First Solo Flight

05:45 – My superphone starts emitting a strumming sound – the same strumming sound that wakes me up every time I set an alarm.  As I look at the superphone, the brightness of the screen makes me want to close my eyes and slip back into a slumber.  Somehow I forced myself out of bed, grabbed a towel and headed down the corridor to the showers.

06:30 – I make it to the briefing room to meet with my instructor and flying buddies to get all the paperwork up to date.  Logbooks needed signing, endorsements and medicals/student pilot certificates along with some company paperwork too.  We had originally planned one hour for all this but instead it took two.

08:00 – This was the original takeoff time for my pre-solo flight.  The paperwork was still under way at this point so I headed down to the plane to do the pre flight checks.  It’s always a good idea to check if you have fuel first so you can let someone know that you need it and get it pretty quick.  If you wait until the end of your checks and then discover you don’t have any fuel, you end up using more time.  I peeped into the tanks and there was way less than I needed.  I waved over to the fuel trucks but no-one saw me.  I felt pretty strange just waving over there and not being seen so I carried on with my checks.  Checks complete minus fuel and still no instructor, I decide to walk over to the fuelers and ask for some of that fuel stuff.  In no time at all, I’m fueled up and ready to go.  Simple.

My instructor arrives from the briefing and we jump in the wee Warrior and away we go.  There was a light wind and the sky was the most overcast I’ve seen since leaving England.  These conditions made it so smooth up there, it was amazing.  You’re usually having to fight with updraughts and downdraughts created by the usually hot surfaces but the clouds blocked the sun which stopped them warming up.  There was the ever so slight crosswind to contend with on landing but nothing strong enough to create a problem.  It made it a challenge enough to learn from it but it wasn’t so strong that I couldn’t go solo.

The first two landings went very well.  One was a little off the centreline and the other was a little flat but both perfectly safe with stable approaches.  While we were climbing out after the second landing, tower changed us from flying the left hand pattern to the right hand pattern.  This caught me by surprise a little but all was well.  A Cessna turned early and cut in front of us but was never a safety factor.  Our downwind leg was extended aswell and then tower called up and asked us to do a full stop landing and taxi back to the runway.  They do this when the traffic pattern gets really busy, it helps lower the work load.  Once we landed and were clear of the runway I was about to line up on the taxiway to head towards the end of the runway and my instructor said ‘Hold on a minute…’

I thought, ‘oh no!  What have I missed!?’ but I wasn’t missing anything.  It turns out that he was happy enough with the last three landings to let me go solo.  He gave me the option of either going back to the beginning of the runway and doing a couple more landings or going back to parking and having him jump out and me go solo.  I thought about it for a moment and agreed that the landings I’d done today were perfectly safe.  I decided I was as ready as I would be even if I did two more landings so off we went down the Alpha taxiway (after getting clearance of course!) back to parking.  My instructor gave me some final words and reminded me to say ‘student pilot first solo’ on my initial radio calls to ground and tower and then off he went.  For the first time ever I was sitting in a plane with the engine running by myself.

There I was, minutes away from something I’ve been waiting for for years.  Something I’ve been nervous about for a long time.  Among the excitement there was always a pang of nerves.  Taking an aircraft into the sky by yourself really is no small thing and I could never imagine doing it by myself.  I’d heard how a couple of people in the past (how far back I don’t know) were so afraid of going solo that they just couldn’t do it.  I thought ‘what if I’m on of those!?’  I snapped out of it though.  My instructor was past the tip of the wing and so I returned the engine to 1200rpm.  I was committed to going solo, no time for fear or worries.  I really wanted to enjoy this unique experience while still getting it right.

After making sure my radios were set correctly I released the parking brake and upped the throttle to start the taxi.  Once I got to the run up area I did my before takeoff checklist.  Next I called up ground and requested taxi to the active runway and was told to taxi via A1, A and hold short of A3.  Once I got to A3 I didn’t have long to wait before I was given clearance to continue along A down to A8.

09:40 – The radio in the control tower bursts into life as I hit my transmit button in my wee Warrior.  ‘Goodyear Tower, Warrior 833TB is holding short of runway three at Alpha 8, request closed traffic with a full stop landing.  Student pilot, initial solo.’  Tower gets back to me a moment later and instructs me to hold short of the runway.  You can listen to the rest of my comms with the tower below, be ready to laugh!  I still have some work to do on the radios!


Thanks to liveatc.net for the audio!

Once I’m cleared onto the runway I do my cleared onto the runway checks and await clearance to take off.  The tower has to wait until the plane that just landed in front of me is clear of the runway beyond the hold short line before he can give clearance.  Once I’m cleared to takeoff I push the throttle all the way forwards, apply some right rudder and watch the speed build to 65kts.  At 65kts I pull back ever so slightly and the plane jumps off the runway into the air.  It accelerates and climbs so much faster with only one person on board.  I get to the traffic pattern altitude in no time, almost before I get to the end of the runway.  I had to glance round the plane just to make sure I was the only one on board to make sure I was really solo!

The air was still glossy smooth making the flight very enjoyable.  On the downwind leg tower called me up to inform me which number I was in the traffic pattern.  I called him back and said ‘number three cleared to land’.  Oops!  I cleared myself to land!  You can’t do that – and tower confirmed that by reminding me that I wasn’t actually cleared to land.  Then I got all flustered on my next radio call and made some really nondescript noise instead of words but after that everything was just fine.  When I lined up for the approach I couldn’t believe that my first solo experience was almost over.  I know a circuit is short but it seemed like seconds.  The approach was stable and so I continued towards the runway.  The touchdown was excellent, I was more than happy with it.  Very comfortable.

All the way back to parking I had a huge grin on my face – despite attempting to clear myself to land.  I was almost in disbelief at what I had just done.  I am very much looking forward to going solo again.

There’s one more thing though…after solo there is something that every Oxford Aviation Academy student has to go through (and it’s not paperwork).  I don’t know how other flight schools do it…but this is what happens here:

Circuits – AP12 & 13

Staying in the pattern (flying circuits) is the best way to practice landings because you get a landing in every five minutes or so.  The video above shows one of those circuits.  It’s not me flying but it shows what I was doing moments earlier.

 

The basic left-hand traffic pattern.

The basic left-hand traffic pattern.

The traffic pattern is pretty simple.  It can either be left-hand or right-hand.  Sometimes both circuits run at the same time depending on how ATC are running things.  A normal circuit only takes about five minutes so you can get plenty of landing practice in a single lesson.  The pattern here at Goodyear is flown at 2000 feet above mean sea level.  On the ground you are already 968 feet above mean sea level so the pattern is 1000 feet above ground level.  You fly the upwind to 500ft and then turn crosswind, still climbing.  Upon reaching 2000ft level off and if you haven’t already, turn for the downwind leg.  The downwind leg is flown about one mile away from the runway.

When the touchdown point on the runway is about 45 degrees behind your wing, that is a good time to turn onto your base leg.  When turning base reduce power and set flaps to 25 degrees to assist with altitude loss and slowing down.  Turn onto final and set flaps to 40 degrees – maintain 70kts until over the runway.  When over the runway, reduce power to idle as appropriate and raise the nose (flare) for touchdown.  As you probably heard on the radio there was a quick chirp from the stall warner just before touchdown.  That’s pretty much how you want it to be.  You don’t want to stall any higher than just above touch down!

This is the view of the runway on the base leg.

This is the view of the runway on the base leg.

Turning onto final.

Turning onto final.

If you look at the full size version of the ‘final’ picture (by clicking on it) you will see the PAPIs (Precision Approach Path Indicators) on the left hand side of the runway.  These help in setting up the correct descent rate when approaching the runway.  What you want to see is white on the outside and red on the inside.  That shows you’re on the correct glide path.  Two whites tell you that you’re too high and two reds tell you that you’re too low.