First and last solo

My new student had about 10 hours of training instruction at our neighboring airport, Trinca, which was about four miles south. A small grass airport that had its roots in the late 1930s, Trinca had only a handful of airplanes, mostly of the Piper Cub variety, and was managed by Ernie Billows.

Ernie was an experienced flight instructor and his aviation background was extensive. He was a lot older than I, perhaps in his 50s at the time, whereas I was only about 27. Because of the age difference, or perhaps for other reasons, we never had the occasion to speak to each other. As it turns out, I should have made the effort. I’m sure he thought of us over at Aeroflex as the spoiled kids with all the expensive airplane toys. He would have been right in thinking that.

Aeroflex-Andover airport
Should be plenty of runway for landing a 150.

Glen showed up at our airport one afternoon to talk about taking flying lessons. To be more correct, it was to resume flying lessons. He explained he trained with Ernie in a Cessna 150 at Trinca and had been flying with Ernie for about 10 hours of flight instruction. As Glen told it, Ernie felt, at this point in his training, he had no aptitude for flying airplanes and Ernie wanted to discontinue flying with Glen.

Ernie said he should go elsewhere for training or quit entirely. Glen wondered if I would fly with him and see if I agreed that he should stop flying or continue, and to see where it took us. I agreed that I would certainly fly with him and give him an honest evaluation of his potential.

We began training in our Cessna 150. I explained that in spite of his having 10 hours of instruction behind him that we would start at the beginning of the curriculum. We would begin with the basic maneuvers: turns, climbs, glides, steep turns, wind correction exercises and stalls, then to the traffic pattern for landings and takeoffs. Since he had previous experience, my thought was that we would probably move through these stages quickly.

Glen’s flying performance surprised me. I think I expected to see obvious ineptitude which would have been convenient for me to just conclude that Ernie was right and I could tell Glen that flying was not for him. Instead, his flying was normal in all respects; not perfect, but up to par with most students in this stage of flying.

Because he came to me with a history of training difficulties, it now meant that I had many additional judgments to make as we moved on with his training. If I were not aware of these earlier training problems, I believe my thinking would have been simpler.

Moving to the traffic pattern, takeoffs and landings proved to be quite easy. Since he was hearing the coaching and procedure instructions for the second time, we moved to the mechanics of the takeoffs and landings quickly. Again, while not perfect, he flew the airplane confidently and seemed to have a complete understanding of what was going on.

This final day he was flying the airplane without difficulty. The criterion I use that is important to me in judging landing performance by students is this: lucky good landings in calm wind conditions don’t count. I prefer to see the student, after being out of position due to a wind gust or other factors, be able to correct with the controls or small power changes to bring the airplane to a good, safe landing. This is very important to me. This day Glen was doing just that. He made three impressive landings on runway 3 at Andover.

As we taxied back for another takeoff I wondered to myself: “If I did not know of the previous difficulties Glen had and if he were a student I had from the start, would I have concerns about soloing him now? Should I impose a different performance standard for Glen? If not today, what day would we be waiting for?”

We stopped the 150 on the taxiway short of the runway. I unbuckled my seatbelt and opened the door and was standing outside when I said: “Glen, fly it around the pattern once by yourself and after you land come back here and talk to me. I’ll be standing here waiting for you. Enjoy your flight.” I had seen the painful expression on students’ faces at just this time before, but Glen’s expression was particularly bad. It stopped me for a second, but I continued on, closed the airplane door, and walked away.

Glen taxied the airplane to the center of the paved runway, opened the throttle, and away he went. When the nosewheel was raised and the 150 became airborne, I knew instantly that I had made a big mistake. I could see the elevator control pulsing up and down. The airplane’s pitch went from 10 degrees nose up, then level, then nose up again. As the airplane moved to the downwind leg, I could not discern what the airplane was doing. Oh, for the days yet to come when I would have had a handheld radio with me to talk to Glen!

There was no time to run to the operations office and talk on Unicom. It was too far away. I could see the airplane clearly now, since it was on the base leg for landing. Things were wrong. It sounded like the engine was at about half-throttle, way too much power to descend and land from that position.

I had the clearer view of the airplane as it turned on to final. This was not going to work. The throttle was still somewhere near half power and I could see that the flaps were still set to 10 degrees. Glen seemed to be diving the airplane towards the runway using just the elevator, ignoring his very high airspeed and power setting. He seemed to be thinking, “I want down and I want down NOW!”

Cessna 150
Flaps do help a Cessna 150 land better.

When the airplane reached a few feet above the paved runway Glen pushed further forward on the control yoke and forced the nose of the airplane on to the runway. The first to hit the ground was the propeller and engine cowling, followed by the nosewheel, which folded like butter.

Because of the high speed of the airplane, it was sliding along the pavement in the same attitude as it was when it first struck the ground. Then it began a gradual turn to the right, leaving the paved runway and entering the grass that borders the runway. Because of the friction from the grass and ground, the airplane stopped with the nose straight down in the dirt with the tail perfectly straight up. The airplane poised there as if making up its mind which way to go and it decided to go all the way over on to its back.

I ran to the upside-down airplane and through the dust and dirt I watched Glen climbing out of the cockpit. It’s not easy when the airplane is upside down. He broke everything in his path as he fought his way out. It didn’t matter. The airplane was trashed. I got to the airplane just as Glen was stepping off the rear side of the wing, across the flap. He saw me standing there and as he was beating the dirt off his clothing he said to me, obviously sarcastically, “Great pilot aren’t I, Bob?” I said, returning the sarcasm, “Yes Glen. You are a really good pilot.”

The events that immediately followed this accident are gone from my memory. The airplane was moved from the accident site to the hangars by our maintenance personnel. We filed the proper accident reports with the FAA and it was decided what we would do with the remains of the Cessna 150, but I remember none of the details.

Glen could not explain anything he did on that short flight. Every question I asked him he said, “I don’t know.”

“Why didn’t you close the throttle for landing like we had done all the times before?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why didn’t you extend the flaps for landing like we’d done?”

“I don’t know.”

Ernie Billows was way ahead of me on this one. He saw something in Glen that I didn’t see. It makes me think that there’s some real benefit to being in your 50s.

12 Comments

  • Great story! I was Ernie “Pete” Billows (don’t ever call him Ernie!) last student before he hung it up… He was certainly a task master… I responsed well to his no nonsense, sometimes harsh, method of instruction… Many did not and that’s OK. He taught me the most important things about flying… FLY THE PLANE…. And that you don’t need the instruments as much as you think you do… I’m a Captain at a major airline now and still think of Pete Billows teachings every time I fly. I’m also restoring the Piper Cub that I learned to fly in at Trinca with Pete.

    • I did my Private with Pete at Trinca during the summer of 1995…I don’t think he wore a shirt the whole summer! Looking back I realize he was a great instructor, he gave me the foundation for the rest of my flying career.
      Trinca is the only airport in the world with a calibrated takeoff ” bump” halfway down the runway!

  • This is a really interesting albeit sad story. I imagine this student was really struggling with confidence in the cockpit. That being said I feel he should have been more open about his predicament. I am so glad to hear that everyone was ok after the accident. Fantastic story Robert thank you for sharing.

  • Timothy raises a good point about confidence. While Billows was obviously a good judge of capability, did his way of scrubbing Glen become a self-fulfilling prophecy by sapping the confidence out of him? Glen seemed to do OK during ab initio training, but nothing like a first solo to really start questioning your abilities.

  • Of all stories to read. I knew where Trinca airport was many a time I landed A PT22 and Cub in there. My family owned Flanders Valley Airport. The cub I soloed in sat up in a Trinca hangar with a Waco UPF 7 finally Lowell Miller sold them the Cub wend to Andover Aeroflex lost track from there. I remember flying the Old Link trainer Pete helped me out with that seems like it was for the cub $8.00 hr wet.

  • Okaaaay, the whole time I’m reading the story I’m thinking, “Why didn’t you call Ernie/Pete and ASK him about this student and why there was such a problem?” I mean, it seems kind of obvious. Because if it were me, I’d have been on the phone to Ernie the minute the kid left after his first visit.

    • Great story and I have to say that 10 hours dual is really not enough time to judge the ability of a student. Primary instruction is the most critical phase of pilot training. I heard many instructors I run into that say “they hate primary” and do it because they have to!

      Unfortunately the biggest problem with primary instruction is the risk evolved and the idea out there that a pilot has to get his solo done!

      Liability and sue happy lawyers have always caused problems for us all in aviation. So IMO the solo phase is next to the last thing I do.

      This way the risk is small. The student is confident and well trained for most situations that could occur.

      Lastly I remember when I soloed a cub at Zahns Airport in 1969. I had 17 hours over a six month period. I was a littler scared and managed to solo ok. I also remember my student friends commenting that “what took your so long” They soloed in 9 hours………

  • Great Story Bob! I can imagine the anxiety of watching that flight and the resultant outcome. I can also relate to the second guessing both before and after but to judge by todays standards and todays life views is not only unfair but also counter productive. For those of you that have read Bob’s stories and then read these comments I would like to tell you Ive know Bob since 1985 when he hired me to fly for Champion Paper Company. Bob is not only a great pilot but also a life long student of the science, art and wisdom of flying. The evidence is his continued writing and sharing of events not with any judgments or heroic deeds of his own but the simple presentation of the facts laying it all out there for us to observe and use for our own food for further learning. Thanks Bob I’ve learned a lot from you…. Would love to read more of your stories …. keep’em coming …. Hint.. everybody loves Beech 18 stories.

  • Was sixteen years younger and learning to fly a J-:3 on skis in Vermont the winter of 42/;3. My instructor was a very stout gentle man so I really never did get to see the instrument panel. I remeber on down wind he shut the mags off and slightly turning in his seat said “quiet isn’t it” after landing he climb out to start the engine and suggested the airplane would be some what livelier! I remember being ecstatic at finally going solo!

  • When I soloed a 152, my instructor was over 200 lbs. Me at the time, 155. When he got out, the 152 performed like a rocket ship. This I wasn’t prepared for. Certainly not on a solo. Anyway, I did as I was taught, instructed, and trained. My landings were not perfect, nor the best. But I did it! As I furthered my training, I sure learned to respect and deal with weight and balance……..

  • Sending someone solo for the first time,no mater their perceived skill level. Is always a big anxiety time for the instructor.
    Your always thinking, have you covered everything. Are they ready for it. Did you cover bounce and porpoise recovery? Are the winds still within the students capability? Is the traffic light enough for them to handle. For a young instructor who has empathy for the student it can be a nerve racking experience.
    As the instructor becomes more experienced, you get a feel for the students capability, and can foresee the successful outcome. Most students will take anywhere from 10 to 15 hours to get to safe solo stage. Some may take longer, but with no lacking in further capability.
    Unfortunately there are some, a very few, whom should never ever be sent solo. For whatever reason they should never be allowed to slip the bonds of earth by themselves. Call it what you may they, are a danger to themselves and others.
    To find and evaluate these souls is part of the flying instructors job, along with his superiors a judgement call has to be made. If it’s really detrimental, then the student needs to be informed as quickly as possible.
    I’m surprised the older more experienced instructor did not step in, before the solo took place. Luckily no casualties other than bruised egos and a very bent aeroplane.

  • Great story, but as I read they it, if the student had 10 hours with Ernie, and several more with the author, the student should have been well within the realm of being able to handle a 150 around the pattern one time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *