I can't believe it is the moment I've longed for, dreamt of, and anxiously anticipated for almost half of my life. But now I wish I could postpone it. My right hand nervously grips the throttle, my left hand grips the wheel, and the balls of my feet press hard on the brakes. I'm positioned at one end of a narrow ribbon of tar that abruptly ends four thousand feet in front of me. There's nothing to do but advance the throttle, and I can't seem to do it. Instead, I tweak the flap setting again, fiddle with the radio's volume, reset the altimeter, double check the gyro compass against the runway heading, roll the trim insignificantly up and then back down, and wiggle in the seat looking for a position I know I won’t find.
I knew it was coming. The hours in my log book added up. More time had been spent practicing landings and after flying that morning I was told, "Come out this evening when the air is calm and we'll do more pattern work."
The air is calm, but I'm not. Not more than ten minutes ago the now vacant right seat was filled with my instructor, Larry, hollering "Left rudder! Left rudder! Get it in there!," while I butchered one landing after another as if my job was to test the little Cessna's landing gear. And that's exactly why, after taxiing back to the hangar after some evening pattern work, I was surprised when Larry said before climbing out of the airplane, "Leave the engine on. Tell the tower it is your solo flight and you'll be doing 5 touch and goes," and then closed his door and walked away.
The heat's building up in the cockpit while I stare at the engine gauges hoping for some indication of trouble, but the engine is not giving me an excuse to postpone this flight. I feel the air traffic controller, watching from the safety of his concrete tower a half mile away, growing impatient and I overpower the invisible force that's kept my right hand from advancing the throttle.
The acceleration of the half-empty aircraft catches me off guard as it leaps off the runway. The rate of climb is more than I'm used to and the lightened airplane feels twitchy. As I regain a feeling of control I begin to relax, I’ve done it, I'm airborne! I settle in a bit, scan the gauges and watch the ground slip away until I remember my situation: 500 feet above the earth, alone, for the first time. There's no one to take over if the landing approach falls apart. No one to provide reassuring control inputs. No experienced ear to decipher the control tower's instructions, issued through a small speaker, over the noise of the engine.
I put off the crosswind turn in a misguided attempt to delay the inevitable – landing – but I'm already near pattern altitude and I must make a 90-degree turn to the left. Or did the tower say right?
I turn left and the tower remains silent so I've guessed correctly. I'm still not used to the performance of the little airplane with 170 pounds of cargo missing and my rectangular traffic pattern quickly disintegrates as my crosswind turn becomes a sweeping arc to downwind.
The easy part is over and my mouth goes dry when I realize the runway is slipping by on my left and I need to set up my landing. Let's see, throttle back to 2000 rpm and slow to 70 mph. But the plane's not slowing down so I pull the carb heat on and pull the throttle back to 1500 rpm. I wiggle in my seat, not sure what to do next because the pattern I'm used to flying is falling apart. Just then the tower clears me for a touch and go – at least I think that's what they did – and I try to respond professionally but squeak out "Fo-four november papa, Oshko-osh-clear to touch and go, four november papa..." and then add as an afterthought "...runway two-seven."
I try to get the mic back in the holder but give up and let it hang from its cord when the landmark where I usually extend 10 degrees of flaps slips behind me. As the approach end of the runway passes behind my left shoulder I react to my excessive altitude by pushing the nose down. The airspeed shoots back up to 90 mph so I level out to bleed off airspeed until I can hang some flaps out.
As my downwind leg extends to nearly a mile from the end of the runway I finally get 20 degrees of flaps into the slipstream and begin a tentative right turn to base. The runway looks so far away that my right base blurs into an angled final approach and I point the nose straight for the numbers in hope of making it back to the runway at all.
I've got to make a decision: More power? Flatten out the glide? Bring some flaps up? I hesitate long enough that a decision becomes unnecessary; I'm low, but I'll make it. I'm off the runway's center line and a few small, probably uncoordinated, heading adjustments do little to improve my alignment. Meanwhile my right hand is dancing between the throttle and the flap switch but not committing to anything.
As the end of the runway drifts somewhat sideways under the landing gear I pull the throttle all the way back and start a preemptive dance on the rudder pedals. All three wheels arrive back on earth at the same time and a few seconds earlier than I anticipated. As I roll-out I notice the death grip I have on the control yoke and how wet my shirt has gotten.
Without thinking about what I've just done I raise the flaps, push the carb heat in, and adjust the trim tab for take-off so I can do it all again. The throttle goes back in and once more the Cessna leaps into the air. This time, however, I leave the ground with the confidence I can return alive and a determination to do it better.
The next two patterns are flown much better. I'm finding my landmarks but the landings are more accurately described as arrivals. Just as I begin to feel I'm controlling the airplane more than it's controlling me the tower instructs me to fly a right hand traffic pattern. Right traffic?! I don't have any landmarks for right traffic!
After two more trips around the pattern, making right traffic, my solo flight is over. I'm all business as I taxi back to the hangar:
- Contact ground control on frequency one-two-one-point-nine
- Keep the ailerons properly positioned for the wind
- Keep the yoke back
- Don't ride the breaks!
- Don't taxi too fast
- Stay on the centerline
- Retract the flaps
- Open a window - boy is it hot in here!
- Turn off the radios
- Turn off the lights
- Pull the mixture control off
- Turn the ignition off
- Turn the Master switch off
- Insert the control lock
Lose my voice
As Larry comes out to offer his congratulations, I am incapable of speech. In the silence of the ramp I, too, am silent. Not by choice, but by emotion. I realized what I've just accomplished. Not what I've done. What I've accomplished!
This was much more than my solo flight. For centuries humans dreamt of flight and I made that dream personal when I was ten. Every dime I earned mowing lawns and delivering papers was squirreled away for flying lessons. When my friends went to movies, I stayed home. When they stopped at a restaurant I pretended I wasn't hungry. And now, standing on that silent ramp, just me, Larry, and Cessna Seven-Zero-Four-November-Papa, I knew it was worth it. Every bit of it.
My walk had more purpose, I held my head higher. I had just done much more than fly an airplane by myself. But I already knew that. This wasn’t a singular 30-minute event. This was the culmination of years of dreaming, and planning, and work. Yet it was just another step in a journey I could not foresee. I went on to get my private pilot’s license just days after my seventeenth birthday. Twenty years later I began work on another dream: to build an airplane. In February, 2003, under my control, Sonex N912SX, affectionately named Metal Illness, flew for the first time. That was a special achievement celebrated with friends and champagne. And another milestone entry in my logbook.
But it is a silent ramp on the east side of Oshkosh’s Wittman Field – before tall fences with barbed wire were erected to discourage other young people from discovering aviation – in the early evening of June 20, 1980, that stands out as the place and time of my most memorable aviation moment, and without that moment none of the others would have followed.