Flight; Part 2, The Solo
Antioch airport didn’t have the most desirable layout for seasoned pilots, let alone student pilots hoping to survive their first solo, which I found my youthful self to be in the summer of ’66.
The instructor who’d signed off on me was Jerry Graham, owner of Graham Flying Service, who was at that moment standing over by the fuel pumps watching with a calmness I’d have given anything for.
When I gave it full throttle the little Aircoupe, with only me in it, went faster and got in the air quicker than it ever had, which I’d been told happened on solos. The heretofore-cramped cockpit seemed absolutely roomy for one person, but the lap belt lying there useless on the neighboring seat reminded me I’d be best served to focus on what I was to do next. ‘Always stay in front of the airplane’ the instructor who wasn’t there told me again.
Alrighty then. I made the standard peculiar-to-Antioch forty-five degree turn to the right as soon as I cleared the power lines guarding the end of the runway, thereby avoiding having to land on an upcoming protruding hillside in the event of an engine failure, which, it was hoped, wouldn’t happen until after you cleared the power lines.
So far, so good. Then I straightened back out on the Departure Leg until I reached an altitude of 1,000 feet which is the normal height of small-plane airport traffic patterns. Then left on the Crosswind Leg for about half a mile, then left again on the Downwind Leg, then…hey! There I was, all by myself, actually flying an airplane! I took a moment to look around, and at that moment I was with Ernest K. Gann, author of ‘Fate is the Hunter’, and St. Exupery, author of ‘Wind, Sand, and Stars’, and I felt as they had long ago, when they conveyed the perspective of winging high above earthly mortals to we who would follow. My entire being expanded outward like a balloon, barely kept in check by the canopy.
I began my descent and then turned left again on the Base Leg, but by then I was a Pilot with a capital ‘P’ and I’m pretty sure I had a smirk on my face when I turned left once more, smooth as silk, onto my Final Approach. This would be where the rubber meets the road, and it did. Again and again and again, bouncing down the runway like a basketball being dribbled down the court. There was no appeasing the scorekeeper on this one and I finally gave it full throttle in mid-bounce and went around again, minus the smirk. The second landing attempt was better and the third was actually bearable, although by then I was so thoroughly chastened there wasn’t a hint of smirk left in me.
Jerry waved me over to the gas pumps and drew his finger across his neck, which I dearly hoped was a signal to shut down the engine. He seemed unfazed and told me to come into the office after I gassed up the plane.
When I finally entered the office, my erstwhile balloon deflated and humble, Jerry was waiting for me with his wife/clerk Marty and my fellow student Jim Litster, who’d added a part-time job at the airport to his busy life. There was a solemn air about them, or maybe that was just me. Marty came over with her pinking shears and cut my shirttail off, which they had me sign. Jerry then tacked it to the wall with the other successfully-soloed student’s shirttails.
In a fit of heartfelt exuberance I invited them all to the pizza parlor on me, but Jim was the only one who took me up on it. Gosh though, what a wonderful ending to what I’d feared was a disaster. Jerry did make a point of opening my logbook though, and, while flourishing his pen over the ‘maneuvers’ column, asked Jim how many landings he had counted. Jerry thought there’d been seven, Jim insisted eight, and in the end Jerry simply wrote ‘first solo’. I could live with that. Boy howdy, could I!
It took another ten hours of dual instruction over the next four months before I soloed a second time, those hours packed not only with reviewing past skills but adding several new ones. Some, like cross-country navigation and turns about a point and slow flight were demanding but interesting. Others such as crosswind landings and a good portion of ‘air work’ were just demanding. A few—stalls, spins, and ‘unusual attitudes’—were very close to terrifying, and I only put ‘very close to’ in there because I don’t want to be taken for a total wuss.
The next ten hours were mostly solo with a couple check rides thrown in, but I suppose I was considered competent enough to run around by myself without getting into too much trouble. I flew Aircoupes exclusively and still struggled with getting a smooth touch on the controls, unlike my student partner Jim Litster; he thrived on this flying stuff and got his Private Pilot’s license, then started working on his commercial and instructor ratings. He and his brother, Tom, each pitched in $600 and bought an old bare-bones 1946 Taylorcraft for—you guessed it—twelve hundred dollars. It was that cheap because, for one thing, it had no electrical system, hence no radios and worse, no starter. To get the engine running someone had to spin the propeller by hand, like you used to see in the old World War I films. He offered to sell a piece of it to me for a couple hundred bucks but I told him if I wanted a piece of that thing I’d wait around and pick it up off the ground.
If somebody’d told me that I would be the sole owner of that Taylorcraft in the future I’d have laughed him right out of the hangar.
To be continued…