It has been a while since I updated you on my flying progress and I am proud to report that I have been solo for the first time..., again.
For most pilots, flying Solo is the first major milestone during their training. It is the moment when suddenly your long held dream of being a pilot becomes realised. You are far from finished with your training, but you are flying unaided and unaccompanied in a real aeroplane. There is a real risk of death or serious injury, but your life is in your hands and your instructor has enough confidence in your ability as a pilot to let you go flying alone. Heady stuff.
For me, this has happened twice. In 1998 I was sent to work in France for what I thought would be one year. Not long after I arrived, and feeling flush with no responsibilities and a hansom international working wage supplement, I sought out the local flying club and signed up to learn how to fly..., in French. I reasoned than despite my lack of ability in the French language (which has now significantly improved) I would be able to quickly learn the limited vocabulary required and, anyway, a scream from an instructor is a scream in any language. Thus, thirteen and a half hours later after another short lesson of circuits, touch and goes or trips around the pattern (depending on the reader's nationality) , my instructor prematurely directed me to parking and then told me he was getting out. My first thought? "If you're getting out, then I'm getting out too".
Then, bracing myself for the task at hand, I taxied the Robin DR400-140 up to the end of runway 29, checked for approaching aircraft , lined up on 29 without a radio call, paused, and went. The all wooden Robin leapt forward with three of the four seats empty. Climb-out was way faster than when I was accompanied and all too soon I was well into my usual right hand circuit (pattern) and mentally preparing for the sight picture at the top of final approach. I gave no radio calls as this was a very small club-owned field and had very little traffic. In fact I had never been in the pattern with another aircraft and always had the field to myself. As I turned for landing, the 3000ft x 82ft (950m x 25m) runway looked very small indeed. I told myself to imagine that I'd been doing this all my life and coming in a little high (a carryover from soloing in a glider when I was sixteen) I greased the landing on the centerline and gently brought the aircraft down to taxiing speed with plenty of tarmac to spare.
Fast forward to this month and I am flying the Piper Archer II with my instructor. We had just completed our third time around the pattern and all went well apart from a gentle reminder not to extend my upwind leg too far and to turn crosswind just past the mile mark. As we landed for the third time my instructor told me to head for the taxiway and called the tower controller for clearance to taxi to the base of the tower. This is new, I thought, it must mean the solo I have been expecting is here. Looks like I'll get one more go round the pattern today then. Oh, he wants me to do three times round the pattern on my own. Cool. My new call sign is "Student Pilot 3416 Quebec" and I WILL be calling Martin Ground and Martin Tower at every possible opportunity. So out he climbed and with the door secured I took several deep breaths while I listened to the Automated Tower Information Service (ATIS) for the latest weather and winds information. The latest information was labeled "Zulu" so I called "Martin Ground, Student Pilot 3416 Quebec is at the tower with Zulu for taxi to the active for closed pattern". The clearance to taxi came with an instruction to use a discrete transponder code to let him identify me. Already this is felt like a very different experience from before. I taxied to the run-up area past Gulfstreams and Bombardiers. I did my checks, tuned Tower frequency and headed to the hold-short line of runway 15.
From the edge of the 6996ft x 180ft (2132m x 55m) runway 15 I watched a Cessna 172 Skyhawk make a landing, made a mental note to do better than that, and called that I was ready to go. I confirmed the "Position and Hold" instruction, but rather than taxiing straight out onto the runway, I hesitated double and triple checking and was still at the hold point when I got the clearance to take-off. And with no sign of the Skyhawk ahead, off I went.
As with the Robin before, the Archer really showed an impressive increase in performance from the absence of passenger. As usual, I was still climbing through nine hundred feet when I got to my first turn point on the left hand pattern and I was just stable at the thousand feet pattern altitude and getting ready to turn downwind when the tower called "Oh come on guys, you're supposed to FOLLOW each other. Archer you are now NUMBER ONE for landing". What, what, what just happened? I've made one turn as a solo pilot, what could I have possibly done wrong? Just how much trouble am I in now?
The Skyhawk I had seen land earlier hadn't actually landed. It was doing touch and goes, as I was planning to. I had tuned to the Tower frequency after they had been "cleared for the option" and this would have been a big clue that they weren't planning on stopping. I had also not registered that they did not call "clear of the runway", so now that the runway was clear they must have left it flying. The Tower didn't warn me that I was number two in the pattern and with my adrenalin pumping I didn’t think twice about it. So now they were flying the same course as me and when they extended their upwind ahead of me, rather than turning at the point I usually turned, I didn't see them when I turned with my aircraft's nose still high. So I had turned inside them and had inadvertently taken the lead.
This was stress I didn't need on my solo, so as the least popular pilot in the pattern I went back to business determined to be the best pilot I could be. My first landing was as near to perfect as I get and the first two times around the pattern were notable only by the fact that there were now two other aircraft flying with me and for the tone of displeasure that came back when I called my position and intentions. At least my turns, speeds, altitudes and radio calls had all been perfect.
As I reported my intention to "Full Stop" my final landing I was told I was "Cleared to land, Number 2 for landing". I reported "Looking for Traffic" and extended my downwind whilst scanning the skies. Eventually, still unable to see the other plane, I called "Student Pilot 3416 Quebec is still looking for the traffic". "Traffic is no longer a factor" came the reply, indicating that they had long since landed. I turned base and final and landed with no problems.
As I cleared the runway the Tower called "Cleared to Taxi to the T-Hangars", our usual home. I replied with "Actually, I'd like to taxi to the base of the tower please, 3416 Quebec". "3416 Quebec cleared to taxi to the base of the tower...... say, was this your first solo?". "Er, yes, couldn't you tell?". "Uhm, no..., not really. Congratulations". And with a great sense of relief and slight astonishment that I'd been congratulated by a previously annoyed and never more than businesslike tower controller, I taxied back to meet my instructor.
So two solos, two aeroplanes, two completely different flying environments and the experience couldn't have felt more different. The first seemed more about surviving. I could handle the aeroplane, but flying into that field always felt like I was setting up for an aircraft carrier landing. I was so focused on just flying I would have really struggled with any more workload. The second solo was almost not about flying at all. Like the difference between learning to drive and having driven for years, my concentration wasn't on the mechanics of flying the plane, it was on the world outside the aircraft. Sure, I was still concentrating on my speeds, positions and altitudes, but the experience was more about being a good user of the busy airport's airspace.
The last big difference is more subtle. Before I set off in the Robin I knew that it was going to be my last flight at the club. My funding had been pulled and I was to return to England with my salary readjusted to a level that would stop me flying. My solo seemed like the perfect end to my French adventure. In contrast, my solo in the Archer isn't an end at all, it is a beginning. I have already started to fly cross country and would have performed my solo cross country, if it wasn't that the aircraft is out for maintenance.
Now I am in uncharted territory. Now I get to see the utility of the hobby I have chosen. I have dreamed of taking my family flying, now I can dream of taking them places.
And I love learning how to do it.