Getting airborne in an aircraft all by oneself for the first time is an exhilarating and memorable occasion for most pilots. Depending on the training environment in which the event takes place, it can mean losing a tie, getting doused with water, or submitting to a variety of other means used to mark this important rite of passage. Going solo is much more than a first kiss, a first pair of long pants, or getting your driver’s license. It is right up there with becoming a parent or knowing you’re on the fast track to promotion. It’s an emotional happening that you can only experience once regardless of the number of aircraft that you subsequently command. As the famed French philosopher, Jacques Hirondelle, once said: “Les amateurs peuvent venir ou aller, mais seulement de vol en solo se passe une fois.”
My brother Steve and I were contemplating the veracity of the above philosophical statement when he informed me that he had soloed in just over three hours in New Zealand. Now, this is quite unusual as the norm is more in the range of five to seven hours and my brother has been known to become a bit loose with the truth after using up the top third of a bottle of 12-year old Appleton Estate rum. However, it started me thinking about my own tortured path to that exalted state. My road had started with the simple act performed by hundreds of other prairie boys before me with the completion and mailing of an advertisement from the local paper: “Send me information about joining the RCAF.”
After passing the mandatory physical examinations in Calgary, a subsequent selection process in Crumlin, and 12 weeks of ground training in Centralia, it was time to take to the air. It should be noted at this point that, like many back in the 1950s, I had never flown in an aircraft. My only periods off the earth were experienced on top of my Uncle Henry’s retired horse, Mary, and my landings from her back were not always at a time of my choosing. But I am ahead of myself.
My first trip in the air force trainer of the period, the Chipmunk, was a revelation. As I subsequently wrote home to my mother that evening, “I had my first trip today. It was easy. I think I am a natural pilot.” It wasn’t until later that I found out that following through on the controls whilst listening to an explanation of their effects can’t really be called flying. That trip culminated in the instructor demonstrating a landing with me “following through.” It was the best landing I would accomplish for several more hours.
Now, I shouldn’t leave the impression that I couldn’t control the aircraft. By trip three, I could point the aircraft down the runway during the takeoff roll and generally manage to keep the nose aimed in the proper direction, even when the tail was elevated to the horizontal position.
For those in the know, the propeller acts like a gyroscope and raising the tail on a conventional-geared aircraft results in the aircraft trying to run off the runway regardless of what is done to the steering wheel. To further complicate things, the designer of the Chipmunk had decided to install the engine upside-down, a procedure that somehow made the propeller run backwards when compared to North American aircraft. This had the effect of making the aircraft zig when you were expecting a zag. Although the reaction is a product of simple physics, by the time one had processed the necessary formula required to counter the excursion, the aircraft was usually well on its way to clearing a path through the sagebrush and quack grass.
In concert with the successful trundle down the runway, the post takeoff, climb, climbing turns, slow flight, and even stalls were handled with reasonable proficiency and dispatch. The return to the circuit–overhead, downwind, and base–were all executed with adequate control of power, altitude, and airspeed and all in their proper places. Which brings me to an aviation mantra that states: “A good landing starts with a good approach.” That is just plain twaddle! I had some of the best approaches going but the end result usually involved my instructor having to intercede to protect a vital part of his anatomy. So, what was the problem?
Most final approaches continue towards the runway at a rather constant angle of descent and airspeed to a position short of landing area. Wind dependent, this location represents the point of a power reduction and an initial increase in angle of attack that trades airspeed for altitude; the aim being to touch down at the intended landing point with zero sink rate at an airspeed just above the stall.
Generally, this is a simple maneuver using information acquired from visual cues and the proprioceptive receptors (which is a fancy way of saying you judge and adjust your sink rate using information from your tummy organs and Mark One Eyeballs). Or so the theory goes. I just know that my instructor would go on and on about sink, until one afternoon, after several minutes of expanding on this subject whilst waiting for our turn to get airborne again, my instructor stopped and said, “Do you know what I’m talking about?” When I admitted that I was ignorant on that subject; my instructor was just starting another round of explanation when the tower informed us that it was our turn to go flying.
Things continued in this fashion for another four hours of training after which my instructor conducted a risk analysis of my capabilities and decided that the aircraft was stronger than I was and sent me solo even though my landings were still questionable. It appeared that I had excellent control of the aircraft up to, and including, the initial flare; but what happened after that was either none of my business or outside my sphere of influence.
Years later, I realized that this situation may have risen as a result of my exposure to my Uncle Henry’s horse, Mary, mentioned previously. Mary was not a pony by any stretch of the imagination; she was a workhorse: big, wide, and slow. Most of the time. You didn’t ride Mary as much as just get on and sort of point her head at something on the horizon. Mary was old, reluctant to leave the barn area, and couldn’t be urged at anything faster than a walk when heading away from home plate; however, once turned around on the return trip, the walk could be come a canter, and the canter a gallop.
Unfortunately, Mary would not heed any calls to ameliorate her headlong streak for home until she was back in the barn yard again; at which time her sudden stop at the water trough or a hay bale would unceremoniously unseat her rider, usually in an arcing trajectory over her head. Occurring at a young age, this chain of events may have planted in my psyche the idea that I had some control over the going, but absolutely no control over the returning.
Whatever it was, my recalcitrant proprioceptive receptors would continue to plague me throughout my Chipmunk training. So much so, that I was assessed a “partial pass” on my final handling test; landings being the reason. This resulted in a total of six more hours in the circuit; two dual, and four solo. Finally, on 20 January 1958, a final handling re-test of 50 minutes was undertaken, mostly in the circuit. It did not go well. Not well at all. Even I was aware of that fact. Airplanes, even Chipmunks, are supposed to go “squeak” when they land; not make noises like the opening of Fibber McGee’s closet. (Ask your father)
However (and this is a big “however”), it was decided that there were some “Buzz Buerlings” like me who had trouble with the Chipmunk but went on to fly the next aircraft, the Harvard, without any problem at all. I never saw my test results, but they must have read that “Take-offs are exceptional: recommended for kamikaze duties.” And off I went to Moose Jaw.
My first trip in a Harvard occurred on 11 February, 1958 (my birthday, which I thought was an auspicious start) and was a familiarization trip. Upon returning to the circuit, my instructor demonstrated the landing. On short final, he closed the throttle and eased back on the stick to raise the nose and check his descent. As the speed fell, the aircraft started to sink… And I felt it.
I suddenly understood the emotion Newton experienced when he watched the apple fall from the tree and thought “Gravity.” Or why Archimedes would run naked through the streets of his hometown after watching his body displace water in his bath. I was in exalted company. I, too, had experienced an epiphany of sorts when my proprioceptive receptors started firing and I felt the aircraft sink. I was euphoric. However, remembering where I was and who I was with, I did not shout “Eureka.” Nor did I ever fail another flight test.