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Words by Matt Chapman.
“Oh my god, I’m the only person on earth capable of landing this plane safely back on the ground”.
It’s quite funny really; of all of the students and pilots I have talked to, everyone’s thought process on their first solo flight seems to be the same. First, there is this incredible joy and euphoria as you come to appreciate that you are flying an aircraft by yourself, without an instructor beside you; then, humorously, comes the inevitable realization that you will shortly have to land the plane, by yourself, without an instructor beside you. And so it goes, the two-sided experience of anxiety and awesomeness that accompanies everyone’s first solo flight.
The day of my first solo flight was a bleak one – the clouds were beginning to build, the winds were blowing crosswind across the runway, and the skies were starting to darken. I had been learning to fly with Wanaka Flight Training for about 2 months at this point and had just ticked over approximately 12 hours in the air. I knew I was close to going solo, but as I had an exam later that day and the weather was less than perfect, I was not expecting to be ‘kicked out of the nest’ as they say.
“Wanaka Traffic, Charlie Uniform X-Ray, Airborne Runway 29 Seal, Remaining in Circuit” my radio call blaring through my headset as instructor Devon and myself took off for the Wanaka skies. A key component of any flight is the ‘circuit’ of an aerodrome, where aircraft takeoff, climb to 1000ft above the ground, fly back past the runway, and then turn and descend to land. This is what Devon and I were practicing – the all-important fundamentals for being able to go solo.
After a few smooth landings, a couple bumpy ones, and a couple in between, I came in to land touching down with a solid bump and a chagrined expression on my face.
“Through to full power?” I asked Devon hesitantly.”
No no, we’ll stop on this one.” His terse response causing uneasiness as I awaited a explanation of what I did wrong. Instead, as we taxied back to the start of the runway, he turned and said “alright , you’re going to do that on your own this time.”
“What?! Are you sure??” was my incredulous response, to which he replied with a simple “yep”. Despite my repeated questioning of his decision making process, Devon climbed out of the plane, gave me a thumbs up, and walked off to the edge of the runway.
“Okay, okay, you can do this. It’s all the same as before, just without Devon this time. Okay, breathe.” I repeated this mantra to myself as I took what seemed like hours to steady my breathing and calm myself.
“Wanaka Traffic, Charlie Uniform X-Ray, Rolling 29 Grass, Remaining in circuit.” I made my radio call, smoothly pushed the throttle through to full power, and away I went.
“Okay speed is good, pull back and takeoff … 300ft, clear of obstacles, flaps away, fuel pump off … 500ft, turn and climb to circuit height” My own voice acted as my instructor as I talked myself through the steps that I had done many times before. It was at this point I realized that I had done all of this before, and the only thing was different was that now I didn’t have someone judging my every move.
“Holy smokes – this is awesome!! I’m flying a plane, by myself!!” I exclaimed excitedly, and then sure enough, the realization, “Oh my god, I’m the only person on earth capable of landing this plane safely back on the ground”.
Again steadying my breathing, I ignored any fear or anxiety and focused on the task at hand, completing my checklists, making my radio calls, and setting the aircraft up for landing.
Descending through 500ft on final approach for the runway, I allowed myself some final checks –“speed is good, height is good, flaps are down, continue approach.” Trying to relax my white-knuckled grip on the controls, I waited as the aircraft flew herself all the way down to the end of the runway, and then smoothly closed the throttle, to allow the aircraft to slow down and settle onto the ground. Pulling back on the controls to keep the plane from touching down too soon, I hear Devon’s voice in my head; “keep pulling it back, keep pulling it back, keep pulling it back”. Just when I can’t pull back any more, the wheels kiss the grass of the runway with only the lightest of touches, and I realize that I’ve safely landed, and I’ve just completed my very first solo flight.
Finally, that realisation washes over me once more, “Oh my God, I just flew a plane and landed it by myself”, and as the aircraft rolls past Devon waiting on the runway, he recognises the ear-to-ear smile that adorns my face, a steadfast characteristic of every student that completes their first solo flight.