“Ask any pilot how they started flying, and you will hear a love story.” —Author Unknown
“You can do this,” I said. Never mind there was no one to hear me within … oh, 1,000 feet or so. Straight down. “Nothing to it,” I added. Nothing like a pep talk for confidence, even if it’s with yourself.
That little self support session occurred more than four decades ago, however thinking about it last Saturday while at the Mount Pleasant (Texas) Regional Airport made it seem more like yesterday. The occasion last weekend was a tour of the Mid-America Flight Museum, without a doubt the finest collection of WW II and vintage aircraft in this part of the country.
Our group making the tour included my daughter, Robin, her husband Jonathan and their children, and my sister Sylvia. Few in my family are strangers to flying, especially my sister or my children. New pilot’s license in hand in 1974, my first passengers included many trusting family members. A few years later when my children came along, Robin and her brother Lee often accompanied me on Saturday afternoon jaunts exploring the Shelby County Texas countryside, or cross country trips, spending a portion of their childhood in the air.
Saturday’s tour guide was Frankie Glover, brother of museum owner Scott. Frankie and I earned a license about the same time at the old Mount Pleasant airport located on property now part of Priefert Manufacturing.
Walking through the collection of old planes and watching new ones come and go reminded me of that “yesterday” at the old airport long ago. It was a day marked by one of the best conversations ever experienced with myself on one of the most memorable days for every pilot—the first solo flight.
Instructor Doyle Amerson’s style was soloing student’s with little, if any, warning. I suspect that was likely to reduce anxiety. But, in any case, that’s exactly how Doyle played it April 23, 1974.
Flying an hour of instruction after work, we practiced the usual stuff: turns, stalls, patterns, etc. Our return to the airport included another training standard: “touch and go”— letting the wheels touch the runway on landing, then applying full takeoff power without stopping in order to go around and repeat the process as often as the instructor deems appropriate.
As wheels touched mother earth the third time that day, Doyle said, “Make it a full stop landing.” Thinking we were done for the day, I let the airplane roll out approaching the first turn to the ramp. “Stop here on the runway,” he added.
As I braked the plane to a stop, Doyle unbuckled his seatbelt and exited the aircraft. Pausing before shutting the door, he said, “Show me two touch-and-goes and a full-stop landing.”
“By myself,” I stammered?
“That’s the idea,” he smiled.
Taxiing to the end of the runway for takeoff, I stared at the 3,000-foot narrow ribbon of asphalt ahead of me. And, this is where we came in at the beginning of this missive. The day I not only soloed, but the day I learned that the best conversations are often with ourselves. This one began with a little pep talk, appreciating the full gravity of the fact I was about to pilot an airplane for the first time—alone.
Centering the airplane on the runway and applying full power, I simultaneously threw in a short prayer and a reminder to breath every so often, whether I needed to or not.
A short run and we lifted off. “We” being me and the plane, but that’s not the hard part. Most modern aircraft will lift off and began climbing with very little control needed. Getting it back on the ground right side up and in one piece, now that’s where the fun really begins.
Our conversation, “our” being me, the plane and I, continued for the flight’s duration—out loud. Suddenly, I was both the student and the instructor, an arrangement that really worked very well. “Downwind 1,200-foot altitude.” Check. “Airspeed and flaps” Check. “Maintain 70 on final.” Check.
The little Cessna’s wheels gently kissed the runway. “Flaps up for takeoff.” Check. “Full takeoff power and trim.” Check. I got a glimpse of Doyle kneeling in the grass just off the right side of the runway as we regained flying speed. I counted it a good thing that while he was kneeling, he was flashing a “thumbs up.” At least he didn’t appear to be be praying.
“That wasn’t so bad,” I thought as we lifted off the second time. Small successes foster confidence plus a little humor. ”So,” I smiled. “You aced one, now the goal becomes making sure all the takeoffs and landings come out even.”
Fortunately, they did. Immediately following, the old tradition of the instructor cutting off the student’s shirt tail after the first solo was ceremoniously conducted amid plenty of smiles.
Thus, in the months and years that followed that summer in ‘74, a childhood dream of flying an airplane became a passion and source of enjoyment. There is little in life that matches a majestic view from the heavens when you’re directing the journey.
Unless, of course, it’s quality conversation with yourself on the day you log your first solo flight.
Aldridge columns are also published in the Center, Texas, Light and Champion (http://www.lightandchampion.com) and the Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tribune newspapers (http://www.tribnow.com).