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Technically, I suppose my real first solo would have been sometime in 1962 after I had taken my driver’s road test and was pronounced “fit to drive” by some anonymous state examiner. In truth, I’d probably experienced several “solos” by then—first time going over town by myself, first day at school, first ride beyond the property line on my bicycle…Perhaps it had become so commonplace, that I no longer regarded a “first solo” as particularly remarkable.
Until, that is, one Florida winter day, 18 February 1966, according to my well worn pilot’s logbook. On that day, a grizzled Certified Flight Instructor—who, in truth, was probably only three or four years older than me—stepped out of the right seat of the Cessna 150 into which we’d been squeezed, onto the runway at HWO, and told me to, “take ’er around three times and then come back and pick me up.”
Naturally, it wasn’t a complete surprise—everyone who takes up flying is aware of the process and the general timeline, and in my case, I was enrolled in a very structured program at a local community college, so the syllabus was not only available for all to see, but a copy was in my actual possession. Consequently, without an opportunity for any reluctance, I called the tower, throttled up, and got underway for my first trip around the pattern by myself.
The only thing I really remember about it was when I was established on downwind for the first landing, I started thinking about being by myself. I was a little nervous but then it occured to me that this wasn’t any different than what I’d been doing for the dozen hours which had led to this point. It gave me all the confidence I needed to let the distance under my wings to the ground gradually reduce to zero on final approach. After that, I don’t remember a thing. Early landings for a pilot can be little more than unsuccessful attempts at crashing, or, as the old joke goes, any landing from which one can walk away. It would be many hours and a couple of different aircraft checkouts before I learned to land so passengers didn’t even notice.
The real lesson in that first solo doesn’t come until years later. And that lesson is, one never forgets their first solo. My only disappointment is that because there were so many students in the program (there were at least three flight schools at OPF, contributing to making it the busiest airport in the world for a time) that there was little time for the customary clipping of one’s shirt tail for memorialization on the wall of the facility. Whatever shirt I wore that day was eventually discarded fully intact.
Further accomplishments (checkrides) in my aviation development, such as my Commercial license and my Instrument rating, passed unremarkably. They were almost a fait accompli as a consequence of a very well structured and disciplined training program. I know it doesn’t sound like it, but 200 hours of flight training in eighteen months is fairly concentrated. One of the consequences of it I noted was, after about an eleven year layoff of flying, I went to get a Biennial Flight Review, and when I did the walk around of the airplane before flight, I could feel it was just like the ones I had done so many times more than a dozen years earlier. It really was bred into me.
It occurred to me recently that “check rides” and certifications weren’t really all that different during my years in the FAA, either. I vaguely remember my first day sitting at a sector all by myself, the sole guy in charge of it. I did have that similar “this isn’t any different than with my trainer plugged in” feeling as on downwind on my first solo flight. But by that time in my life (some three years after that solo) I knew a little bit more about me, and a lot more about my job, so the drama just wasn’t the same.
Nevertheless, I went through that process forty times during my career (yes, the list isbut frankly, there was never any doubt in those outcomes. Hubris? No. Much like the flight instruction, our training in the FAA was pretty good. I had a lot of opportunities to practice so it was like stepping off the escalator when it reaches the top (or bottom)—you’ve known what to do for some time, that next step comes pretty naturally.
But that first flight solo is definitely different from all those other scenarios—driving, ATC, etc.—there is absolutely, utterly, no safety net, but you don’t understand until you’re on that downwind that one isn’t really needed.
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