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Soloing at Sixteen

By Dan Ralston

September 1,  2016 - For those of us in aviation, your sweet 16 isn’t just about getting a driver’s license, it is also the minimum age to solo. Soloing is when you spread your wings. It is time for pride, responsibility, and accomplishment. As any pilot can tell you, when you solo, it’s your day.

Building up to this day was unique for me in many ways. Ever since I first had an airline flight at age 8, much of my heart remains in the clouds. What attracted me the most, I think, is the calm of a pilot’s intellect, maturity, and leadership. The way they can turn any four digit call sign into a snazzy reiterated commonality. Their precision when flying essentially a large missile smoothly onto a small piece of pavement. What finally drove the nail home was Capt. Sully Sullenberger’s remarkable and heroic landing on the Hudson River. At age 10 I said, “I want to be like him.” And I’ve never changed.

The where and how of my flying is somewhat rare. I fly at a 2,000-foot-long grass airfield, parallel to a hill on one side of a small valley and surrounded on one end by tall trees. When landing you must make your downwind, base, and final approach legs all within the small confines of the valley and, depending on the runway direction, drop down over trees on short final. The valley is oriented north and south, with the wind usually from the west or east. Strong down drafts from the hills and crosswinds from gullies add to the difficulty. Now, in all fairness, most pilots can fly into Cooperstown without much sweat on their brow. But learning in these conditions was a challenge. As my flight instructor (a heavy-weathered Florida sailor) said, “If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere,” except Alaska.

What was even more unique about my training was my aircraft: A Cessna 172 with absolutely no added technology dating past 1975. Finding an airplane whose gauges lag six seconds, and in which radio navigation is the only way to navigate is becoming a rarer combination. That is why I learned to fly by the seat of my pants.

On my first lesson, my instructor noticed me staring at the gauges. “Look out ahead,” he said. “That is the picture. The picture is worth a thousand gauges. Get the picture, you’ll get the airplane.” Bogus, I thought. How do the airliners fly? With gauges. And those guys certainly must know what they’re doing.

But after a few more lessons, I began to see (quite literally). Looking outside gave a more tangible and genuine feel of flying. You can get ahead of the airplane this way, predict its movements, and fly more gracefully and efficiently. I started to think, the gauges will come later. This guy knows what he’s talking about. My takeoffs and landings became instantly better. On takeoff, I could see the ground speed increase, feel when the plane wanted to fly, and sense the gyro effect when the plane popped off the ground. When landing, I could predict bumps in the air, and I could see the ground speed slow as I pulled to get every last knot of airspeed out of the plane. I could now see invisible principles.

I took a flight lesson for kicks at a “real” airport, with a tarmac and a flight school. I hopped in their new Cessna 172 and found myself looking at two dark screens and some switches. I thought same plane, a glass cockpit won’t make a difference. I was correct, but only to a physical point; the style and mannerisms of my flying changed. I was instructed on takeoff to watch the airspeed indicator and at 55 knots pull back to 10 degrees nose up. Acceptable, but so bland. Spices and seasonings were missing. The rest of the flight went the same way. Fine, but not fun. The precision of the instruments didn’t make the flying perfect. After I told this new instructor my way of flying at home, with the emotions and feelings, he joked, “Sounds like the ’20s.” Some good things never change. 

There is also a very academic aspect to flying as well. At age 13 I started studying for my written and oral examination. More than just wanting to pass my 80-question test, I wanted to make sure I was proficient and knowledgeable, not just for my own safety but for everyone else.  Adopting this mindset helped me to excel in academics throughout high school as well. I understood more why education was important and that really learning something is much more valuable than getting an A. 

So when I reached the time to solo, I was prepared, not in a common way but from a steadfast method. In October, cool temperatures combined with the dark skies and wind. Smooth gray clouds gathered, overlapping and reshaping, blocking out all the sunlight. Not a typical day to fly. Local winds were forecast at 10 knots gusting to 15. For the man in the 100,000 pound jet, those are light winds. For me, an inexperienced teen in a single engine trainer, it was a real challenge.

Sixteen-year-old me walked into the open hangar with a bit of arrogance. My instructor was going to ride with me for the first flight. I stowed my flight gear, pushed the plane into the cool damp air, ran through the checklist, and started the engine. Wind was from the north, meaning I wouldn’t have to fly over the trees on final, but I would have to get over them on takeoff. On takeoff my wings banked 10 degrees to the right from a channeled wind through a hillside gully. Common. Climbing away a pocket of rain soaked the windshield, blurring the picture. Downwind, base, to final went by in a scrambled rush. I was behind the plane, chasing the controls. Rolling out on the spongy runway, my flight instructor told me to pull up on the ramp. I could feel my face get hot and shrink away from my skin. This was going to be the moment he would tell me today was too rough, too dangerous.

“Okay,” he said. “You’ll never forget this moment. Don’t smash up the plane. Just because I won’t sue you doesn’t mean I won’t be angry. Don’t be stupid. I’ll catch you on the radio.” And he was gone. I’ll never forget putting my hand on his seat, dumbfounded that I was alone. I talked to myself, verbally convincing myself I was ready. Somehow I got to the end of the runway. I took a deep breath and pushed the throttle forward. The airplane leapt forward. In half the normal time I was off the runway and climbing like a rocket. Amazing how much a few hundred pounds sitting next to me made. I banked hard to become parallel with the runway and slowed the plane to cruise. Now for the hard part. A common phrase is, “One percent of a pilot’s pay is for taking off, the rest is for landing.” Slowing now, I used the rudders to weather-vane towards the runway. Twice strong gusts banked my wings more than 20 degrees. But I worked the pedals and throttle. Twenty feet into the runway I planted the tires. 

This repeated twice more. 

Pictures, hugging, and handshakes followed. I felt something. I felt proud but not arrogant – like I had come in touch with something bigger and coexisted with it. That’s what flying does. It puts you outside your comfort zone and into the elements, until you learn to coexist. Fighting is not an answer. Soloing is when I learned that. And if it was not for my unique training, I probably would have missed it. Keep in touch with the roots of flying.

It’s been two years since that day, but still recall it with picture-perfect clarity. I was held to a new standard of responsibility and trust after that day. I learned how to lead myself, which I think can be one of the biggest personal challenges. Also, it was one of my biggest goals that I’ve accomplished so far in life. With no cliché intended, I put on a bigger pair of shoes.

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