First Solo, New Birthday

Today, this evening at about a quarter before seven, I will celebrate the 39th anniversary of my first solo.  The day I soloed, it was raining hard.  I got off work at the propeller shop and headed straight for Charlie’s. 

Passing through Plant City, the rain started to ease.  Then the sky began to lighten just a little; maybe it was my imagination, but I believed it was improving.

I was not surprised at all when Charlie said he could fly me only in the pattern.  The fact that he said I would not be able to solo went in one ear and out the other.  The only thing I was interested in was perfecting my landings.  I really didn’t care about the weather, leaving the pattern, or soloing. 

After flying for a while, Charlie turned to me and said it was time.  I looked at my watch and sure enough, we had been airborne the customary 30 minutes.  It seemed as though we had just started!

“Well, what do you think?” he asked over the chugging of the little Continental.  “Do you think you could take this airplane around the pattern by yourself?”

Instinctively, I said yes.  As I did, I wondered why my mouth said that.  I was also acutely aware my body was now turning to Jell-O!

“What about the weather?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about it.  It’s perfect,” Charlie reported.  “Now she is going to feel a little different and she’ll fly a little better without my weight in there.”  He leaned in and adjusted the seatbelt of the seat he had just vacated.  “She’ll have a tendency to climb faster and float more on landing.”

As he finished securing the belt, the old man looked at me and said, “You’re on your own, now.  Take it around once and bring it back to the hangar.”

Why was I scared?  What was there to be afraid of?  As I back taxied along the runway, I wondered what I got myself into.  And I wondered what the outcome would be.  But deep down, really deep down in the innermost reaches of my being, I knew.  I really knew…

I knew I could do it!

I looked around one last time for any other airplanes in the pattern and saw none.  Then I brought the power up a little more and swung the airplane out into the center of the grass runway.  With a deep breath, I eased the throttle all the way forward.  I eased the tail up and I applied a little right rudder.

I could feel the Cub getting light on her wheels and noticed the airspeed indicator passing 45 mph.  I pulled on a little more backstick pressure making the load on the mains even lighter.  A couple of more moments went by and the tires slowly eased off the earth.  When the airspeed indicator nudged 55, I brought the nose higher and 69H and I, alone for the first time, started climbing into the late afternoon Florida skies.

It was magnificent!

For the first time in my life, I felt as though I had control over what was going to happen to me.  No one else had input or a say over what was going to happen.  It was up to me.  Me!  Alone!

I looked down to the earth as 69 Hotel and I climbed into the sky.  I saw Charlie standing next to the runway as I passed over his house and the sheds, and then over Wiggins Road. The western sky was magnificent!  The sun shone through the humid air and reflected off the dust and haze making for a beautiful sunset. 

Six Niner Hotel and I reached 700 feet on downwind and I looked at the ground.  Specifically, I looked at Charlie’s little airstrip.  It was a sight I had seen many times in the past four weeks and it looked comfortable and familiar.  All at once, I became aware my breathing had returned to normal and things were okay.

Then I started laughing!  I guess it was a nervous laugh, I was not really sure.  Then I had the thought that, I am really alone in this airplane.  The seat up front seemed awfully empty and I could actually see the instrument panel and read the airspeed indicator for a change. 

As I turned final, I thought nothing about what I was doing, only about what I had to do.  I could see Charlie at the far end of the runway and I looked at the sky.  I thought of the significance of the moment one more time. 

The end of the runway was coming up and I could see the fenceline.  As the fence passed underneath the wheels, I brought the stick back beginning the flare.  As 69H slowed down, I kept it from landing by adding more and more backpressure.  At first, she wanted to climb, undoubtedly the difference between flying the airplane with Charlie up front as opposed to alone.  I kept the airplane tracking down the runway and as the stick reached the full back position, I could feel the wing sigh into the stall.  Suddenly, the weight of the airplane left the wing and transferred to the wheels.

I taxied up to the shed where Charlie was standing.  The little Continental ticked over evenly at 550 rpm and after I stopped the airplane, I sat there for a moment.  Then I raised my hand and cut the mag switch off.  The propeller whirled to a stop and the cylinders began making tinkling and crackling noises as they cooled down. 

My solo was over.  

Today, I am only 39… 


© 2010 J. Clark

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4 Responses to First Solo, New Birthday

  1. Brad P. says:

    Wonderful writing professor! Have been enjoying your daily blogs and continue to learn. Thank you!

  2. Larry Jenkins says:

    Joe you have vivid memory of that first flight! I remember how empty that right seat was in Piper Colt N 5974 Z. Your writing helps me recall that memorable and wonderful experience of first flight.
    I have now been the test pilot on 3 airplanes, and it equates to that first solo flight.
    On the 24th Piper Clipper N 5380 H made her first flight in 31 years! She behaved just as I expected, and we have carried our first passenger. Jenny, my wife, had that privilidge today. We flew from Hernando toward Tunica and the casinos, across the Big Muddy over the Arkansas delta, and back to Hernando. About a 45 minute flight and it was most enjoyable. Just before sunset today, I took one of those low and slow flights around the Hernando area. The air is much cooler than it was a week ago and made this twilight flight perfect.
    Well, you might wonder if I forgot to shift fuel tanks. Bigger than life it happened to me on the 3rd flight. This time I was very prepared, as I knew the tank was low. I was on my way just north of Memphis, over the Mississippi River, and the engine started to loose power. But that “old familiar voice” was there to tell me to change tanks and I landed with 6 gallons to spare.
    There is just something wonderful about Mr. Piper’s tube and fabric airplanes. Now it is an adjustment for me to fly a slower airplane, but I love it. It gives me more time in the great sky to enjoy aviating.
    From all indications you have had a happy first flight birthday celebration. I can only wish you many more as you share your passion with others through writing and flying.
    The best to you Joe,


  3. Joe Clark says:

    Thank you, too, Larry. Hope you and Jenny have a lot of good flights in the Clipper. There’s nothing like flying low and slow across America, or around town. Can’t wait to meet the Clipper. Jeff’s Shortwing is soon to be finished. It’s a beauty, too.


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