“I’m flying a plane all by myself!” I say out loud to the empty seat beside me and smile. I radio my position, “Wilgrove traffic, this is Cherokee six seven niner two Juliet turning downwind for runway three five, Wilgrove.” I glance to my right and to my left to check for traffic and begin my turn. I can see the runway between the trees below and to my left. I check my altimeter and I’m almost to pattern altitude. I pull back my power to drop my rpms to 2300, lower my nose to stop climbing and level out, adjust my trim, check my heading indicator to make sure I’m not drifting, and I take a deep breath.
Again, I look to the empty seat beside me and I laugh out loud and say, “Oh crap, I’m flying an airplane by myself! I have to get it on the ground safely without any help!” The realization of what I’m doing is settling into my brain and it’s exciting, and nerve wrenching all at the same time. So many emotions going on, I have to tell myself to focus. I start talking out loud as I’m prone to do from time to time. “Take a deep breath, think about what you have to do. It’s just another walk in the park. You can do this, it’s just like every landing you’ve ever practiced.”
I look to my left to see where I’m at in relation to the runway and it’s time to begin prepping for the landing. I put on my first notch of flaps, take another deep breath and try to relax. I pull power back gently so that I begin to slow and start to descend. I adjust the trim, radio my position, check for traffic and begin my base leg turn. I look towards the airport like I’ve done a hundred times before to gauge my height and distance so that I can adjust as needed for my approach. I glance at my air speed indicator to ensure I’m at the proper speed, put on the second notch of flaps, adjust trim and radio that I’m turning final for landing on three five.
Here we…here I go! “This is it! This is what you’ve been training for all these weeks.” I tell myself, “You’ve got this!” I begin my turn towards the runway, line up the plane, check my speed, put on the third notch of flaps, check and adjust trim again. Watching the trees intently, my whole body begins to shake. I can feel it in my legs and my hands and I know that this is the most important moment I’ve probably ever faced. If I land well, it proves that all the work I’ve done has paid off, but if I mess it up, I could crash and die or rip a plane apart. No wonder I begin to shake, it’s not really fear I feel; I’ve done this enough to know that I can land a plane safely. I’ve repeatedly done so since I started flying lessons. I think it’s a rush of adrenaline with a touch of healthy fear mixed in; the kind of feeling you get the first time you ride a bike with no hands down a hill. You hold your breath in afraid to let it out, you get focused on the task because you have to get through this, and no one else is going to do it for you. You’re alone and make it or not, it comes down to you. It’s me and Juliet, and I want to keep us both safe.
I know I’m going to clear the trees comfortable. I’m not too high, not too low and I pull back the power as I see I’m set up for making this landing. I have my sight picture and I begin to ease back the yoke, keep pulling it back and I can hear Robert in my head like I’ve heard over and over, “Don’t you let her land, hold it back, hold it back.” I feel her touch the ground, it’s a little bumpier than I would have liked for my first landing but I’m down and we’re safe, me and Juliet. I finally breath again, what felt like minutes ticking by, were seconds and I’ve done it! Woohoo!
My legs are still shaking and I can hardly brake, but I do. I get it slowed down and pull over to get clear of the runway. Think. Okay, transponder to standby, flaps retracted, fuel pump boost off. I take a long deep breath and look around. I begin to smile and laugh. I’ve done it! I’ve really done it! It wasn’t my best landing but it was good and safe and I did it without help. I did it without Robert in the seat beside me. I did it all by myself.
I know Robert was rooting me on from below and watching with intensity to see his work in action, to see all the frustration and agony that I’ve gone through these last few weeks get to this point. He watched me as I got disappointed repeatedly trying to figure it all out, and trying to get it to come together consistently. He said he had more faith in me than I did and towards the end, I believe he was right. I struggled with landings and they were never terrible, just not always consistent. These last couple of weeks, I really began to see and feel a difference in my sight picture on landing and I began to relax a bit. For a few weeks there, every time I got in the plane or for that matter, pulled up in the parking lot at the airport, I could feel every muscle in my body tense up. Flying tense is no good, you grip the yoke too tight, you second guess everything you do and if you’re anything like me, you over think everything and it distracts you. It makes flying less fluid and it adds up to frustration and disappointment.
I’m calm now, my legs aren’t shaking any longer. Sitting in the pilot’s seat, I look around and realize that my life has just changed forever. I am a pilot, and this moment, this day, can’t be taken away from me now. I just soloed, my very first solo. I nod my head in satisfaction and push the button on the radio, “Wilgrove traffic, this is Cherokee six seven niner two Juliet, back taxiing runway three five, Wilgrove.”
I look both ways and pull out on to the runway to make my way back to the ramp. Robert is waiting for me with thumbs up and a smile. Yes! He’s as excited as I am. He comes towards the plane, asks me if I’m okay and if I want to do another. Absolutely, I want to do another! He steps back and once he is away, I move back towards the runway to go again.
Three times around by myself and I’m worn out. I park Juliet and turn her off. Robert comes to greet and congratulate me. I jump out of the plane, run over and give him a big hug. My day is made and nothing can take away this feeling I have at this moment. Even Alan, the airport owner, comes rolling over in his golf cart to give me a big hug to celebrate with us.
It’s an amazing moment. A moment I’ve been anxiously waiting for and at times thought would never come. A moment like no other that I can imagine, a sense of accomplishment. No, more than that, a sense of freedom and pride. I was an eagle today; soaring, wings spread out wide and strong, catching the wind, circling the sky. Yes, an eagle. He kicked me out of the nest finally and I flew.
There are things I’ve worked hard for in my life, but nothing like I’ve worked for this moment. This is what separates you from the pack. Where when it gets hard that some fall behind or quit. When the days turn from fun, to work and sweat. When it’s no longer joy, and you still have to force yourself to keep trying. This is where I found out what I was made of, this is where I had to remember that I don’t quit.
Flying has brought me to heights of excitement like I’ve never known, and depths of despair where I thought it’d never pass. There were days I left the airport with my tail between my legs, once there were tears in the cockpit, but only once. After that, I saved the tears for my ride home. Tears of frustration and disappointment at how I performed or when I wasn’t really sure what I did wrong but knew I wasn’t quite ready.
There were days that I had to persuade myself to go back to the airport and try again. There were times all I wanted to do was throw in the towel and give up. I would say I’m never going to get this down, but there was a voice inside of me that kept asking me, “Why are you doing this?” I would say, “Because I want to fly planes. Because I love to fly and there is nothing else in the world like it.” The voice in my head, “Then what are you going to do about it? You’re not a quitter, right?” I reply to the voice, “No, I’m not a quitter and I won’t let this beat me.” It wasn’t easy to drag myself back in week after week sometimes. I love flying, don’t get me wrong, but when you are trying to get to solo and it’s taking longer than you want it to, the excitement of flying turns to dread. The fun wears off and it’s on.
I had to realize that I didn’t pick the easiest airport to learn to land at for my first solo. I remind you, Wilgrove is 2835 feet long and 40 feet wide surrounded by trees. It’s not your average smooth paved runway that’s 5000 or 7000 feet long and 100 feet wide. That’s the easier stuff. Me, I’m a glutton for punishment you might say, or I like a challenge. I was determined that I would solo at Wilgrove in Juliet. I wrote it down. I soaked it in and I owned it. In the end, it was mine, just as I had determined to do. It was me and Juliet alone in the sky, and we flew like eagles together her and me.
I write this with mixed emotions because telling you it was hard and that I struggled, isn’t easy. What most people want to tell you is how great it was and never share with you the ups and downs of learning to fly. I think it’s easy for a very few but as I meet more pilots along the way, I find most struggled somewhere in the process. When I started this journey, I didn’t really know what to expect but I knew I wasn’t going to quit. What I didn’t know was what it would take to get me here and to solo. I had to find something deep inside of me to keep going and to keep trying, because I knew I could do it if I put my mind to it and didn’t give up.
I’m standing here today as proof that even though it was hard, it can be done even at my age. It took longer than I wanted it to but I still did it. There are 35 hours on the log book now, and I can’t wait to get back in the air again. This journey is just getting started, and now the fun can really begin. I look forward to making my first cross country flight, learning to use my new navigation skills and flight instruments that I haven’t gotten to use yet. Today I’m just a baby eagle fresh out of the nest but watch out, I’m going to be soaring with the clouds across the sky, spreading my wings further as my adventure gets bigger. Enjoy it with me as I continue this journey!