Pete’s solo story

Pete Nardo (left) shows off his snipped shirt tail with his flight instructor, Ron Klutts.

While in Palm Springs for AOPA Summit, I hung out with student pilot Pete Nardo and his flight instructor, Ron Klutts. Pete had soloed just a week or so before the show, and after I got back to Maryland he sent me his account of the big day. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did, not only for the encouragement it gives to pre-solo students but also for the perspective it lends to those of us a little farther down the path.—Jill W. Tallman

The morning of Sat. Oct 6 2012 started for most people the normal way. For me, it was anything but normal. The day before, I flew with a chief pilot aboard. He said I had it in me to solo, but today we would put that statement to the test. I didn’t get much sleep the night before, flying the pattern in my head and watching aviation videos till the wee hours of the morning. I imagined Lindberg had similar anxiety flying the Atlantic, 33 hours without sleep.

0900- I make a cocktail of energy drink and soda, plus a light snack. “Charlie-Alfa-Tango, Hold Short” I said to the cat as I made my way out the door. I looked to the sky and it was blustery, gusts to almost 18, Clear visibility. Would this be the day? Would I orphan my cat. Ultimately the answer was yes to the first question, no to the second. 

I take my first step out the door. I would return as a pilot.

 1400-I brought along a photographer friend Johnny to document the event, waiting for me was a crew setting up cameras in N48849.  I did my preflight, checklist in hand, as I had a number of times before. To me, this is an act that ties me to the Wright brothers, Chuck Yeager, Neil and Buzz, and Amelia Earhart. 

They all had their first flight alone…This one, however, was mine.

 1530-It seemed to take longer than I wanted it to but we got through to taxi and run-up. It’s a good idea to practice a few times around the pattern with Ron my CFI aboard before committing to the solo. The winds at KPAO rattled us around a bit for an hour, and I was getting fatigued and dehydrated so we decided to put her down and decide if it would be go, or no go. We talk aviation stories at the terminal till the ATIS weather is updated. 

 1650- The weather was not improving much, indeed, the wind picked up another knot. Crosswind component was 4.5 knots, I’ve landed in worse than that. After agonizing for a few minutes it came down to one question. Do you have it in you? Yes I do. 

Back in the plane for a few more practice laps.

 1800- Taxing back we felt good about my chances. Ron warned me that the plane would climb like it had JATO bottles stuck to it without him in the right seat. Filling out the paperwork it felt like, this is the real deal, it’s official. I get to do this. We turn this into a photo opportunity because the sun is lighting up the sky a pretty shade of orange. 

We shook hands.

 1815- I turn to my instructor and say “Ron you’re good a pilot, a friend and a fine instructor…But get the hell out of my aircraft”. He smiles, shuts the door behind him, the cabin grows eerily quiet. “Well, that’s just great, now what am I supposed to do?” Ron’s voice in my head: Mixture in, Clear Prop, Master on, Key to ignition…Go. “Time to get some,” I must have said as the little Cessna started rolling with one guy in it. That guy was me. Run-up and make calls to the tower like I did a hundred times before, then the “Hold short” call.

 “Iv’e waited all my life for this,” I said. “Cleared for takeoff,” they said. “What do I stand for, What’s in you?…Throttle up, Gauges green, Airspeed alive, Rotate 50…..YeeHaw!” 849er went up F-16 style. I’m a 7-year-old kid flying his kite all over again. Today I’m not building a model airplane, I’m flying a real one!  Two times around, it feels like the plane was on rails tracing around the pattern. Training kicks in and you don’t think much about the nitty-gritty aspects of flying, you just do it like you did a hundred times before, almost on reflex. A look left revealed the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. This is exactly why I fly. To experience firsthand the beauty, the majesty, the wonder of it all. There will not be another sunset like that one in my lifetime. I wanted the clock to just freeze right then.  

It was my defining moment, Pete Nardo—Pilot. 

  I could have been in the pattern all day, but it was getting dark, and as much as I would have liked to stay, I had to put the plane down…safely. Planes like this one don’t land themselves, It’s all on me. A little bit of crosswind wanted to blow me to the left, so I did a crab then a slip to maintain centerline. Flare, Flare (I could hear Ron’s voice in my head). The chirp of the tires meant I was on the ground, but no time to celebrate yet. I gotta park this thing. I roll to a stop, tower says, “Great landing 849er.” I said thanks but was too choked up with emotion to say much more. I take a minute at the taxiway to clean up the aircraft, and say “I did it, I’m a pilot”.  Then I put on a Hachimaki (Japanese headband worn for inspiration, mine literally said Kami-Kaze) in honor of my Senseis (Teachers). I got clearance to park, which I did, and then the motor was silent. 

 1845-As I sat there in front of the flight school the sun was emitting the last of its rays, I was in a quiet moment of reflection. Everything about my life up to this point prepared me to do this. In my flight bag were three photos. One of my family, one of my Grandparents, and one with a 7-year-old kid who is flying a kite, and missing his front tooth. That kid, this pilot….Was me. 

 I must have had a tear in my eye, probably balling too, and I was so happy, I didn’t care.

Every pilot that solos has their own story to tell. This one was mine….What will yours be?

 Peter Nardo

Cessna 152, Palo Alto Municipal Airport

October 6, 2012

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8 Responses to “Pete’s solo story”

  1. Meg Win says:

    Wonderful story!!

    Congratulations!

  2. Claudia Contreras says:

    OMG I just relieved my solo. The experience stays with you for the rest of your life. That day is just as important if not more than the day that you get your license. November 16, 2003 was my day.

    Congratulations. And welcome to the small and elite group known as pilots.

  3. John C. - Fort Lauderdale, FL says:

    Congrats Pete! Great story — thanks for sharing!

    I’m a new pilot — completed my FAA check-ride July 27 of this year. Oh what a feeling!

    Good luck to you as you move forward with your solo XCs and ultimately, your FAA check ride. I can tell from reading your “solo story” that you’re going to do just fine! You definitely have what it takes.

    Stay safe and have fun up there soaring with the birds!

    John C.
    Fort Lauderdale, FL

  4. Margaret Raia says:

    Congratulations Pete and thanks for sharing your story. I’m a student pilot, I just passed my written and have lots of hours to do in the air yet. I am scared just thinking about my first solo! It helps to hear about what other people experience.

  5. Maynard McKillen says:

    You dreamed it, you worked toward it, you made it real. Take in the happiness, keep that pride of accomplishment with you forever. You’ve earned them both.

  6. John Clark says:

    Great story and congratulations! As I read this I had to stop and relive my solo I had over 17 years ago, it is still clear to this day, the whole thing. Enjoy the rest of your training and never stop learning.

  7. Josh C says:

    I know this is a year old already but what an awesome account of a solo!

    Thank you for sharing.

  8. Bob F. says:

    This story certainly does capture the true feeling of a first solo! As Claudia says, it brought back my first solo on December 31st 1992. The amazing feeling of how light the plane is with only you on board and the awesome feeling of weight you feel with only you on board! Few things in life can ever be as empowering and humbling at the same time. The second my wheels came off the ground I had the immediate realization that there was no one but me to get it back on the ground safely! What an amazing responsibility! What we should all try to remember, each time we fly is that the same responsibility is still there, and still just as important, and if we’re lucky, still almost as thrilling!
    Let’s all try to remember that feeling, and especially try not to become complacent in our skills or the experience of flight. If we take every flight as seriously as we took our first, I think there would be far fewer accidents out there.
    Be safe everyone!

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