I discovered today that there's soloing, and then there's soloing! Up until now my 3 solos consisted of flights in the pattern around an airport, with one each in the Citabria and Cessna at Petaluma Municipal and the tower solo in the Cessna at Napa County. Today, however was the first time I simply booked the plane and went flying.
When I arrived at Skypark today my CFI asked to see my handbook so he could look at the itinerary for today and see what we were doing, at which point I said, "well, we aren't doing anything, I'm scheduled for my solo maneuvers flight today". To which he responded, "great, I'll see you in a couple of hours", and that was that. Actually, there was a little more to it than that. I had some questions about where I should or shouldn't go, and questions about things I perhaps should or shouldn't do, and he in turn had some suggestions about things I might want to try, and of course he had to sign off on the whole plan as well, otherwise, I wasn't going anywhere. Once through the formalities and questions, I asked if he had any reservations about this particular plan and he simply told me to "have fun", and I headed out to pre-flight the plane.
It was from this moment that it started to get particularly interesting and felt different than any of the previous 32 times I had been up in the air, and much different than my previous solos. Those solo experiences consisted of flying out to an airport with the instructor in the plane, making a few passes through the pattern and then dropping him off on the taxiway while I took the plane for a few turns and landings in the pattern, today, I was pre-flighting the plane and no one was getting in it with me...at all.
I went through each step of the pre-flight, checking and double checking each item, taking my time to make sure I wasn't overlooking anything. Not that I don't do this with every flight, but today, there was no one sitting next to me to say things like, "hmm...what are we forgetting?". Amazing how substantial that difference is. I ran through my pre-flight and pulled the plane out for the runup, once again, in a most serious and focused mode, but at the same time, with a huge grin ear to ear, as I could barley believe what I was about to do.
Completing my run up I did one last check of the wind and headed down the taxiway to the end of 26 where I stopped to perform my take off check list. I found myself just sitting there for a couple of minutes, soaking it all in. Not that I was particularly nervous, but I took a couple of deep breaths to calm myself just a bit and make one last check around the plane, windows shut, trim set, flaps at 10 degrees, everything looks clear on final...ok, here we go "Skypark traffic, Cessna Five Three Zero Echo Romeo taking off on two six for a left crosswind departure". I rolled out to the end of the runway, centered the Cessna, and started my take off roll. Within seconds I was climbing out above Sonoma for my first real solo flight.
Wow, this was unbelievable. I had the confidence to know I could go accomplish what I had set out to do, but still, you're thinking about it...all of it, climbing to 4500 feet, watching for traffic, thinking about what I was going to do now that I was up there, thinking about the fact that I would eventually have to come back and land. I headed out toward the south end of Sonoma County where the hay fields and vineyards meet the bay, choosing to take my first real solo in an airspace I was used to, that I had practiced in before. I climbed to 4500 feet just soaking it all in, looking out over the bay, and the city of San Francisco, looking north to Petaluma, and west out to Mount Tamalpais and the Pacific Ocean, it was so incredibly beautiful, and quiet, and fantastic. I was flying a plane, as in, really flying a plane, if I wanted to I could have taken it, well, almost anywhere...sort of. Ok, time to get back to reality, after all, I have work to do.
I had printed out a list of the maneuvers I wanted to practice, slow flight, medium and steep bank turns, stalls, turns on a point and S turns. I started out by setting the plane up for slow flight with the idea that this would help calm down my enthusiasm and get me really focused on the task at hand, so after 90 degree clearing turns in both directions I throttled back to idle, dropped the flaps 10 degrees, then 20, then 30, then adjusting the trim and keeping the nose pitched up just enough to hold my altitude, slowed the plane down to 45 knots. I then started practicing some slow flight maneuvers, including straight flight, turns, descending and ascending turns.
Recovering the plane to full power I decided to try a few slips. so configuring the plane in an approach configuration of 65 knots, I applied full right rudder and left aileron and proceeded to descend in a controlled slip. It felt so good I just held it there, the Cessna yawed nose left while maintaining a nice straight track on my heading as I continued to descend, 100 feet, 200 feet, 300 feet, and then repositioned the controls, pushed full throttle started my roll, and pitching the nose up started a nice turning climb back up to 4500 feet. Amazing! Perhaps it's the pressure of performing these maneuvers with a professional instructor in the plane, but I was flying better than I ever had before. This was just the shot of confidence I needed at this point in my training, I needed to know that I could do these things without relying on anyone else, and I needed to do them without any apprehension or fear.
Leveling off at 4500 feet I set myself up for my next maneuver, a power off stall. Now, these things are enough to challenge you even when you're riding shotgun next to your instructor, but to practice them alone, this was about to take flying to whole new level for me. I once again configured the plane mimicking approach conditions, bringing out the throttle, setting the trim, and engaging the flaps 10 degrees at a time until they were fully extended, pitching the nose down slightly to maintain 65 knots, and holding a nice, even descent, again, the idea of a power off stall is to mimic the conditions of a landing and practice the recovery from getting one self into an inadvertent stall in the process. I then began to pull the yoke back, steadily towards me as the plane began to pitch, nose up, farther, farther, farther...I could here the stall warning go off but still I continued to pull the yoke back, holding the nose up until...there it is, the buffet...and then the nose started to pitch down, and putting some power back in I steadily pulled the yoke back just enough to stop the descent, leveled the wings, started retracting the flaps, adjusted the trim and started to climb before leveling off. Holy smokes, I had just pulled off my first solo stall! I was still flying, and having only lost a couple of hundred feet in the process was still alive to tell the tale. If felt so good I set the plane up and did it 2 more times.
After performing the power off stalls I moved to the full power stalls. After more clearing turns, I proceeded to do 3 full power stalls in a row with each one filling me with a little more confidence about my ability to control the Cessna. I still couldn't believe it, I was a mile in the air practicing stalls alone and loving it.
Having finished my death defying aerobatics with great success, I moved on to my next set of maneuvers, turns on a point. Now, if you've been keeping up with this journal, you know that my first attempt at these in the Citabria with 15 knot crosswinds didn't go so well, but I later nailed a few of them out over a water tower on the north shore of Long Island during the summer. Today I picked a spot in the middle of a large field where several trails from the field converged into a star pattern. Holding my altitude at 1500 feet I entered downwind into position and proceeded to complete 3, 360 degree turns, then as I maneuvered out of the pattern just enough to turn 180 degrees, I came back in around to the same spot and completed 3, 360 degree turns in the opposite direction. I could tell that I was really keeping a nice even distance during both sets of turns and that I had continued to hold my desired altitude throughout and while it felt good at the time, I had no idea how good it was until I looked back at the GPS track later in the afternoon. That's really why I like GPS tracking during practice as it provides a great perspective on what you really did, or didn't do, when you were in the air.
By this point I was feeling pretty good about my flying, and since I still had some time left, I headed out over a long stretch of highway along the north end of the bay to practice my next maneuver, S turns over a road. I had done a few of these last week with JP that, while they were ok, weren't good enough to pass the check ride, so I really wanted to spend some time on them and see if I could figure out how I could make them better. I think I must have done 8 sets of them by the time I was finished and felt a lot better about what was really supposed to happen. I would have kept going but my time was running short and I needed to get the plane back and didn't want to feel pressured to hurry.
Since I would be landing at Sonoma Skypark for my first solo landing there, I also wanted enough time to go around if I had to attempt it more than once. Making my call about 5 miles out into Skypark traffic, I then proceeded to enter on a 45 for a left downwind to 26. I was excited, and a bit nervous at the same time, after all, this is my home turf so to speak, and it's the one place I really want to get it right. I may not have mentioned this before, but out of all the places I have landed, Skypark is by far the most challenging. The runway is flanked on both ends by trees, is 2400 feet long and only 25 feet wide, compare this to the runway at neighboring Napa County which is nearly 6,000 feet long and 150 feet wide, and at Skypark you can almost always bet there's a crosswind waiting to surprise you about 50 feet from the ground. Flying through each leg of the pattern and making my calls I was setup for a perfect approach to 26. Coming over the trees, I maneuvered into a slip to adjust for our famous crosswind, straightened the Cessna out just over the numbers, flared just above the ground and rolled out for one of my smoothest landings there to date. When I parked the plane and came into the office, which over looks the runway at Skypark, my instructor said words that made me feel even better, "wow, that must have been nice, I didn't even know you landed". What an amazing end to an incredible day of flying. Truly, while everything about flying is amazing, for me, this was the best experience yet. Today, I felt like a pilot.