This article originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of AOPA Pilot magazine under the title “Mr. Austinīs Wild Ride.” Personally, I like my original title better--what a surprise! So here‘s the original version of the story of my first solo flight--C.W. Austin
Oh, Solo Me, Oh!
By Carlton W. Austin
What's that they say? The three biggest days of your life are the day you meet your future wife, the day you marry her and the day your first child is born. Or maybe it's the day you see that spiffy red, white and blue four-banger, the day you buy her and the day you pass the keys to her next wide-eyed owner. No? Okay, what about the day you first soloed? Let's start with that. Think hard, now. Wouldn't you rate that first lonely flight, where nothing stood between you and disaster but your own skill, tenacity and determination, as right up there near the top?
Most pilots don't. At least not the ones I've asked. Maybe it's because their flights went so smoothly--just a walk in the park--that it was a non-event. But maybe, just maybe it's because their solo was like mine, and if it was, they probably counted themselves so lucky to have survived that they didn't want to jinx their good fortune by thinking too much about it again. Like your first awkward kiss, it's best forgotten.
But whether your memories of that pivotal event are fond or frightening, you'd have to admit soloing an airplane is a big deal.
Memories of my big day came flooding back to me while reading Stephen Coonts's touching article about his belated first encounter with the yellow peril, better known as the Piper J-3 Cub. (AOPA Pilot, April 1999.) Something over--ahem--thirty years ago, I soloed in that venerable bird. But Mister Coonts's warm and fuzzy first acquaintance was somewhat more benign than my recollections of my early hours and, most of all, of that first fateful flight alone.
Roll back those thirty-plus years. It was a fine summer's day at Lee Airport in Edgewater, Maryland, just south of Annapolis. My best friend, Laren, and I stood by the runway and watched plane after plane, engines roaring, wings rocking jauntily, claw their way into the invisible realm of the angels.
I was only seventeen and about to start college, but I'd wanted to be a fighter pilot since I was five. Trouble was, I hadn't even been in an airplane yet--money problems. What's worse, Laren, funded by better-heeled parents, had just soloed--in three different airplanes! And all on the same day! Even made the papers!
Never mind that I'd worked all summer to save the money for tuition. I had to get some wind in my face, I thought, money be damned. So Laren took me by the arm and hauled me into the flight office, where he introduced me to Mrs. Florence C. Parlett, silver-haired owner/operator of Annapolis Flying Service. (You can still see her name on the company sign, God rest her soul; she's surely an angel, for she already had wings.) She was the sweetest, kindest lady I'd ever met--and a pilot! In those days, I didn't know they came in two flavors. I'd only seen John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Randolph Scott. (Patty Wagstaff, if you're reading, please forgive me.) She was bright-eyed, perky and bursting with enthusiasm; there's never been a better ambassador for general aviation. Before I knew it, she had me up in a Piper Colt for an intro ride. By the time we landed, I found myself thinking how I might postpone college for a few years and just...well, you know.
Oh, did I mention she was also funny? In those days my nickname was "Happy," but for some reason with her this always came out "Lucky." I never figured out if she was joking or simply kept getting it wrong. After a while, I just answered to Lucky where she was concerned.
"What do ya think, Lucky?" she asked as we taxied back to the ramp. I just smiled and said, "When can I start."
Fast-forward a couple of weeks or three. My training had gone swimmingly so far as my instructor, Mr. F. S. "Frank" Chess, was concerned. Though I couldn't believe my ears, he was saying it's time to go it alone, time to solo. I was ready, he said.
But I wasn't so sure. My training, I reflected, had been a tad erratic....
In the first four hours of training I'd had three different instructors. The first, Ed Sester, was, by his account, an ex-P51 pilot and instructor. Short and wiry, he puffed more smoke than an ailing Merlin and was a bit Prussian in his teaching style, but his legacy as trainer of gallant fighter pilots instilled a great deal of confidence. I was delighted to have him. So I was a little disconcerted when, showing up for lesson number two, I was introduced to a new instructor. Today, I can't read his name from the faded pages of my Sanderson Pilot Flight Log book, but from what I can make out, we did the usual early airwork, straight-and-level flight, 360-degree turns and the like.
Hour four is where Frank Chess came in. A mountain of man with a big heart and gentle hand, Frank was almost too big for the Cub. Every time we got ready to fly, after he'd twirled the prop, he'd take several agonizing minutes shoe-horning himself into the front seat. The Cub's frame sagged woefully. "Crank in some nose-up trim," he'd yell. "And re-check your lap belt."
Then I'd line up as best I could while still trying to see the runway. Of course that didn't work, always made me crooked, so Frank would bark, "Straighten it out! Straighten it out!" Yeah, Frank was high, wide and handsome. I was delighted to have him.
As we'd start the takeoff roll--"Don't cobb the throttle"--he'd reach up and pull down the window from its latch under the wing root. We accelerated like a tortoise. Around the pattern we'd wallow, with me ruddering--"Stop skidding!"--and leaning from one side to the other. It wasn't a pretty sight.
Having no forward visibility was especially problematic to a fledgling like me during approach and landing, which we were now practicing with a rhythmic vengeance. Unless I slipped the Cub to the max, something I was still too timid to do, it was blind man's bluff. Naturally, though, I got large doses of encouragement from up front: "Slip it! SLIP IT!
So for the next two hours I did my best to fly by feel. Not a bad way to start in retrospect--you really don't need the airspeed indicator on the little guys; and Lindbergh, after all, flew the whole Atlantic without seeing where he was going. But, at the time, it seemed counterintuitive to have to doesy-doe left and right to see the runway on approach to landing.
Back to my moment.... Taxiing to a stop after a landing on lesson seven, we sat there at the end of the runway, the 65-horsepower Continental ticking away with anticipation. Frank twisted around and pronounced me ready to take it up on my own. I gulped hard. Streamers of sweat came from nowhere, matting my hair. "But I'm not ready, Frank," I croaked.
"Sure you are, kid," he replied cheerfully. "Just do it like you've been doing." And he began to deplane.
Only I wasn't ready. I shut her down. He sauntered over, gave me a look halfway between puzzlement and annoyance. Sheepishly, I said, "Don't be mad, Frank." Feeling guilty and justified in equal measure, I explained to Frank that he was about to cut me loose with only seven hours, when in fact Annapolis Flying Service didn't want students soloing with less than eight, at least that's what Ed Sester had told me.
Frank apologized, allowed as how he thought I'd had more hours and admitted he was glad I'd told him. I acknowledged that with all the different instructors I'd had, it was an understandable oversight. I must have sounded like a nervous Nelly, which I was, because Frank smiled knowingly as he said, "Next time, then." We put the plane away.
Next time came too soon for me, as I was beginning to harbor severe doubts about my ability to get the plane safely back to Earth once I was in the air alone. Nevertheless, after only once around, Frank waved me to a stop and began to wrench himself free of the plane. I knew what was coming. "Take her around," he said as he lumbered away from the plane.
But no, something still wasn't right. I sat there frozen. I scoured the corners of my mind but couldn't locate the source of the queasy sensation that held me. Frank waved his arms, throwing one over and over in an arc, like a catapult officer trying to launch a reluctant Tomcat. I felt like Maverick in Topgun after Goose died: I just couldn't "engage."
Finally, given the mounting number of snafus thus far-- mostly caused by me--my pride forced me to proceed. I eased off the heel brakes, edged the throttle forward. The propwash rattled the little window. This was it--
"Stop!" Frank yelled, running up to the plane.
I jammed my heels against the brakes. He stuck his head in. "I forgot to sign you off. Got your student papers?"
I gave him my license.
"Where's your medical?"
"Huh?" Somehow I "all the sudden" remembered he'd told me to see a doctor to get approved for solo flight. Before coming to this lesson. Yes, Frank had even given me the name of a physician. (In those days the medical was separate from the student pilot certificate.) I didn't have a medical, couldn't solo without one. "I see your medical's not all you forgot," he said, pointing at my mid-section. "Oh! Seatbelt," I mumbled. (In those days cars didn't have seatbelts, so it was easy to forget; having a case of nerves didn't help either.)
A stretch of bad weather ensued, with cool front after cool front churning up thunderstorm after thunderstorm. Several lessons had to be cancelled. During this break from training, I had ample time to think. Too much time. Little gremlins kept whispering in my ear. What if the engine quits? Frank had said, "Just land like always. That's why we keep the pattern tight." What if a wing falls off? "Stick your head between your legs and kiss...." Frank had a colorful way of putting things. But my biggest concern, my greatest "What if?" was not about some mechanical failure. It was about me. What if I failed to do everything right? What then? By the time Frank and I finally got together again for the main event, I'd built up an even bigger case of the solo willies.
On the appointed day the weather was great. For the whole week prior, I'd tried to banish the mental gremlins by visualizing a happy outcome and chanting a solemn mantra to myself: Nothing will go wrong... Nothing will go wrong... Nothing....
The sky was bright blue, the wind calm. Frank was aboard and the trim was cranked in. All was right with the world. We completed two circuits, both of which seemed to end with less than the usual bouncing and to-ing and fro-ing. My big moment had arrived. I saw Frank undoing his seatbelt. I mouthed the words even before he said them--t-a-k-e- h-e-r- a-r-o-u-n-d.
There would be no excuses this time; everything was in order. The Cubby lurched up as Frank departed, as if eager to retake to the air. I took a big breath and held it for a long moment before exhaling, trying to stymie my encroaching case of hyperventilation. I wondered if they'd still call me "Lucky" after the next few minutes.
Nothing will go wrong. Nothing will go... Throttle forward. Too fast. Nothing will... What the--? The yellow devil leapt into the air as if JATO assisted. But I didn't even do anything, I thought, as I screamed skyward at an angle sure to induce a stall. I pushed hard forward on the stick, but it resisted. Then, as visions of calamity flashed through my brain, it struck me--the trim! Without Frank's weight, the plane was a penny rocket, trimmed practically full nose-up.
I reached for the hand crank--bang! What? Bang! Bang! Bang! Free from its latch, the window slammed up and down, making a frightening racket. I took a couple of turns on the crank and reached for the window. The plane banked abruptly. I slid across the seat--falling. Seatbelt! The loose ends were flopping in the wind like dancing snake heads. My God! Had Frank taken my brains with him when he got out?
Fly the plane! I was still climbing at a very steep angle. But, hey, I could see the airspeed indicator perfectly now, though I didn't need it to tell me I was dangerously slow. Forget the belt. Straighten up. Get back to trim. Pushing hard forward stick with my right hand, I cranked with my left.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Forget the window. At last, the nose was coming down, the airspeed building. For the first time I managed to look where I was. Almost in orbit! Altimeter showed over five hundred feet above pattern and still climbing.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
The incessant booming of the window was taking its toll on my fragile mental state. It had to be subdued. Best get on downwind first, I thought. I started the turn. Whoa! The seatbelt first, so I don't fall out the window. Got it! Meanwhile, the Cub, still not fully trimmed, continued its climb. Moments passed like eons. I looked for the runway. Already past the approach numbers. And higher than ever. Get it down!
Somehow, without Frank's tender encouragement, I found it hard to slip the plane as I knew I should. Instead, I pushed over into a steep dive, banking as I did to try and line up on final. Not too bright, but as you can see, performance anxiety makes a horrible waste of a young mind. (The Cub, of course, had no radio, so at least I didn't have Frank yelling in my ear. I count this as a fortunate thing; I didn't need any more distractions.)
Bending it around to final, my brain started to reset its breakers. I leveled out momentarily to gauge things. Still too high. Now I'd slip it. Okay. Come out of slip. Stabilize. I remembered Frank had said that when I was solo to look at a spot on the ground and see if it went up or down in the windshield. If it moved up, it meant I'd crash--ah, land--before there. Moving down meant I'd land beyond that point. Just ahead were the utility wires (buried now) along the road, a couple of hundred feet from the threshold. I fixed them in the windshield. They were coming up. Fast!
Back on the stick. Easy. Level out. Oops! I was looking up at the wires. Back stick again. Not too hard. The little yellow bear pirouetted over the wires, missing by what had to be nanometers.
But you know what? The touchdown was Zen like, the sound of one-hand-clapping: I never even heard a chirp.
A small crowd had gathered to watch what they'd obviously thought was going to be an occasion for the CAB (Civil Aeronautics Board, pre-FAA, pre-NTSB) accident investigators. As I taxied up, everyone except Frank just slinked away shaking his or her heads.
I put the window up, the door down and got out. It was hard, because this time the plane was almost too small to contain my pride-swollen body and me.
Frank walked over, white as runway striping. "Good job," he stammered.
Moments later I couldn't stop chattering about my flight, even as Frank was ripping the back out of my shirt.
Yes, no matter how you slice it, soloing an airplane is a big deal. And if you count yourself among those who have, no matter what your future aviation attainments may be, you deserve a great deal of respect. For you, my friend, are a pilot.
PS. After about fifteen hours of training, my flying career had to take an extended hiatus. It wasn't until ten years later that I was again able to take up the challenge of flight, when I had to go through the entire soloing process again with a different instructor.