1st Solo, + 40 Years

As I sit writing this, my mind goes back 40 years, almost to the second, of this instant. I cannot believe so much time has passed since the moment I feel as though I was truly born. I was there, a witness and participant to my second physical birth on this planet.

Many will never understand what I mean by this, my second physical birth, into the world. Only those who, as I did, experienced this rebirth will ever fully understand. On the drive to dinner, my wife pegged it exactly: it was a life-defining moment.

Forty years ago this moment, I flew alone.

I have written about the experience before; it was a wonderful event. Now, all these years later, I reflect on the importance of the first time I truly spread my wings.

Without having gone out on my own and learning to fly, l would have missed so much in my life. As my wife said, my flying defined my life and writing; it is, most certainly, what has brought me to this juncture, to write about this important event of 40 years ago.

I was, as I have said in the past, a lucky one.  Luck, providence, and the fact the Lord looks out for children and drunks is the only reason I am writing this today. (I was too young for drinking at the time…)

Both the good and the bad have peppered the road I have taken over the last four decades. I have seen things “land lubbers” will never see. Sunsets and sunrises reserved only for aviators and sailors. Lakes and rivers, seas and oceans from high above, as well as from only a few feet off the wave tops.

Because I flew, I was able to go places I never dreamed of until I saw them. And I saw places of which no one has ever before dreamed.

A pilot’s logbook is a document filled with the details of his or her life aloft. It makes for very dull reading. There is little to keep one’s attention in the minutiae of a flyer’s log. In reality, my life was never mundane, unless I allowed it. Most of the time I was having fun beyond description.

While my physical logbooks, like the logs of any pilot might be dull reading, my mental logbook of memories is fascinating. The challenge now, of course, is to write about it.

Beryl Markham, an English writer-pilot-adventurer who wrote West With the Night, opened her book with a comment about “her pound of papers and scraps” and such, memories and proof of her life in the air. I, too, have my pounds of papers—proof of my life in the sky.

While the papers, logbooks, and licenses are important in their own merit, they do not tell the stories. The stories are contained in the events, places, and most importantly, the people who have become a part of my flying. In my mind’s eye, I see a kaleidoscope of images, memories, events, and people who I would have never experienced had I not flown.

Some of the memories are good, some, not quite so good. Still, they are all a part of the experience. If you did not know cold, how could you know what hot is? It is the same with night and day; you must have darkness to see the light. Life is that way. You have to live through the bad experiences to enjoy the good.

Here is a good one. After learning how to fly and going out solo, I remember one landing in particular which I consider to this day, my one and only perfect landing. I had all of 19 hours logged and as I approached the flare on this particular landing, I could hear the long grass tassels of the runway, which needed mowing, tickling and smacking the bottoms of the tires as I flared into the smoothest landing of my life. There was no transition from flying to rolling. It just—happened. One moment I was flying, the next I was on the ground.

I have made plenty of good landings since, but never a perfect landing like that one. To this day, I am still trying to make another landing as perfect as that one landing.

I also have had my share of bad landings, too. If you want to read about my worst landing, click here. This one scared me and provided insightful lessons about flying. You should never fly tired; it might cause you to be an accident statistic.

Unfortunately in my career, some of my friends did end up as statistics. Fatal statistics. Each has left me with the most hollow of feelings ever. And after each accident, I wondered why he or she was so unlucky and I was so very lucky. I am still here, still flying, still writing, and still enjoying life.

My friends, on the other hand, are now over there, on the other side. They know all the secrets to life and they will forever be young in my mind’s eye. Their hair will never go gray, they will never be overweight, they will never experience the wrinkling of their skin, or the touch of their grandchildren.

While their passing made me very sad, each has made me a much safer pilot today. Because of that, their lives were not lived in vain. I have taken their lessons of the mistakes they made and studied them well—so I would not make the same errors. And I take those studies and my work very seriously when it comes to passing those lessons down to the youngest crop of pilots graduating out into the industry today.

Regarding these new pilots, I cannot believe they are so young. I look at some of the ensigns and j.g.’s flying in the Navy, and some of the first officers flying Boeings today, and I cannot believe they are so young! Then I think, Was I that young, too, at one time?

It is then I realize that yes, yes I was. Just like the new pilots of today, I was once a “young whipper-snapper,” too, as my old flight instructor once called me. It is just hard to believe he called me that…40 years ago…

It was…just yesterday.


©2011 J. Clark

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5 Responses to 1st Solo, + 40 Years

  1. Dave says:


    What a powerful post. I pretty much already figured, but this post eloquently expresses just how much being an aviator defines you as a human being.

    Awe and respect.


  2. Harrison says:

    You speak for many of us, Joe. And you do it very well!

  3. brad says:


    The paragraph about the logbook is so true. Pulled out my marine corps log book the other day and talk of reminiscing. Great stuff; thank you!

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