Fly Girl in Training: Flying solo for the first time

Flying solo for the first time at Yolo County Airport in a Cessna 172.

I still can’t decide which experience was stranger–flying an airplane by myself for the first time or allowing a man to cut off my perfectly good shirt.

***
It felt like opening night–part nerves, part excitement–the culmination of practice and study on display.

As I taxied up to the hold line, a set of four yellow lines that mark where the runway begins, I mentally reviewed my takeoff checklist. With a big, deep breath and a radio call, I trundled down the runway. Soon, I was airborne. And completely alone.

For solo training, I need to make three full stop landings at three different
airports. I started at Yolo which is wide and long. Then I moved to
University Airport which is narrow and short. Soon I’ll tackle Rio Linda
which is itty bitty and then loop back to Sacramento Executive, which
is gigantic by comparison and also has an air traffic control tower.

Flying the pattern, an established route around the runway that marks the rectangular path planes fly to land, felt routine, the result of concentrated practice. The only anomaly? Without my instructor, the Cessna 172 popped up to altitude a lot faster than normal which meant I had to adjust my timing on power and pitch alterations.

The first rectangle around the runway was smooth. Despite being completely alone in the pattern (so I thought at the time!), I made radio calls to indicate my position every few seconds–crosswind, downwind, base and final. As I came into land, I maintained speed, bled off altitude as needed, kept the sight picture in place and set the plane down on the runway damn near perfectly. And then I squealed. 

I FLEW AND LANDED A PLANE ALL BY MYSELF!! All. By. MYSELF. Insanity!

I flew solo for the first time after 13.2 hours of instruction and during
my ninth lesson. Next up will be learning how to land in crosswinds.

As I taxied off the runway, I let out the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding and headed back towards the take-off area once more. It was then that I noticed another plane on the ramp. Mr. T had somehow sneaked into the pattern, landing the Rans S-7S right behind me so that he and Ray-Dad, my father-in-law, could watch the proceedings. Although the sight of them increased my nerves a smidgeon, I made four more take-offs and landings without trouble (three required, two for fun!). Plus, thanks to T, I have video of one of my passes (see below)!

After the fifth round, my instructor Stan hopped back in the plane and we headed to nearby University Airport at the UC Davis campus. We practiced some landings and fueled up before going back to our home airport, Sacramento Executive. It was then that the scissors came out.

I did ensure that this flying solo shirt cutting business
is an all-pilot affair and not reserved for lady students.

You see, it’s tradition to mark the first solo flight by cutting the back of the pilot’s shirt off. Stan informed me that this ritual goes back to early days in aviation history when students learned in tandem trainers. Since there were often no radios, the instructor would pull the student’s shirt tail to communicate. Thus, removing the shirt tail was symbolic of the instructor’s confidence in the student. Stan says that since he started instructing in 1982, he’s always cut off the entire shirt back so he has room to write memorable comments.

Thinking about experience, I’m surprised to report that my prevailing emotion was not fear. Friends have asked me if I was terrified and I’ve honestly replied, “No way!” Sure, I managed a few nerves, but mostly I felt excited to demonstrate my new skills and progress in my flight training. And the feeling of being in the sky all by my lonesome? Surreal. And awesome, as in the full definition of the word.

What surprised me most was how much I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that came from maneuvering the airplane well, but also being able to recognize minor mistakes and correct them immediately. With the exception of cooking, most of my leisure pursuits are low key and do not require quick reflexes or constant decision making. There’s no life or death thought processing in gardening, that’s for sure!

You better believe I’m framing it!

I also feel such intense gratitude toward the people who’ve helped me learn and/or cheered me on during the last several weeks that I’ve dived into flight training. In particular, big thanks to Stan for being a patient and cheerful instructor, and to Mr. T for encouraging me and giving me informal training. And thanks also to the many people who’ve offered supportive words. One of the coolest things about learning to fly is joining a vibrant community of folks, and I feel so fortunate to be welcomed.

Next up: “The number one rule of flying.”

Questions or feedback? Please leave a comment below or shoot me an email: bluestmuse(at)gmail(dot)com.

xoxo,
shawna

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