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First Solo Flight

 

It is 1960.I have droppedout of college.Iím waiting for my draft notice.Iím relaxing.The engineering company lets me work full time.Iím waiting for my draft notice.

 

This engineering company was Robinson Technical Products.I worked full time.Otherwise I read books on flying and learning to fly.Whenever I was off work, like on weekends, I drove over to Whiteman Airport and sat in my car and watched the airplanes land and takeoff.I finally got enough nerve up and walked in to the office at Coffin Flying Service.I was very nervous.I stammered out that I wanted to try a flying lesson.I had got a book at the library that said that is what I should do.So a Korean vet, I think his name was Bill, gave me a flying lesson, in an Aeronca Champ.I was mesmerized.It was awesome.I threw almost all extra money into flying lessons, but since I was making only $2/hr, I could afford only about 1.5 hours per week.I lived to fly!It was the great escape from real life!

 

When I started to fly, in the Spring of 1960, I had no concept that I would ever have a pilot's license.I took lessons just out of fascination.Fascination dominated over by fears and airsickness.I had no friends who flew.I had no one to talk with about it.I would come home, euphoric about the day's flight.I would try to talk to my parents about it.They would immediately change the subject.They did not want to hear about it.They did not want me doing it.I just sat alone, reliving every second, of each flight lesson, over and over in my head.I devoured every book and magazine on flying I could find at the public library.It was my escape from reality (from my perceived academic failure, from my sister's muscular dystrophy, and from my dread of going into the military).

 

Have you ever read any of Richard Bach's books?His feelings about flying, are my feelings.

 

The lessons were in an Aeronca Champ.It was made of metal tubing covered with fabric painted cream with green trim.It had been rebuilt with a 90 hp engine (originally 65 hp).Still it cruised at only 85 mph.The cost was $10/hour for the airplane and $2/hr for the instructor.It had a steerable wheel at the tail.The seating was tandem.The brakes were little rods that stuck out of the floorboard to be operated by your heels.There was no radio in that airplane.There was no audio system.My instructor, Bill, sitting behind me, just yelled at me over the noise of the engine and airstream.

 

We worked at landings for about 5 lessons.I couldn't seem to get it.All the control inputs I had learned to fly in the air on the first 5 lessons were useless the moment the airplane touched the ground.In contact with the ground a whole new set of control inputs were needed.It was like patting your head with one hand while rubbing your tummy with the other hand.I felt that I was "pounding my head against a brick wall".Nothing I did, was correct.

 

Then came that fateful day.We flew around the pattern.It looked good to me, but the airplane was not lined up with the runway.We would touch down on the pavement but then immediately head off the runway to the right into the dirt and weeds.I would jam in the throttle, and try to get the thing going straight, parallel to the runway, with the rudder petals.Up would come the tailwheel off the ground.Then it was a balancing act, dancing along on those two front tires, me punching in one rudder petal and then the other, trying to keep the ship moving in a straight line.With enough speed, I would ease the stick back and be airborne once again, safe once more in my friend the sky.3 times we went around, and the same thing happened, with me running the ship off the runway into the dirt.Well anyway, each time I did recover, and get the ship back into the air, where life was normal.

 

3 more trips round the traffic pattern and I actually landed and rolled out on the runway!On the third landing, Bill yelled, "Pull over, I'm going to get out!"What?He's going to get out?!Yes!Yes!He is going to get out!I was beginning to think he would never let me solo this craft.With 11.3 hours of flight training in my logbook, I was given total command of that airplane.

 

Bill's instructions were to fly around the traffic pattern, making 2 touch-and-goes, and 1 full stop landing."Don't forget to pick me up after the final landing."He said I should expect the airplane to perform a lot better without his weight aboard, and indeed that airplane leaped from the ground and climbed rapidly to our pattern altitude of 1600 feet.

 

Those 3 solo landings were excellent!I went to where Bill was standing.He shook my hand, congratulating me.Then he said I could take the airplane up, but to be back in 45 minutes, before it got dark.He didn't have to ask me twice.I was off, climbing up and up and up.In our training I had never been above 5000 feet.What was it like to go higher?I played with different climb speeds.I opened the side window and stuck my hand out so I could feel the air going by.At around 9000 feet over Lake Piru, I gave up climbing.This was the highest and furthest I had been from the home airport.Now it was time to descend.I set the throttle at idle and began gliding.Then I slowly pulled the stick all the way back against the stops.The plane buffeted, then settled, falling off on one wing.I brought the wing up with the rudder pedal, keeping the stick back against the stops.I remembered reading in a book that this was the "falling leaf" maneuver.I came down a few thousand feet this way.With no flight instructor I was free to experiment with the flight characteristics of this airplane, at will.

 

As I drove home that afternoon, I was on top of the world.Me, Walter Mitty, had done this thing I had dreamed about since 5 years old.Nobody at home seemed interested.To me, at that point, it was the greatest accomplishment of my life!It was a major turning point in my life, and my self-esteem.