The previous week of flight training tested me well. I had been instructed quite frequently in how to take off from our airport, how to fly the shortest way around it and to land again where the takeoff took place. This is what we call flying the “pattern”.
Flying patterns for a few lessons straight now means that I have gotten quite a few landings in. I remember how it in the beginning was so frustrating to get the aircraft to the correct pitch, airspeed and at the same time aligning it with the centerline of the runway in order to safely land. For a while I thought that this would be the one thing that would cause me to flunk out of school. However, with practice, more and more things started to flow easier and eventually I could start bringing the aircraft to touch down without making my instructor feel like he had to do any final corrections to the landing.
We had Monday off which meant I only had four days to complete three flight lessons before my first solo flight. My new instructor, DJ, said that there really shouldn’t be any reason to why I shouldn’t be able to solo that week… except for the weather.
The number of aircraft and instructors limits us students a bit so that we can’t fly all at once. We are therefore divided up on different flight periods over the day, and this week I got the earliest flight every day of the week. This is nice because the weather is typically better in the mornings. The downside is that you need to be at school much earlier to perform a pre-flight inspection at around 6 am. So, early mornings all week. Yeah! The weather that Tuesday looked a little grim, but the weather reports at the airports we were flying to indicated acceptable conditions, so we went. As soon as we had climbed about 1000 feet we couldn’t see far towards the direction we had intended to go because the reports we read couldn’t tell us anything about the precipitation that was going on in between the reporting stations. We aborted the flight and returned.
I got pretty nervous by the thought of flying the aircraft all by myself with no one there to assist me. Some days I don’t mind if the weather grounds me, because then I really have no choice in the matter and just deal with not being able to fly. When Wednesday came around and the weather still was questionable to go flying, I realized that I had a really bad attitude towards weather being in the way of flying. Don’t I want to fly? What if I get grounded so much that I will fall behind? What am I doing hoping the weather will go bad so that I don’t have to be pushed to learn how to fly even though it is hard? I decided then that I actually wanted to fly, I wanted to solo, and I wanted to be pushed. After all, that is why I am at a flight school. I can sit around at home. From that moment I felt much more enthusiastic about getting up in the air. We managed to squeeze one lesson in that day. The winds were pretty strong, so it was hard to land, but I did complete the lesson.
Thursday came and the weather hadn’t improved much. I was scheduled to solo that afternoon. Weather is usually much calmer during the mornings, so DJ said that we still might not be able to go that afternoon. The morning flight went well, but sure enough the winds picked up that afternoon. We still went out to get some practice, but as we were ready to get clearance to take off one of my fellow classmates came in for landing and we saw how suddenly his aircraft dropped about 100-150 feet within a few seconds. They aborted the landing and reported over radio a severe wind shear on short final before the runway. The guy in the tower started to get nervous and made individual calls to every aircraft in the vicinity of the airport to update them on the weather. This is rather unusual. We made one pattern, aborted the landing (the maneuver we call a go-around where you basically fly over the runway you attempted to land on and then fly the typical loop back around again to make another attempt) and landed on the second try. Then we went to fuel up and stowed the aircraft away for the night.
Got a ride with my housemate Zach on Friday morning. I had till noon to complete two flights that day. The weather looked fantastic (thanks to all of you who prayed). I performed the pre-flight inspection and the students there helped each other pull all the aircrafts out on the ramp ready for use. After a group briefing at 7 am I went out to the aircraft with DJ. Before the solo DJ sits with me in the aircraft as if I was alone. He basically just watches me for that flight to make sure I can fly safely, have good judgement and that I can fly the airplane without assistance. After he thinks I am good to go, he steps out of the aircraft and I will perform three landings and one go-around on my own. As I started up the aircraft and went through the checklists we could see a wall of fog moving in from the south. Over the radio I heard my friends already at the runway aborting their flights. It was a hard decision, but I had to shut the engine down. There was simply no way I would risk getting blinded out there by fog.
So, we waited. I was getting a little nervous that I wouldn’t be able to complete the flight. By now I really wanted to go. I felt I could do it, and was disappointed by how that fog decided to show up out of nowhere. Constantly watching the sky and reading reports on the weather we could almost see how the fog slowly was burning off beneath the rising sun. An hour and a half of waiting I was convinced that that it wasn’t merely my wishful thinking that made the skies look clearer. Me and DJ climbed into the cockpit and started it up. Off we went.
I was a bit nervous, but I had the comfort still of having an experienced pilot beside me to catch any severe mistakes I would make. I made a couple mistakes of the two following patterns. We briefed what went well and what I should keep in mind during our taxi back to the end of the runway to lift off again. Then I performed a go-around and landed the third time. We taxied back to the hangar, DJ said he felt comfortable letting me go on my own before he got out of the aircraft. I ate a snickers bar and debated in my mind if I should go. After all, if I freeze, make a mistake or unable to respond to a hazardous situation for some reason I would have to deal with it on my own. No one would be there to help me out. I knew that that kind of worry would always be there for the first time flying all by myself, so I decided to go. Winds were completely calm and conditions would not get better than this. That time had come.
It was strange preparing the aircraft with no one to check if I did it right. I greeted Jesus in the co-pilot seat and then I hopped in. After the first couple of checklists I felt like I had this down. Some things were different, like making sure both doors were latched properly. Usually I only have to check my side and let DJ check his. Before I knew it I was airborne. I had this. At that point there was only one way to get back down.
Just a few seconds after lift-off the tower called me and told me to extend my upwind leg (to continue in the direction of departure from the runway until they told me to turn) which threw my planning off a little. I got closer and closer to downtown Spokane and anticipated their call. Eventually they gave me clearance to turn crosswind (90 degrees perpendicular to the runway). Shortly I turned another 90 degrees onto the downwind leg. I started going through the landing checklist. When I was ready to descend to come in for landing the tower called again. This time I had to extend the downwind longer than normal till they cleared me to turn. It was not the first thing you wish for at your first solo, but the only thing to do was to deal with it and to adjust to the circumstances. The pattern and landing went quite well! The second pattern went even better with a very soft landing. Next was the go-around and finally the last landing. The non-existing wind made things quite smooth.
After I was done I requested taxi back to Moody’s hangar and when receiving instructions from the tower they also congratulated for my first solo flight. Thanking them over radio I taxied back to the hangar where people started coming out to give hugs and congratulate. It is a Moody tradition that whenever a student comes back from his first solo flight he is received in this way. The main theme song of the soundtrack from the movie “Top Gun” sounds over the ramp, and lastly the instructor has the honor of cutting off the back of the student’s shirt to later hang it up on the wall as a trophy. It was a day to remember.
A milestone in training has been put down. I am really excited to what happens next. I would really want to thank every one of you who reads this post, this blog and support me in various ways for all your encouragement, prayers and thoughts. You are also part of this success and this journey.