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first solo student in front of Cessna 172 aircraft

That first solo brought all the expected excitement and provided that much needed confidence boost.

It was a great day for that first “true” solo.  A few days earlier, my instructor had hopped out of the airplane and turned me loose for the traditional few trips around the pattern.  That first solo brought all the expected excitement and provided that much needed confidence boost of being out on my own.  Now it was time for me to stray out a bit further but within my 25nm limitation and practice some maneuvers while doing a little sightseeing.  It was a warm autumn day in central Indiana and I was well within the solo minimum weather restrictions established by my instructor.  I performed a thorough preflight and run up, and experienced the child-like joy that happens every single time the wheels leave the runway.  There was a healthy mix of nerves and excitement as I headed south for a quick flyover of my house which was just a few miles away.

As I turned north toward our designated practice area for some maneuvers, I still had the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) for my home airport (KUMP) dialed in.  All of a sudden, I hear “MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY!” along with a report that a small biplane had a propeller failure during the takeoff roll.  After a minute or so of radio silence, the UNICOM monitor announces that the runway – the ONLY runway – at my home airport is closed until further notice.  Gulp.

My first thought on hearing this was to divert immediately and get the airplane on the ground.  My adrenaline was already flowing and I know from experience that being in that zone is where poor decisions are made.  I took a deep breath, pulled up the nearest airports on the G1000, and made a radio call to my home airport letting them know I was on student solo and was diverting to Indianapolis Executive Airport (KTYQ) immediately.  I locked in the GPS using “Direct to” and switched the radio to the proper CTAF to listen for the active runway in use while pulling up the airport information and tuning in the weather frequency.  I took some deep breaths and entered the pattern with a few other diverting aircraft.  It was a relief to see a couple flight instructors from KUMP on the ground there.

While I was waiting on the ramp at KTYQ, some external pressure was creeping in.  I had a flight to catch for an international trip later that day and I was worried I might not get the airplane back in time.  On top of that, the cloud bases were dropping.  I mitigated these risks by asking one of the instructors if they could fly the airplane back while I grabbed a car ride home.  They were quick to offer help if needed.  I could take those things off of my list of stressors.

A little over an hour after I landed, they announced the runway was open once again.  I had plenty of time to make it back and the clouds were still comfortably within my (and the legal) minimums. I ran through my checklists and got back in the air for a direct flight back to KUMP.  Here’s where I learned about the breakfast fly-in.  Really!?

I get up in the air and zoom out to look at the ADSB traffic and see this.

Garmin display showing multiple aircraft.

The traffic inbound for the fly-in was the most I had ever seen.

(Warning, sarcasm) Can you believe they don’t issue NOTAMs for fly-ins?  Apparently, this is one of those things where you have to actually talk to a human being or visit a relevant website to learn about.  This was the most traffic I had ever seen at KUMP. And of course, it was during my solo flight.  A few more deep breaths and I decided that I had plenty of fuel to make some circles while the traffic dissipated.  There was no way I was going to needlessly overload my brain and risk a dangerous situation.  It sure was entertaining to listen to the radio traffic as a bunch of experienced pros sequenced into the pattern and made it look easy.  I want to get there, but not today.  I waited until there were only 4 planes in the pattern to make my way in.  There were barely any open parking spaces.

As a 51-year-old student pilot, I never fail to learn something new from each flight.  There was a lot of self-talk on this flight to the tune of “just fly the airplane”.  Getting that certificate will only offer more learning opportunities and I realize that if I’m going to do this, I need to expect and embrace those moments.


P.S.  I should mention that the pilot involved in the accident walked away covered in fuel, but unharmed.

Troy Kelley
17 replies
  1. Michelle Reen
    Michelle Reen says:

    As a 52 yo pilot who has soloed (in two aircraft, medium length not-very-interesting story there) but not yet left the pattern on my own this story hit home. I love all the examples of excellent decision making, including making a plan B for not flying home. Also recognizing and leveraging the pilots at your devision airport. As a club member (Club Cherokee KMIC) I have access not only to multiple CFIs but also nearly 100 members, most of which could and would likely help me out with a short distance assist. But even without club relationships I’ve learned that flying is joining a community. Can’t wait to fly myself to a pancake breakfast. Now if the weather would cooperate so I could get to that practice area first.

  2. Jimmy Allen Dulin
    Jimmy Allen Dulin says:

    Good job. I used to cross the parallel runways at IND SE to NW just S of the tower on my TEPPCO pipeline loop from Houston to Chicago and then back to Houston on Explorer pipeline. Stay away from Lafayette. Crazy student traffic there. Late afternoon landed me there a time or two. Six flight hours is a long day in a 172.

  3. Jimmy Allen Dulin
    Jimmy Allen Dulin says:

    Your instructor will get you squared away on Class B procedures and IFR later. IFR is the safest way to go to the big city. On pipeline at 200′ with waiver, we never enter on communicate with Approach. We enter D at five miles out and tower works us in between landing and takeoff traffic. Just a note, there is no traffic down there except right at the end of the runway where the jets are taking off and landing. So if you have to go VFR, under the layers is the least traffic.

  4. Gus Piliotis
    Gus Piliotis says:

    Great Job, Troy! Great story, very well written. Not only did you handle the situation perfectly, but you also stayed calm and didn’t panic. It can sometimes be terrifying when a situation arises and you find yourself alone in the cockpit. I can speak from experience as well. I also had a similar incident on my second solo flight, “Two Exciting Landings in 21 Years of Flying” written in the Air Facts Journal 2 years ago, in February of 2021. If you have time please feel free to read my story, we can always learn something from each other. Keep up the safe flying, wishing you all the best!!

  5. Erik Riera
    Erik Riera says:

    Troy- great story- what a wonderful example of balanced and thoughtful decision making. You will be a great pilot.

  6. Mike Dalecki
    Mike Dalecki says:

    Nice job! I like the decision to immediately fly to an alternate, taking all the waiting and wondering out of the equation.

    I earned my certificate in March 2021; your essay brings back the excitement, uncertainty, and gravity of my own training and especially the early solos.

  7. Joel Ludwigson
    Joel Ludwigson says:

    Great experience. Not only was it your first solo away from your home airport but it also turned into your first cross country! Good job!

  8. Drew Kemp
    Drew Kemp says:

    Well played, my boy! I tell my students that aviation is 90% thinking and 10% flying. You made Pilot-in-Command decisions, and didn’t lose your cool. Net result, you got home safely.

    Cheers, Drew

  9. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    They SHOULD list fly in under a notam. I once had a fool flying a king air into one, trying to take the opposite end of the active runway. Probably because he was too lazy, and wanted a straight in approach. Must have missed that day of listening in on the CTAF, ATIS, and AWOS….

  10. Amaris Robinson
    Amaris Robinson says:

    As a 47 year old student pilot who has just recently begun leaving the pattern myself, this story really resonates with me. At this stage, the question “How would I handle an unexpected development?” is always on my mind. Trusting my training, understanding my limitations, and trusting myself is a big part of the process! Thank you for sharing your story of how you made great aeronautical decisions! And I will remember to always check for fly ins on the weekend.

  11. James Nix
    James Nix says:

    Hello Troy, you can always remember this experience and use it as a fallback in the future. Simply as a Pilot you will be met with challenges. Apply your solo experience and how you overcame the challenge, this will give you confidence with your AMD skills. Job well done!

  12. Ray Taylor
    Ray Taylor says:

    Had a similar experience in November of 1974. Instead of it being my first time solo away from home base I was taking my check ride for my private pilot rating. The morning started off stressful because of having to file for a special VFR clearance due to minimum ceiling at Robins AFB. (I was receiving my flight training at the base aero club. I met the examiner at the Perry-Fort Valley airport as the weather continued to deteriorate. I could hear the wind howling outside as I sat there planning the flight the examiner had assigned me. We actually got through about three quarters of the exam when the examiner call the rest off due to the weather. Now I was worried about the strong cross-wind I knew that I would encounter landing back at the airfield. As it happened I nailed the landing and the examiner actually complimented me on a job well done.

    Now the problem was that the weather was below VFR and I was 30 miles from home base. Since I had to be at work in a couple of hours I had to leave the club’s T-41 (Cessna 172) and catch a car ride back to the airbase. To add insult to injury I had to pay for the air time it took for the club to retrieve the aircraft later that day. It all ended well when I returned two days later and successfully completed my check ride. It was quite an adventure for a young 21 year old E-4 in the USAF.

  13. Katelin Nading
    Katelin Nading says:

    Nice job keeping cool, Troy. That’s what it’s all about. I remember doing similar self-talk during my solo’ing phase back in the day. Before you know it, you’ll have a few hundred hours and these things will not be so jolting, though always on guard for them to happen. Also, kudos for recognizing the external pressures.


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