My best hour – and I wasn’t even flying!

I’ve often thought that the day of my first solo, April 6, 1996, would be the most memorable of my flying career. I had a whopping five hours of dual logged when I climbed into “Super Chicken,” Skyhawk N172SC, for my three trips around the pattern at Mount Sterling (KIOB). It was equal parts exhilaration and apprehension. I felt nothing could ever top that final landing and having my shirt tail cut by my instructor, Col. Burnside. But, 19 years later, I learned how wrong I was.

Joseph Kirwan watching son land
Pride, anticipation, apprehension and more – just another day at the office for a father.

The morning was cool. The sun was out and not a cloud was in the sky. April 21, 2015. It was the morning of my oldest’s 16th birthday. Jack and I had been flying most all of his life, but the past year, by his choice, we started really focusing on his flying. His classroom? Piper Warrior N2866W.

So, on that April morning, I asked Jack if he wanted to solo or go get his driving permit like all his friends were doing on their birthdays. Jack’s answer came quickly: “Let’s go to the airport!”

Being an instructor is a true blessing. I’ve had the joy of teaching lots of folks to fly, but watching your son taxi out for his first solo cannot be described. All the pride and excitement you feel while the hesitation from that little voice in your head keeps asking, “Did I adequately teach him everything he really needs to know? Man, his mother’s going to kill me if I didn’t!”

The radio call to Tower was made, he lined up, and I could hear him adding power. As Jack rotated for his first solo takeoff, everything was in slow motion. The nose wheel lifted away from the pavement, and the plane rode on its mains until the wind grabbed the wing and she broke free.

Hiding in the background so as not to make Jack nervous, family and close friends walked out of the FBO to come stand on the ramp with me. In no time at all, the Warrior was on short final cleared for a touch-n-go. The landing was textbook, the flaps were retracted, the power came up, and off she went for another trip around the patch.

Three generations shirt tail
Father cuts son’s shirt tail, with grandfather watching.

Everyone was excited, tears were flowing, and pictures were being taken. What made it genuinely special was that Jack’s grandfather, my father, was standing by me watching the whole thing. No words were exchanged; they didn’t have to be. Last of the great stoics, Pop was still recovering from a massive stroke and he was determined to be present. Of the three generations of Kirwan men at the airport that morning, I’m not sure to whom Jack’s solo meant the most.

A second touch-n-go and then one final pattern was left. As Jack came in for his last landing, the mains touched down ever so gently and a voice came over my transceiver from Tower with “Warrior six-six-whiskey turn left at Juliet. Contact Ground point eight. Congratulations.” He had done it. My son had arrived. Truly.

I thought nothing could ever top the feeling of my own solo. How wrong I was.

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