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?
Cessna 152, Palo Alto Municipal Airport
October 6, 2012