Your connection with the sky

June 18th, 2012: Soloing at Petaluma Municipal

Pretty hard to describe a day like today but I'll give it my best shot.

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Word was on Friday after having a number of nice landings, that Monday might just be first solo day. Don't think I didn't chew on that one all weekend. Not that I was worried or nervous, but it's certainly something that gets your attention, I mean, really? Sure I've been putting in a lot of hours trying to get this figured out but solo? Me? As in...fly the airplane alone? I was super excited by the thought of it all weekend and if I had any nervousness or apprehension it was more about "not" being able to do it. What if the weather didn't play along, what if it was too windy, what if I was more nervous than I was letting myself believe and when it came right down to it I wasn't confident enough?

It was a good thing it was Father's Day weekend and I had my God son and his crazy sisters in town on Sunday because they kept me totally preoccupied with mayhem. Monday morning rolled around quick and I was up at the crack of dawn...anxious? Absolutely! I made my way into work where of course I'm instantly absorbed with the business of the day, but before I knew it the alarm on my phone was going off reminding me it was time to get to the airport.

First things first. My instructor went over my pre-solo exam with me and then we discussed the expectations of the solo flight. Together we would fly over to Petaluma, make a couple of landings with him in the plane and then, if everything felt right, he'd jump out and I'd do 3 take offs and landings solo. Roger that.

And that's just how it went. I made my entry into the pattern and flew the plane in for landing #1, everything went very well and I set the plane down very softly...nice, so Friday wasn't a fluke. Ok, don't get cocky. 2nd trip through the pattern everything was looking good but coming into final I was thinking already about how if this went well, the next one would be all me. Big mistake. While my approach on final was clean and smooth, it was a good 10 mph too fast. I was anticipating the next flight so much that I didn't pay attention to my speed and found myself sailing over the numbers low and fast, ok, one quick touch of the wheels and forget the flare, we were already airborne so as it was all clear ahead it was go around time. Back in the air it was pretty obvious what had just transpired so there wasn't a lot of conversation about it. I didn't feel bad about it, I knew what I had done, and everything about my approach was fine...well, except for the excess speed of course.

The next loop around the pattern felt very good. Paying attention to all of the little details I performed coordinated turns, kept my altitude and speed on the mark and comfortably made all of the appropriate radio calls. This time my turn onto base was smooth, onto final, still smooth. Concentrating on attitude and speed I held a consistent 70 and when we caught a little lift at 100 feet or so, I even found myself putting in a slip to drop some speed and steepen my descent. Seconds later we were on the ground, another soft 3 point landing and I knew what was coming next. "Ok, drop me off in the departure area, you're ready". I wasn't about to argue but I couldn't help but think, really? who's crazier, him or me? He thinks I'm ready, but do I think I'm ready? I guess it's like having children, if you wait until you're ready, you'd never have them. If he says I'm ready, I'm going with that.

Out he jumped, radio in hand and said, "I'll test it when you get ready for takeoff and I'll be on the other end if you need me". "If you come down and it doesn't feel right, just go around and try it again". We tested the radio, I ran through my takeoff check list, and off I went.

Unbelievable. No one on the plane to save me if I botch this takeoff, no one in the plane to help me if I get in trouble in the air, no one there to make the radio calls, no one there to tell me what to do, or not to do, and most importantly, no one there to take control and land this plane, I was going to have to bring it back to the ground. You'd think I would have been a bundle of nerves but you know, instead, I just felt a great sense of calm, of relief, of confidence. I think in some ways you're more nervous flying with an instructor, after all, they know everything you're doing wrong, and they comment on everything you do or don't do as they would, and they always have one more tip, one more idea, but now, at this very moment, it was just me and that plane and whatever I knew or thought I knew was right, and it felt great. I ascended and turned, and flew the pattern making each of my radio calls in good time, I held my speed and altitude and attitude just as I had done before, checking my carb heat at the right moment and dropping my speed back to 70, trimming out the plane nicely. Entering my turn to final I was just where I wanted to be, 600 feet or so at a smooth 70 aiming straight down the center line. Was this really happening? Was this me flying this plane? Right on the numbers I set the Citabria down for what was undoubtedly the smoothest 3 point landing I had made yet, keeping my hand off the throttle, I rolled out smoothly.

I wanted to scream, really I did, I wanted to scream loud, but I didn't, I let me brain scream while the rest of me remained calm. Taxiing down past my CFI at the departure line, I flashed a peace sign out the window and he waived me on to do it again. Fantastic, I had done it. I had taken the plane up and brought it back down and in style. I was elated. The next 2 takeoffs and landings were much the same, although on number 3 I got taken by a surprise crosswind that dipped the left wing coming in on final but I didn't let it rattle me, I just adjusted and flew the plane on in landing a little more on the right wheel this time, but straight down the lines in the center of the runway and setting the plane down smoothly for the rollout. 3 takeoffs, 3 landings, solo...flying doesn't get much better than this!

My instructor jumped back in the plane, congratulated me on my performance and we headed back to Skypark in Sonoma where I made one more landing onto that infamous runway 8, dropping in lower and slower today for my last 3 point landing of the day. My first solo, exactly 6 weeks to the day from my first flight. I couldn't be happier or feel better about everything that had just transpired.

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