Solo in every sense of the word

The other day I was cleaning out the drawers in an old dresser and unfolded a green button-down shirt, ruined by having been defaced with a marker and having one tail cut off. Why did I save this thing? I made out some words on the garment that jogged my memory and started my mind to wandering…

It was late April, and the early morning sun was warming my skin and hinting that the extended winter was behind us as I got ready for the one-hour trip to the airport. The mild weather was welcome, as my student-pilot enthusiasm was wearing thin doing preflights in the wind tunnel of a packed-dirt ramp alongside the grass runway and talking airplanes with the old-timers in the unheated flight shack.

On the drive to the airport, my head was filled with excitement, anticipation, and a little bit of fear. My home base was then called Edwards Airport and it is a grass field with a 2,740 ft. runway according to the charts; most of the time the wind favored a slightly angled takeoff run, which effectively reduced runway length to about 2,300 ft.

On the way to Edwards, I passed at least two other much larger, more conventional regional airports with modern facilities and 8,000-10,000 ft. runways. But Edwards, through some serendipitous life events, was where I ended up, and I was nearing the time when most of my contemporaries had been cut loose for their first supervised solo flight. Will today be the day? That was the self-posed question en route to each lesson and it tied a knot in my gut.

Cessna takeoff
The performance really is better without a flight instructor on board.

I rolled into the airport, parked my car past the ramp area and took the three steps up on the flight shack porch in one giant stride. My instructor, Richie, was already there and assigned me to my airplane, a Cessna 150, and I promptly jumped back out onto the ramp, did my preflight and waited for him in the plane. Richie was building time toward his dream of being a jet jockey. He spoke in clipped sentences, neither enthusiastic nor disinterested. He was already as professional as the captains whose job you knew someday would be his.

He climbed into the airplane, adjusted his Ray-Bans and buckled in.

“Clear!”

The engine came to life and I tested the carb heat, mixture and magnetos and checked the brakes as we rolled over to the runway. Checking the altimeter, I lined up with the imaginary centerline and added power. After a few hundred feet of bouncing over the dirt and grass, the wings started to grab air and we made the transition from jostling farm tractor to aircraft. Once aloft, expecting to pick up a heading toward the practice area over the Great South Bay, I was puzzled that we stayed in the traffic pattern, until I realized what it likely meant.

We shot three practice takeoffs and landings and my heart raced after the third landing as I saw Richie open the door while we were still in the runway environment, unfasten his seatbelt and jump out.

“OK, just do the same thing you just did. I’ll be waiting for you here.”

Our little airport had no control tower – not even a Unicom – so I was solo in every sense of the word. Although the Cessna 150 is a simple airplane, at my level of experience I was too busy with procedures to be nervous. Routine is a friend, I found, under these conditions.

As I applied full throttle I was amazed at how short my takeoff run was, sans the 175 lb. instructor. At 500 feet I checked my landmarks, checked the altimeter, checked for traffic and eased the yoke and rudder into a right turn for the right hand traffic pattern. I overshot my altitude a little on downwind, thrown off by the increased performance. I adjusted and turned base, checking the tachometer and the altimeter and I was right where I wanted to be as I turned final and lowered full flaps.

Solo shirt tails
Each shirt tail has a story to tell…

I reduced power: how do those trees look at the end of the runway? I’ve got this. I reduced power fully. Nose down a little, ok, now flare, easy, flare, easy-easy-bump-rumble, we’re down, ease the brakes. Only now did I notice Richie, clipboard in hand, arms folded. I pulled the airplane over to the tie-down, and he opened the door and seemingly looking for something, managed a “good job” without making eye contact. It wasn’t aloofness, it was just as if he expected nothing less of me.

The attitude in the flight shack was a bit more ceremonial as someone grabbed the scissors, cut the tail from the shirt I just found the other half of, wrote my name on it and thumbtacked to the wall with countless others. They wrote the date on it also: April 27, 1974, two months shy of my 21st birthday, 40+ years ago and although I’m starting to have trouble remembering where I put my keys, the details of that morning are as fresh as they were on the very next day.

While I may no longer climb into the left seat often, the young man who, through a newly acquired sense of discipline and dedication, faced a fear and made it into a challenge that could be met; that young guy is still very much alive inside an older man whose eyes still shift upward at the sound of an airplane engine.

4 Comments

  • In some ways this brought me back through years of memories into the mid 60’s and my own mid 20’s. A little grass strip outside Austin, Texas, and a J-3. Eagle’s Nest or Eagle’s Landing… I don’t recall, but have little doubt it long since succumbed to some housing development. I’d have to go dig out my log books to find the tail number. Maybe I’ll do that and check the FAA web site to see if that little bird has survived in any form. I suppose my instructor was about my own age, and owned the J-3. No doubt, he was looking ahead to make his way into the majors. Preflight, take off, a couple maneuvers, and 2 or 3 landings. Then he unbuckled and popped the door. I protested. I did so because I thought I could always feel him adjusting the stick on my landings. He persisted that I was ready, so I reluctantly climbed into the back seat. The first thing I noticed on climb out was how far away from me the instrument panel was from my usual perspective… and how quickly I climbed. I was struck by how good my landings were… rolled the wheels on, and no sense that the instructor’s hand was adjusting my approach on short final or flare. Taxi back to the hanger and shut it down. He signed my logbook, and handed it back with a handshake. All relatively unceremoniously, and as I recall, my shirt remained intact. My reluctance to solo wasn’t without complete foundation. I’ve talked with others with as little time, and some even less, in the logbook, but when I added mine up it came to 6.5 hours. Perhaps that was actually typical. Such is the simplicity of a J-3 at a little country grass strip in a simpler time. Wish I could go back to it.

    • Well, to correct myself, after publishing my comment I realized my timeline could not have been correct, so I dug out that old logbook. Solo was the day of my 8th lesson over a 2-month period in April, 1969. My, how time flies. And, yes, according to the FAA Registry, that little bird is still in action, and currently based in Springtown, Texas. That brings a smile.

  • Thanks Macon for your comments and memories. There’s just something about a grass strip, or even a picture of one, that uncovers the feelings that allow us to relive experiences from decades past.

  • So your solo was 5 yrs before mine then. We had a J-3 there also which I later flew sometimes but when I was taking instruction the shift toward tricycle gear had already occurred.

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