OSU airport
3 min read

The first solo is an event remembered clearly by most of us. This summer marks the 40th anniversary of that seminal event for me. As the years have blurred many of the details, two aspects remain crystal clear.

My goal in the summer of ’79 was to start my flight training, and solo before my 17th birthday in August. I managed to achieve that through The Ohio State University’s Flight Training Clinic, and the skill, effort, and seemingly endless patience of my flight instructor. I learned in one of OSU’s brand-new Cessna 152s, which were equipped with similarly brand-new, but decidedly less well thought of, ARC nav/coms. Occasionally, while on downwind for the north runway, these wonderful radios would suffer bleed-through from a nearby commercial radio transmitter.

So, that is how, while on my first solo downwind, drenched in sweat, and trying mightily not to do anything stupid, I was greeted by Rod Stewart, singing through the cabin speaker: “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” I did not think he was, and the fact that he was asking me that question only served to add an element of absurdity to the frightening reality at hand.

OSU airport

They taught me the airport diagram, but what about Rod Stewart?

I was hearing my CFI’s incessant calls for “Fly the airplane!” and “Watch your airspeed!” Unfortunately, at this moment, his voice in my head was in competition with Rod: “Come on, sugar, let me know.” To this day, when that song pops up on some oldies playlist, I pause briefly before reflexively reaching to change the station, and think about that flight.

Having somewhat successfully completed the requisite touch and go’s and full stop, I taxied back to the ramp. During the process of shutting-down, I began to feel a little bit like a guy on his birthday, with the expectation that a surprise party may well be awaiting him behind every closed door, and around every corner. I was aware of all of the time-honored first solo congratulatory rituals. Would it be champagne (probably not for a 16 year old), shirt-tail cutting and firm handshakes from all airport personnel?

Strangely, as I walked inside the flight school, I saw no evidence of any of this. I made my way to my CFI’s office, where I found him hunched over some paperwork at his desk. He looked up, and we had this memorable exchange: “How’d it go?” I replied that it had gone well. “Good. Let me have your logbook.” After he scribbled an entry, he left me with these parting words: “See you tomorrow.”

Trudging out to the parking lot, I paused at the fence, and looked at the airplane I had just flown… by myself! I may not have been aware of it then, but in retrospect, I was learning a lesson about this avocation. Flying, pleasure flying certainly, is a largely personal pursuit. We share the experience of flying with others, but the satisfaction we feel after a well-executed flight is ours, and ours alone. So, even though my parents were not all that impressed at my news (they had been through this with my older brother a few years earlier), my girlfriend just thought the whole thing was insane, and there was no social media through which to trumpet my accomplishment, it didn’t matter to me. I knew what it had taken for me to reach that goal.

Dave Gampfer
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5 replies
  1. Dan
    Dan says:

    Dave, I loved your story! Much like my own first solo! However, after flying for less than a year after getting my license (at 17), “life” took over and I didn’t fly for over 40 years. I got current 5 years ago, but nobody in our family (including my wife), and close friends appreciates flying like I do!

  2. Joel Godston
    Joel Godston says:

    Great True-to-Life story Dave…thanks for sharing it. My first flight was in a ‘souped up’ Piper Cub was on February 2, 1956 in Air Force Pilot Training, class of 57H. The day I was to solo, the instructor wanted to be sure I could ‘handle’ the airplane… so he instructed me to do a ‘high speed’ taxi down the runway before he exited the airplane. Well, during the ‘event’ while on the rudder pedals I got on the brakes turning us upside down and coming to a VERY rapid stop. With fuel dripping down on me and the instructing me to get the H _ _ L out of the Piper Cub…which we did. I received a ‘pink slip’ for that flight and was to be ‘Washed-Out’ of Pilot Training. I met the Review Board stating that since I was an Aeronautical Engineer, and would work in the Aviation “World” after my Ar Force active duty was complete; it would be good for me to know ‘first hand’ what pilots would have …so the Review Board decided to give me another opportunity. I completed Air Force Pilot Training and received my wings…. flying for 50+ years in the Air Force, Mass ANG, and owning and flying a Cessna 182.

  3. David Yonker
    David Yonker says:

    Dave great name by the way, I too soled in 1979. I did not have as much confidence in my ability as my instructor did, thankfully he was the wiser of the two of us. I’m on my second Mooney now and I have never regretted one moment of flying. I still fly to this day with my best friend who also soloed that same year. We both still love flying, you make a great point we both fly for our enjoyment not to impress others or for their entertainment. Our girlfriends then wives never ever got use to or enjoyed flying like we did, they required drugs in order to fly with us.

    I had a real fear of getting lost at first, now we try to get lost. Once flew 600 miles back home from Jackson Hole Wyoming with just the DG, no VOR or GPS I knew the area well but it was still a fun test.

  4. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Sad that you didn’t get a celebratory congratulations from your instructor, the cut-off shirttail, and at least a firm handshake from some friends! I feel sorry, really, for those so preoccupied with life that the thrill of personal flight is never attempted. I was fortunate to have my older brother as my CFI who was demanding yet encouraging. I wrote an article for Air Facts Journal sharing my foils as a student pilot and new private. I am sure a lesser instructor may have allowed me to get myself hurt due to his/her lazy attitude, but so good was my CFI’s instruction and decision making detail that in spite of some mistakes I made the right decisions. In spite of the less than enthusiastic response to your first solo I hope you continue to be enthused about piloting an aircraft. I have printed on my personal checks the phrase “The Sky is waiting for those with the passion to soar with eagles!” Be proud fellow aviator!

  5. Dave
    Dave says:

    Just so there is no misunderstanding, the lack of a celebration was not a big deal to me, just kind of unexpected. I have nothing but fond memories of my primary CFI, and many of the things he taught me, and the manner in which he did so, are still with me every time I fly.


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