-south runway.

I turned base leg and reduced the power to idle at what I thought was the correct time and then set up in a 60 mph glide.

On final, I thought I was a little higher than usual but still okay.

As I crossed the runway threshold I had a “do or die” sensation. I was thankful for the good view of the runway ahead, better than it had been in the 140, and faced the next challenge of beginning the flare at the right time.

The main gear contacted the runway (I would have liked to say it kissed but it was a sloppy kiss) before I was ready and the airplane bounced a bit. I just sat there until the ground was close again and resumed adding back stick.

The final touchdown wasn’t graceful. It was more a plopdown than a touchdown. There was a little swerve because of plopping with a bit of drift. The airplane was down, though, and I taxied back to where Rudy waited. He asked if I wanted to do another. I told him that I had had my excitement for the day and we taxied in.

That night as I lay in bed with a racing mind, I went through the experience forward and backward. The main thing I did, though, was to know that I had finally found a purpose. I could begin to move forward, out of the juvenile delinquent stage. I was determined to learn all there was to know about flying and to experience all there was to experience about flying.

And you know what? I pretty well did.

Do you have a solo story you would like to share with our readers?

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30 Comments

  • I’m a private pilot, but I consider my first real ‘solo’ to be when I was getting my glider pilots licence. I flew my pre-solo early in the morning, but failed it initially, so my flight got pushed til later in the day. I finally got another shot around 8:00pm -sunset. Smooth air, lights on, the city was lit up as night approached, and the sun was a enormous pink ball on the horizon. I would defiantly take a cessna over a glider now.., but I feel like my first ‘glider’ solo was the start of my aviation career.. and ill never forget it.

    Anyways, great article! 😀

  • “There was a stationary front to the southeast with a high overcast covering the area. The wind was light northeasterly so I knew I would have a slight crosswind on the north-south runway.”

    So, you were already a weather geek at 17 on your solo?!

  • After about 6 hours dual, my instructor Edward Dufford, in Baton Rouge, La (a former Navy pilot) stopped the cherokee 140 at midfield and got out of the aircraft. Before he closed the door, he told me that if I didn’t think the landing would be good, to go around and try again. Sure enough, as I approached the first landing, I was very nervous. I went around and successfully landed on the next try. What an exhilarating feeling!

  • BTW, “Eddy” probably taught 1/2 of the pilots in BTR to fly. After he passed, the local pilots did an emasse flyover BTR airport in his honor. Quite the instructor.

  • I’d been taking lessons off and on for about 3 months. My instructor told me to go get my medical so I’d be ready to solo if I could ever get my landings consistent. A week before my 17th birthday, he had me fly a couple of patterns, then had me turn off of the runway. I thought we were done but he had me stop and he hopped out. He told me to do three touch and goes and if I didn’t like my approach, there was no sin in going around. I took off, flew the pattern, and landed a bit long but still safely. The next attempt I recognized I was way too high so I went around. The subsequent landing was right on the money and a “squeaker”. I was gloating over my success and managed to botch the last landing. It only bounced three times.

    That was forty years ago and I still recall it like yesterday.

  • I don’t think that any of us, no mater how many thousands of subsequyent flying hours, will ever forget that first solo but you have painted that picture and captured that feeling beautifully, elegantly and eloquently.

  • The first thing I noticed while reading Dick’s article on his first solo, was his classic glide approach all the way in to land. Turn base leg, hold height, assess the wind and when sure of getting in, close the throttle and glide. That was also the way I was taught on Tiger Moths in 1951. In contrast today in Cessna’s and Warriors, students are taught to make powered approaches from base leg with flaps going down at various points on base and final. The first that students know about glide approaches is during practice forced landings which come after first solo. It’s a bit late then if an engine fails in the circuit. And that is a great pity because glide approaches taught in circuit flying laid the foundation of good airmanship in assessing wind effect. Circuit patterns were much closer in Dick’s day and in turn this reduced costs. First solo’s on tail-wheel aircraft were usually under ten hours whereas now it is not uncommon for students to take 15-20 hours – and that with tricycle landing gear, flaps and wheel brakes! I wonder why? Instructor experience, maybe? A lovely story, Dick and it brought back happy memories of that era

  • Dick – Thank you for sharing your story. As a pilot, its fun relive a flight though someones words. In a sense I even felt that bounce you had as I read your story. I even felt the flushing of the my face from the slight embarrassment of doinking the aircraft in front of the instructor. I guess that’s part of the passage for being in this wonderful world of aviation.
    Best wishes,

  • I remember mine with similar detail. I hope we all do. My basic instruction was in Puerto Rico at at the GA airport for San Juan called Isla Grande. (SIG, in the old days)

    What I remember was a sort of perfect storm traffic jam which appeared between the time the instructor told me to drop him off and heading back out. Suddenly there were like six planes in front of me – the one directly in front, a DC6!. It gave me a lot of time to think about what I was doing.

    I’m here, 40 years later, so everything worked out.

    Dick, thanks for returning to writing. I’ve missed your columns.

    Best wishes,

    Tim

  • Ah the first solo in a Champ! I had that same experience in 1955 w/ the same fond memories. I spent many more hours in Champs, including flying one from Boston to LA and they were all enjoyable. I went on to solo many different kinds of airplanes and gliders, but none were as memorable.Thanx for the memories.

  • Richard,
    Your story reminded me of another first solo, my first solo in a taildragger, anyway. A mechanic friend of mine, who had a private pilot, but no CFI ticket, taught me to fly tailwheels. His first attempts were in his pristine Piper Pacer, a beautiful airplane, but a bad fit for a medeocre pilot like me! He wisely showed up one day in a very bedraggled looking Champ. In that old, stop-drilled, duct-tape encrusted Champ, I was able to make controlled arrivals instead of having to ‘bust broncs’ of my own creation in the Pacer. I was quite surprised when he hopped out of the old Champ one summer afternoon and told me to take it around a few more times by myself. I think the old Champ only had 2 speeds; 80 for cruise and 60 for everything else. I remember the man, the plane, and the flight fondly. Thanks, Joe Scesa, and thanks, Richard, for the Champ stories!

  • WE never forget that first solo flight ! It IS a milestone. Not many of us get to have that experience.
    Now 63 years later, I am still proud of that fact. I am thankful to still have my flight physical. I am thankful to have had so many different experiences in aviation. I am still thrilled each time I get to fly a plane, large or small, complex or simple. Mac

    • Hi Mac,
      I hope this Mac from Orlando Country CFI 1457770 1990
      Remember me in my hired 150, sleeping in the office?

      I hope to hear from you at the above email.
      Keeping well and doing a bit of flying not quite as exciting as flying in the good old USA

      Regards,
      Les

  • MY FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR, MR. BROWN AT SKY KING AIRPORT IN TERRA HAUTE, INDIANA, WEIGHED ABOUT 250…WHEN HE GOT OUT OF THE CESSNA 152 FOR MY FIRST SOLO, THE LITTLE CRAFT FELT LIKE A ROCKET SHIP, AND I TOOK OFF IN ABOUT 2/3 OF THE DISTANCE AS WHEN HE WAS IN THE AIRPLANE. I LOOKED AROUND, AND I WAS ALONE! IN AN AIRPLANE! WOW!

  • Mr. Collins:

    This blog post is so eloquent, that even I, not a pilot, am enchanted. :):)

    My brother, Drew “DOC” Kassal, ATC, who often flew with you (and who was so honored by that, each and every time), has passed on…..

    But by reading your accounts, I begin to have an inkling of why Drew’s life passion had always been flight.

    Thanks for re-connecting me to that.

    Drew paid for his lessons early on, while in high school, and received his flying license way before he could legally drive.

    ~I am blessed by you, also, Mr. Collins.

    Be well, and I will continue to read about the men and women for whom FLYING is the integral passion of their lives.

  • Airplanes can’t talk to tell us about what they think about each first solo flight made in them, and we don’t know how many first solos have been made in each trainer. Maybe first solos should be recorded in a special part of the aircraft logs. The 7AC in which Dick soloed, N1154E is still in Arkansas and the Cessna 140, N1808V is in Florida. Perhaps first solos are still being made in them.
    My first lesson was in a Cherokee 140 on January 11, 1967 at Downtown Airport in Shreveport La. I finally soloed at Lakefront Airport in New Orleans on January 31, 1973 in a Cessna 150, N18569, after accumulating 13.8 hours in a variety of airplanes, including Cherokees, a 7AC, a 7FC Tri Champ, 172s and 150s. The instructor who soloed me was Robert E Walters who went on to an airline career. I was mentally prepared to solo, and I don’t remember the 3 landings being particularly good or bad. I do remember the airplane performing better without Bob in it. In later years I earned commercial, instrument, CFI, CFII, multi-engine, and DC-3 SIC certificates plus a tail wheel endorsement. I retired from the practice of medicine on August 1 this year, but continue doing Aviation Medical Exams and flying my Cessna 177B.

  • Larry, thanks for the update on those two airplanes. I meant to look them up but hadn’t gotten around to it. I do know that, for a while at least, the great Marion Cole was using 1154E for upset training.

  • My first solo was a non-event with regard to the flying. I don’t really remember anything about the actual flight. What stands out in my memory is the events after I landed. It was October, 1957 and my 16th birthday. I “grew up” at the airport being the airport kid starting at age 11. Oh, they tried to run me off when I first became a pest but when that failed I was eventually given little jobs to do that led to bigger jobs and I functioned as a line-boy from about age 13 on. I had many opportunities to fly with many pilots in many types of airplanes and the FBO was a Piper dealer so I managed to fly the entire Piper fleet. Perhaps this is why the flight part of my first solo didn’t make a memorable impression.

    What I do fondly remember is that on the day of my first solo, when I returned to the flight line, there stood my mother. I did not even know that she knew I was going to solo because she never came to the airport nor really showed any interest in my flying activities. At home we seldom talked about my flying and I had not told her that I would probably solo on my birthday. She of course knew that I spent as many waking hours as possible at the airport, thus avoiding other teenage perils that my peers enjoyed, and for which she was probably thankful. As I climbed out of the J-3 she told me to stand there while she took my picture with her trust Brownie Hawkeye. Then she told me to give her my wallet which I did. At that point I was grabbed by several of the pilots standing around watching and they carried me across the grass runway and without ceremony tossed me into the canal that paralleled the runway and that at other times had captured a couple of ground-looped tail-draggers. Being Miami in October the water wasn’t even cold.

  • Thanks for the excellent and timely article. I remember my first solo like it was yesterday. Wait, maybe because it was (FRI 28 Oct 2011)!! My story contains nothing very unique on its own, but is some combination of everyone else’s above. Despite our various backgrounds and lifestyles, maybe this is why we will always relate because we all share the same identical fear/anxiety/satisfaction at some point, all within an hour, whether “that hour” was 50-60 years ago (for some of you), or just yesterday (like mine). I went from one of the most anxious moments of my life (and I’m a lawyer and just don’t get rattled easy) when my CFI walked out of the plane, and moments later when a plane approaching the pattern decided to “cut through” the pattern and go straight into final despite the fact that I had already called to state that I was going to take off on the opposite runway along with several other planes behind me (winds were perpendicular to the runways but in my favor), to the extreme satisfaction of landing rather gently my first time. And doing the whole thing two more times. My CFI was very happy and gracious when I finally pulled into the tie down spot. I was thrilled beyond words, and my grin was big enough to bite my ears. But the important thing is that I talked myself through every single portion of the solo, as I had through nearly all portions of my training to this point. This is attributable to good training – and I thank my CFI. I look forward to future training, learning and milestones. Thanks for letting me into the club. 🙂

    • This is not about my first solo but about someone I sent on their first solo. His name was Bill. He arrived at the small flying school where I did part time instructing in between teaching airline pilots on a Boeing 737 flight simulator. His first flight was a disaster, Bill being so nervous he would try to hang on to me even on gentle turns. He was convinced he would fall out of the Cessna 150 we were flying. When it came to stalling, he simply refused to do one. I had to inveigle him by asking him to keep an eye out for eagles that I said I had seen near his let wing tip. Of course there were no eagles but at least it distracted his attention while I quietly raised the nose of the Cessna and did an ever so gentle stall. He never noticed it until I explained we had just stalled and recovered while he was looking for eagles. He was happy to practice stalls after that.
      A few lessons later we started circuit training. During all our flying Bill was twitchy on the controls with his hands shaking and quivering and the Cessna would shake and quiver all around the circuit. On take off his feet would shake like someone with Parkinsons causing the rudder to oscillate almost uncontrollably. He always stayed in the centre of the runway on take off using the law of averages. In other words plus or minus six feet either side of the centreline. It was quite mesmerising to watch. For all this however, Bill did safe landings and judged the flare and hold off perfectly with no twitch. But as soon as all wheels were on the ground his rudder would flap all the way to when we stopped. After just 8 hours I thought it was time to let him go solo. Bill immediately became alarmed and tried to stop me from leaving the aircraft. We had been already lined up with pretake off drills completed. I was ready for him this time and said “Bill, I am busting for a piss – so I can’t argue with you, so off you go for just one circuit and pick me up back here after you land because I don’t want to walk half a mile back to the club house. He looked at me was stunned and opened his mouth to say something. I slammed my door shut,gave him a thumbs up and walked away not looking back. It must have shocked him into reality and I watched from directly behind as he started his take off run.

      Well, it was the funniest thing I ever saw as the Cessna took off with its rudder furiously flapping left to right and I watched as it lifted off with ailerons and rudder furiously wobbling. His approach to land was steady and sure and I was mightily relieved to see a smooth touch down. As expected the rudder flapping started during his landing roll. Bill had forgotten all about me in his excitement on going solo and left me to walk the half mile back to the aero club. It was only then that I felt the real need to have a nervous one and the windsock was handy.
      I congratulated Bill on a perfect first solo and added I was expecting him to have a lot of trouble learning to land. He told me landing never worried him because he flew radio controlled model aircraft and knew all about flare technique and smooth hold off’s. No wonder his first solo was so confident.

  • My first solo was almost identical to Dick’s experience only it occurred in 1967 in a J-3 Cub. Well ok, I wasn’t a juvenile delinquent and I had no idea what a stationary front was let alone if there was one somewhere in North America that caused the crosswind.

  • Dick, love to hear about my home area, my first lessons were in Fordyce at the old airport in an old 150, solo’d in Pine Bluff in ’63 at age of 16, bought a champ and kept it at Camden while checking out, then to the new Fordyce field. 40 years later I still have it along with a RV4 here in Hickory, NC.

  • Hi Jim:

    My father built that old airport at Fordyce and kept airplanes there in the early 30s. I later used it a lot and told my father that the trees had sure grown. It was 1,400 feet long and had to be used with great care. FYI, the airport actually had a name: Carroll Cone Field.

  • Hi Jim:
    I remember my solo like it was yesterday it was April 14,1968 my 17 birthday.I had received a new shirt an pants from my mom an $20 from my older brother.Great now I had some more money to put toward my flying which I loved to do.I called my local FBO at Greenville Downtown Airport In Greenville,S.C. to see if I could get an airplane an instructor.I was lucky an airplane was avalable an also an instructor John Allen who was the Chief Pilot
    an head instructor for Greenville Aviation.Cherokee 140 SN 2220N was waiting for me tanks full an gleaming in the morning sun lite.I went to the office to sign for the keys an get Pilots Ops Manual an Ray said let me see your log to check it out.Ray wasn’t my normal CFI.My CFI was on a charter to N.Y. City an wouldn’t be back till late on the 15th.I gave Ray my log an went to preflight 20N an in a few minutes here comes Ray an we climbed in an he said lets get going we are wasting day lite so we did the prestart checklist fired her up,called tower an taxed to runway 36 to takeoff.Ray said when we get
    cleared tell the tower straight out departure for training area.I did run up an told tower ready for takeoff an was cleared for takeoff straight out just as we passed thru 1600ft which is 600ft agl Ray reduced power an I said I have engine failure an I knew at 6ooft I couldn’t return to airport ,not enough altitude to complete 360 an be able to land so I set up for best glide speed 90mph an continued straight ahead .Ray called tower to let them no what we were doing because we were still in there TCA.I setup for an approach into a grave yard that was just off my noise about a half mile at 300ft agl Ray gave me my throttle back said I had done a good job an we would have survived the forced landing. This made me feel great Ray Allen the hardest CFI at Greenville Aviation an he had given me a complement an that made me fell so good that all the stalls and everything else he thru at me in the training area went without a hitch.After about a half hr we went back to Greenville to do some touch an goes an on short final Ray said make this a full stop so I called the tower an told them I would be full stop.I made a greaser and taxed off midfield an Ray said for me to go to the tower parking area as I taxied into parking area Ray said I want you to take off an do 3 touch an goes an then come over here an pick me up.I couldn’t believe my ears here I was with less than 6 hrs total time an I was getting to solo.I shut her down me an Ray got out.I did a quick walk around,checked fluid levels an got back in,fired her up called tower taxied to runway 36 for departure an here I go on my first takeoff alone in an airplane which I had been dreaming about most of my life.The feeling to me is one of the best feelings I have ever had in my 60 years of living.All at once I thought something was wrong I had become airborne before I should have.Then I remembered I don’t have the instructor’s weight on board anymore so that’s why I departed sooner. I settled down an flew the L.H. pattern rolled out of my turn to final a little wide an high but I knew that I could make up for that extra altitude by reducing my power to idle a little earlier than usual. I closed my throttle added my last notch of flaps ,setup my final at 90mph as I crossed the numbers I began my flair an about 5ft I fell through touched down hard an decided to go around applied full power an here I go for my second attempt to make a good landing.Wen I turned downwind I made sure I was at pattern attitude 1800msl 800agl reduced power to 2000rpm now I’m setup for my 90mph approach speed. As I came abeam of my touchdown point I reduced my power an called turning base and when I turned onto final this time I was right on the money 400ft an 1/2 mile. I saw I had runway made right on the numbers I kept reducing my power to keep my 800fpm decent going I began my flair at 50ft an touched down on the numbers an instantly received a call from the tower quit landing on the numbers cost a lot of money to repaint them ,an I just laughed out loud.To this day every time I land in Greenville I land on the numbers just to have fun with the tower.Well back to my solo.I applied power for my touch an go an away I go for my third circuit of the field.All the way around all I could thank of was this last final approach of the day should be my best of the day because I had to make a full stop landing.I flew the entire pattern right on the numbers an touched down just pass numbers on runway 36 an made 2nd turnoff.Tower called an said Ray wanted me to taxi to south ramp to meet him.I taxied to ramp parked an shutdown engine an all at once here were all of the people from Greenville Aviation waiting for me to get out.As I got off the step two CFI’s grabbed me an cut off the tail of my new shirt my mother had just given to me 3hrs ago.We all laughed an had coffee an cake.I told Ray he would have to call my mom about my new shirt an he did.I’ve lost most of my friends from Greenville Aviation but when I lost Ray Allen one of my best friends I was heart broken I want ever forget my best friend an my first solo.Thanks Jerry

  • I am the youngest of 4 siblings. As such, I saw what “rebelliousness” bought you with the goings ons of my older siblings. So my tale has no “rebel” in it. I was just determined to find the airport and see an airplane. I was 13 and it was summertime. My friends and I had been doing some big bike rides east of town (into the country) all week. I decided that we needed to explore the west side of town. In fact, I wanted to go all the way to the airport (KROC) which was all the way on the west side of the city of Rochester, NY. All of my friends dropped out, so I went by myself. Google maps did not exist in 1972 so I utilized my trusty Rand McNally road atlas to plot out my trip. It required traveling one of the busiest roads through Rochester. It was scary as hell, but I was determined. It took about an hour and a half to get there. I had looked up the flight school in the Yellow Pages of the phone book so I knew where to find it. When I walked into the Ray Hylan School of Aeronautics, I asked to be shown an airplane. CFI Bob Mansfield was kind enough to show this youngster a Cherokee 140. I never heard a word he said. I was too busy soaking up all of the sights and sounds that were occurring around me. We eventually walked back inside the school and I jumped back on my bike for the ride back to town.

    Two weeks later, I told my mom about my trip. After she calmed down, I told her I wanted to go back for an Introductory Ride (all of $10 at the time). She had no idea what a momentous occasion this would turn out to be. She drove me back out to the flight school and I had my Introductory Ride. The stars must have moved into alignment because I had found my calling at the tender age of 13. I now KNEW that I wanted to be a pilot. I also knew that the PPL was just the first ticket on the way to many more.

    Being the last of four children, my parents were tapped out. Flying lessons are expensive $24/hr, wet), so I only flew once a month. I found out through Bob that old man Hylan liked to hire young teens to work as lineboys. It took 4 months of whining, cajoling, and begging, to get Bob to introduce me to the Director of Operations. He was a former lineboy himself. He could see how eager I was, so he hired me. Lineboys did not get paid cold hard cash. They worked a certain number of hours to get an hour of instruction. Lineboys did not fly with only one instructor. We flew with whoever was available at the time.

    Since I was 13 when I started, it was a long 3 years to get to my solo. I had 153.2 hours logged when I did my first solo. It was such a big deal, a reporter for one of the Rochester rags came out to take my picture and interview me. At the end of the day, I had soloed 3 different airplanes. To top it off, I was signed off for each one by Ray Hylan himself. Although the day was exciting, it was anti-climactic for me. I was so full of confidence by then and I had no fear. I learned all about fear much latter and it was only through my students as they battled theirs that I learned about it.

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