First solo

Thursday 15th May 2003

“The time has come” Trevor said before he disconnected his headset and climbed out.  “Just do what you’ve just done”.  So this was it.  No time to think about it, just do it.  “Where will you be?” I shouted.  “In the tower”.  The door slammed shut.

OK, concentrate.  Final life saving checks.  Flaps up.  Trim set for take-off.  Check instruments.  Compass shows 01, adjust heading indicator.  Set altimeter to zero. 

“Golf Echo Foxtrot – departing Zero One”

Carburettor heat off.  Find the throttle with the right hand.  Focus on the trees at the end of the runway.  Feet off the brakes.  Throttle to maximum to the count of five.  Speed is building up.  Bit of back pressure to keep the weight off the nozzle wheel – Bourn runways are not as smooth as those at commercial airports!  Quick glance at the tachometer – 2,400 rpm.  Glance at the airspeed indicator – now coming alive at 40 knots.  Check the engine oil temperature and pressure – both in the green.  The Cessna 152 is bounding down the bumpy runway at 55 knots now.  All the way down right rudder has been necessary to balance the engine torque and propeller wash to keep the plane somewhere near the runway centre line.  This is like controlling a turbocharged Reliant Robin down a very bad road.

60 knots – she will fly – back on the control yoke and we are airborne.  Compared to the bumpy runway everything is smooth now, but you need to catch the plane quickly with the controls to keep it flying straight as it leaves the ground, and this is on a windless day.  Nose down to get 65 knots, look out of the left window to see if we are following the line of the runway.  Any slight crosswind and the plane weather-cocks into it, so that maintaining the runway heading causes you to drift with the wind off course.  So you find the correct angle into the wind to maintain the runway line and then check the heading indicator.  No problem today.  Over the road at 300 feet – weeee….the underpowered Cessna flies a little better with half the passenger load.  300 feet – need to check the engine oil temperature and pressure again – yes, no problems, the engine is not going to fail on this climb-out.  500 feet – dip the nose and have a good look forward for any traffic in the blind spot.  No one is around today – not even the birds – to see this.

650 feet – time to turn onto crosswind leg on this right-hand circuit.  Look left, all clear.  Look right; lift the wing – clear, so bank into the turn.  We’re still climbing so bank angle kept to 15 degrees.  Check the airspeed and keep it to 65 knots.  Wow – we are climbing at 70 knots without an instructor.  Roll off at heading of 100.  Now at 1,000 feet above ground level – circuit height.  Forward pressure to level off, let the speed pick up a bit and throttle back to 2,200 rpm.  The airspeed picks up to 90 knots.  Trim for level flight.  Time to turn onto downwind leg already.  Look left – no one joining the circuit, lift the right wing, all clear and turn.  We can turn at 30 degrees now in level flight, bit of right rudder to co-ordinate the turn and level off pointing at Comberton golf course.  Never have seen the point of golf, and those golf courses always seemed eyesores.  But they are very visible from the air so become the markers for an easy circuit.

Now we are flying between Hardwick on the left and Caldecote on the right.  And beyond Caldecote is Bourn airfield and the runway I left just a couple of minutes ago.  Nice parallel track and it seems much easier to see the airfield than before.  Hell, that’s because the seat next to me is empty!  Suddenly I feel alone.

No time for this, got to make the radio call “Golf Echo Foxtrot, downwind right-hand  Zero One”.  No reply – Trevor hasn’t even got to the tower yet.  Or maybe he is keeping quiet so as not to put me off.

Pre-landing checks time.  Brakes off, Undercarriage down, Mixture rich, Fuel on and sufficient for a go-around, Instruments in the green, Carburettor heat on…wait five seconds…heat away and the revs return to normal – no carburettor icing, Harnesses and hatches – I look around to check Trevor’s but the seat is empty.  This is so weird.  I feel in control but so alone. 

In control?  This solo has been such a long time coming.  I started flying in September last year, eight months ago.  After five hours of different exercises it has been circuits, circuits and circuits.  During the winter half of the lessons have been cancelled due to bad weather.  Those that have been flown the weather hasn’t been kind.  An hour one week doing four circuits on one runway with a crosswind from the left, a week later landing on a different runway with the opposite crosswind.  When you learn to drive a car it’s scary but at least you can drive slowly.  With a plane you feel relatively in control within a few hours and then you have to land and find you’re not in control at all!  And you have to land at the same speed as an experienced pilot.  The turbo-charged Reliant Robin is getting blown all over the place.  The crops in the fields before the runway seem to have opposite effects, causing you to soar or sink.  And all of a sudden you find the runway is getting very close and you are travelling at 65 knots, about 72 mph.  Compared to take-off or even cruising speed, at the slow approach airspeed with the engine throttled back the controls don’t have the same effect.  And when you do roll the plane back and forth to try and maintain the runway centreline the secondary effects come in to play too.  Bank and the plane sinks, so you need to apply some back pressure but that slows the plane down.  Increase the throttle and you introduce some yaw and lift.  Everything you do causes something else to change too.

After 10 weeks of circuits I had told Trevor that I just didn’t feel I was making progress.  “It will just come together one day” he said, “Everyone takes time to get it right”.  I couldn’t help feeling that the older you are the longer this all takes.  Brian and Tyler had said as much too.  Two weeks ago I had been stuck in Scottsdale, Arizona for a weekend, so I found a flying school on the Internet and called them.  “No problem, how much do you weigh” Brian had replied.  That had caught me out, but when I met Brian I understood a little better.  Let’s just say that he weighs a few more pounds than me.  Together with a full fuel load we would easily overload a Cessna 152.  Now, in Bourn, Cambridge no problem.  But at Scottsdale the airport is at an altitude of 1,500 feet, the air is thin, and mountains surround the area.  Not a place to be in an underpowered aeroplane.  So the US flying was in a Cessna 172 with 60 per cent more power than I was used to.  That had been fun – the crystal clear air, the mountains, lakes, dams.  That’s the flying I want to do and the reason for all this pain.  Spending future weekends in the US flying around the mountains and deserts.  Two and a half hours of flying around the Arizona mountains had given me some new confidence and motivation.

And here I was first lesson back in England flying solo!  That was unexpected.  I had thought it would take a whole lesson to get used to the C152 again before I did anything like this.  I’d had to cancel Tuesday’s lesson because I was still feeling the effects of jet-lag and hadn’t got to sleep until 3am.  Not that last night had been much better.  But somehow the day felt right.  Work was under control, I’d collected my new car yesterday and had been careful not to blow stones over it during the pre-flight power check.  I’d even had to do the previous landing with Lindsey, the club owner, landing immediately behind me and watching my every move.

At Comberton now, lift the right wing and turn nice and tightly and aim for Bourn golf course.  The small grass landing strip at Kingston appears on the left, so time to reconfigure.  Carburettor heat on, throttle back to 1,600 rpm.  Keep the nose up to lose airspeed.  Wait for 80 knots before lowering the flaps.  Waiting for 80 knots, still waiting for 80 knots.  What’s happening?  The plane isn’t slowing down.  Come to think of it, without Trevor in the right-hand seat it won’t slow down as quick.  80 knots, 20 degrees of flaps.  Check out of the window to make sure they are coming down (they didn’t once in the other club plane so I check visually every time now!)

Almost at the runway centreline now so glance left – no one joining on finals.  Nice tight descending turn but watch that airspeed doesn’t drop below 65 knots.  Runway lined up, nice height, everything looks good.  “Golf Echo Foxtrot, final Zero One”.  “Roger, Golf Echo Foxtrot” comes the reply.  Trevor is in the tower now watching and ready if I need him.  Or to call the emergency services.

Point and power.  Use the controls to keep the numbers painted at the end of the runway lined up on a dead fly on the windscreen, then adjust the power to maintain 65 knots.  This is the tricky bit.  Left hand on the yoke controlling the pitch and roll, feet on the rudder controlling the yaw, and right hand on the throttle controlling the airspeed.  Practicing this four times an hour for an hour at a time, a week apart and with different weather conditions each time means it does take some time to pick it up.  The flight simulator on the computer has helped though.  What you need for practice approaches is to be able to rewind the plane up the flight path back to the start of finals, and this can be done on the computer.  I’ve even used the simulator this morning - four good approaches - before setting off for the airfield.

Now we are getting close.  50 feet, we are going to make it.  Throttle back to idle.  The controls go even looser and less effective than before without the wash from the propeller.  Drifting slightly to the right so a bit of left rudder.  Pitch up, get the plane level, focus on the far end of the runway.  Then glance out the side for depth perception.  Pitch up, hold.  Pitch up, hold.  Bump, hold the centre line with the rudder, let the nosewheel down.  Made it.  Maintain the back pressure as we slow, and start to brake.  “Golf Echo Foxtrot, congratulations on your first solo!”  Trevor sounds very happy, but I’m concentrating on bringing the turbo-charged Reliant Robin to a standstill now, no time to reply.  Down to a walking pace, turn and head for the taxi way.  “Golf Echo Foxtrot, vacated Zero One”.  Stop over the line, carburettor heat away, flaps up. 

Just got to taxi back to the clubhouse now, with a big grin.  Bloody hell, I’ve done it.  Round to the right and taxi to the line.  Glance right to the clubhouse – must be eight or ten people in there.  Where did they all come from, the airfield seem deserted when we’d taxied out an hour ago.

Power down checks, magnetos, mixture to idle cut-off.  Never had to stop the engine before.  Suddenly it is very quiet.  Magnetos off, key out, master off, headset off.  I start to climb out and find I’m shaking and can barely stand.  So I spend a few seconds arranging the seat belts and putting the control lock in.  Now time to face the others.  Lindsay’s Dalmatian jumps up at me at the door, sensing the excitement, the first of the many congratulations.  I can barely remember my first flight in a RAF Chipmunk in my early teens, except that I was sick.  My first flight at Bourn eight months ago was exciting but just a joy ride really, like that first Chipmunk ride.  This is the flight I’ll remember.  The grin will slowly disappear but it might not be for a few days.