Going solo: a eureka moment

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.”

RCAF Chipmunk
The Chipmunk – a trainer that liked to “zig when you were expecting to zag.”

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.

First solo student
There’s not a better feeling in the world, is there?

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.

16 Comments

  • Laurent:

    I see you figured out the identity of the “famed French philosopher”.

    I thought that statement might make it into Wikipedia… Drat(;>0)

  • As is often said, there are 3 things that need to be done to guarantee a good landing every time. Only no one knows what they are.

    Not so facetiously, there are some things that do minimize the Fibber McGee effect. Good airspeed control is probably the most important, and that means as slow as is reasonable under the circumstances: 1.3 Vso, which varies according to the current gross weight. The rest is details–leveling off at the right altitude, raising the nose as the airplane begins to sink, holding it their until touchdown, etc.

    Cary

    • Cary:

      Would you believe that a short six years later, I became an “instructor of instructors” on the same aircraft? But, by then, I had become the Master Lander!

      John

  • John…great article. Reminds us of our roots. One thing, that old Gypsy Major didn’t run “backwards” because it was inverted. They ran clockwise as viewed from the front all the way back to the Gypsy Moth (which some of my hangar bum friends insist I trained in for my private). Think about it, inverting a turning shaft doesn’t change it’s direction of rotation. Your instuctor probably told you that and you didn’t want to argue. Walt

  • Walt:

    The “backwards because it was inverted” was tongue-in-cheek comment to confuse the uninitiated. Anyone like yourself would see through it right away! And you did.

    When many of us look back at our first few trips,we can’t believe it was that hard! Although, there are probably some “Sydney Smoothhands” out there who sailed through their initial training with nary a bobble. A pox on them! (;>0)

    John

  • John, thank you for an excellent article. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Luckily for me, I had very good instructors, (one with hand controls for rudder/brake use, as he was a paraplegic,) and all of them had no trouble demonstrating the “kiss of the tires” to me. Problem is, I’m not that good a student, from all appearances, as I still have to have plenty of practice to even come close to their expertise.

    • Doyle:

      I have found that becoming good at anything is a matter of repetition; the same advice given to musicians aspiring to play Carnegie Hall. (You know the old story “When asked by a pedestrian how to get to Carnegie Hall, the shabbily-dressed street musician responded ‘Practice, man; practice'”).

      I was lucky enough to enjoy my passion professionally and I’ve probably attacked a runway from every angle possible over the past fifty-odd years. So much so, that I’m not overly concerned about stability on the approach anymore; I know that there is a point just short of the runway at which I must have the aircraft in the attitude/speed/ configuration I need to effect a good landing. Anyone who has ever flown out of coastal airports where the fog can be fifteen-gusting thirty MPH, ninety degrees to the runway will know whereof I speak.

      Did you ever notice that the landing that drove the gear up through the wings was seen by half the members of your flying club, while the one in which you spun up the wheels in ground effect before easing down went completely unnoticed? It’s kismet, or something…

      Happy (and smooth) landings.

      John

  • Love the Chipmunk. I soloed in #069. The Chipmunk is always one I have wanted to go back to fly. I remember the Harvard in the next hangar at Centralia looking like a monster while I was still struggling thru the Chippie. The Harvard was probably there to keep us humble. Course 6205.

    • Terry:

      I well remember finding out that there was a Harvard or two in a hangar down the flight line and visiting them one evening while doing the Chipmunk course. They looked like fighters to we fledglings! And so big. Someone made the comment “We’ll be going on those next…”

      As things turned out, I thoroughly enjoyed my Harvard training; even “aced” the Wings Nav trip. Did not think much of the Sasakatchewan winters, though; especially in Great Coat and wedge cap. Course 5712.

      • John:

        I grew up in Saskatchewan and I agree it was cold. Never will forget Great Coats and Wedge Caps. Hard on the ears in Moosejaw. My buddy and I were talking airplanes and we quickly agreed Chippies, Harvards, T-33, C-45 and C-47 were a grand time. We were lucky to fly classics before moving on to newer stuff.

        Remember ice fog or hangar starts on Harvards at MJ?

        Terry

        • Terry:

          You know something? I don’t remember the ice fog,but I do remember the hangar starts. The same thing happened in Portage la Prairie on the T-33.

          When asked why we couldn’t have parkas like the rest of the world, it was explained that they were for use in the “North” and not for the likes of us in the banana belt of Saskatchewan.

          All the best

          John

  • John……in explaining gyroscopic precession, with the engine/prop turning clockwise, as viewed from the cockpit, as you raise the tail on takeoff, the apparent ‘force’ applied to the propeller ‘disc’, would be at the TOP of the prop disc, but gyroscopic precession dictates that the ‘force’ is rotated 90 degrees in the direction of prop rotation. In the above example,(clockwise prop rotation) the ‘force’ applied to he prop disc is now as a ‘push’ on the right side of the disc (as viewed by the pilot), and would tend to cause the nose to go to he left and require right rudder. This occurs DURING the act of raising the tail.

    In the case of the Chipmunk, with the prop turning counter-clockwise from the pilot’s viewpoint, the opposite would hold true, requiring the application of LEFT rudder to avoid the nose excursion to the right. Comprende’?

    • Jim:

      You are quite correct. The piece was written with my tongue firmly established in my cheek.

      As I remember, I didn’t have much trouble with the Chippy in the air or on the ground. It was that da*n transition that gave me the fits. It was fortunate that the powers that be decided to take a chance and let me continue training, for I did have some modest degree of success in later years. Although you wouldn’t know it from the little stories I tell…(;>0)

      Take care

      John

      • Thanks for your reply John…

        My instruction to a pre-solo student(1950s-60s-70s) re/ the flare and touchdown was to equate it to the power-off stalls (approach to landing stalls) we practiced at altitude, in that, we were trying to full-stall the airplane as close to terra firma as we could, and coaching the student to look off the left slope of the cowling while ‘holding it off’ with the necessary, increasing stick back pressure.

        Our pt. 141 flight school required 8 hrs.dual prior to solo, and for the really sharp student (many from Lehigh University), we had the time to teach wheel landings, slips to landing and cross-wind ldgs.

        In my 10,000 hrs. of dual given, much of it’primary’ flight training, of the many students I soloed, we had no unusual incidents of note. I religously said a prayer as the student taxxied back for his or her first solo, and, THAT in my mind helped a bunch.

        Jim (Former DPE, Pvt, Comm. and Multi-Eng.)

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