Pilots tend to remember certain flights forever while most of the rest of their flights just fade into a blur. There are two that we especially have burned into our memory; 1) the flight where you almost got the most killed, 2) your first solo. To those of you who are not pilots- those two are almost never the same.
On March 20th, 1978- exactly 40 years ago as of this writing, I did my first solo flight. At the time I was a freshman in the flight program at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach Florida.
In later years, as a flight instructor, I personally certified and soloed a number of students. When a person solos there is the mythical tradition that either the new pilot’s shirt tail gets cut off, or they get a soaking. The legend which is most commonly told to students is that after the first flight of the Wright brothers, Orville, who made the flight, got out of the aircraft and as he did he snagged his shirt tail and ripped it and then stumbled into a mud puddle. Thus, when you solo you get your shirt tail cut off and or you get soaked with water in some way. My students always got the soaking because I didn’t want to have to replace an expensive shirt.
Normally the first solo is a big deal and it’s always best to not let your student know in advance that “tomorrow yer’ gonna solo,” because then they tend to worry about it and get the jitters. It’s always best to surprise them. I’d take mine on a few laps around the pattern and then as we taxied back for yet another takeoff I’d say, “Hold it, I need to check somethin’…” and I’d get out, look at them and say, “Go do three takeoffs and landings.” And you always had to add, “Yeah, yeah, yer’ ready.” All of my students had been told from the beginning that they would be far beyond ready before I’d let them solo. The long out-dated World War II military 12 hour solo is not only unsafe but it’s in violation of FAR 61.87 part B, D and especially P, subsection 3 which states that the student must demonstrate that they are “proficient” in the 15 maneuvers and activities in part D. Yes... FIFTEEN! There is no way a student pilot can gain true proficiency in all of those items in just 12 hours. Thus, when my students soloed in about 24 hours of total flight time- I knew they were both ready and fully in compliance with the regulations. So, while it was a surprise every time- they too felt honestly ready.
At ERAU the program was quite intense and professional. We had a book that showed each lesson step by step and then before soloing we went up with a check airman, or “prog. pilot” to ensure our proficiency and full compliance with FAR 61.87. In my case I did my prog. with Rick Hopewell who said I was fine with everything, but my landings needed some smoothing out. As a result I had to fly an extra 0.4 dual and do three more take offs and landings at Daytona with my instructor John Jaworsky. I then did a re-check with prog pilot Roger Kenny (the nicest person on the planet) and was thereby approved to solo- I had 18.4 hours.
At ERAU your solo was never a surprise. Like everything else in the flight department it was scheduled. I knew it was coming three days in advance.
March 20th was a great day to do that first supervised solo. The Florida weather was clear with light winds. John and I flew out to the Deland airport and after one practice dual landing he got out and gave me the go ahead. I hadn’t been worried about doing the solo. Instead my brain was focused on the procedures and I ran them over and over again in my mind. I’m a lip-biter and as I put the takeoff power in I was chomped down so hard on my lower lip it’s a wonder it wasn’t bleeding. At 55 knots I rotated the Cessna 172 “chickenhawk” and N77ER practically leaped off the ground! John hadn’t told me that without his extra weight onboard the increased performance would be that noticeable. Climbing out I flew over to the crosswind leg and then turned onto downwind leg and that’s when it dawned on me… I’m doin’ this all by myself!
About mid-field on the downwind a Moonie cut me off in the pattern. I just pulled off some power and let the faster Moonie slide well ahead of me. Gripping the yoke to the point where my fingerprints were likely to be ingrained in the plastic I watched for my throttle back point abeam of the runway. What I didn’t notice was John down on the ground waving me to go around as he thought I was too close to the Moonie. Abeam the end of the runway I pulled the carb heat on and throttled back to 1,200 rpms and watched for the airspeed to hit the white arc. Meanwhile the Moonie made close traffic and was no longer a factor. Inside the arc I dropped 10 degrees of flaps and looked for my 45 to the runway in order to measure my base leg turn. It all came together as I went through the procedures and set up for the touchdown. Flairing I felt the mains touch and letting the nose down I hit the flaps to “up” carb heat off and crammed in full throttle.
I’d done it!
As I rotated into the second climb out I began to giggle… this was FUN! Coming back onto the downwind there was no other traffic in sight and just as I went into another giggle the biggest damned bird I’d ever seen dove past right in front of me- the thing was the size of a freaking pterodactyl! No more giggling for this pattern. Again, I set up just as I’d been instructed and made the approach and landing. John told me in the de-brief that he was motioning “OK” but I never looked at him- all I saw was the runway as I crammed on the power again. This time the climb giggles were replaced by loud maniacal laughter a rebel yells. It was like scoring a goal in a hockey game and my exuberance was only interrupted by the required radio calls. Even the fact that a second Moonie had cut me off in the pattern again didn’t shake me. Shook the hell out of John (who, unseen, was waving me off again,) but not me. After that landing I taxied over and John climbed back in. He asked if I’d seen him waving me off? I told him “No” I was too busy spacing with the traffic. I asked if he’s seen the pterodactyl on downwind and he said he hadn’t… so, we were even.
Arriving back at ERAU we went through the de-briefing and then John scheduled me for a second supervised solo that evening. That was it- I headed back to the RSI dorm. There was no shirt cutting or water soaking- nothing. It was all professional; another required unit completed as scheduled- period. Interestingly, the instructors at ERAU in those days seemed to have two standards for first solo ceremonies. The male students usually got the no frills treatment… the female students, however, got the works! Even when my soon-to-be wife soloed, her shirt got the whole freaking back cut off of it and a bunch of stuff written on that cloth. Other girls that I knew at school also got their shirts cut. Makes ya’ say “hummmmm.”
When I got back to the RSI many of the guys there knew it was my solo day. My pal Mark “Doc” Holliway, who had gotten his private pilot certificate before coming to ERAU and thus had soloed in the real world, dropped by my room to congratulate me. He was a bit appalled that I’d gotten no shirt cut or water treatment. He left and returned shortly with a bunch of guys… who picked my ass up and threw me into the pool.
Professionalism is good… but so is tradition.
Twenty years later to-the-day I was flying a Falcon 20 down the Florida coast toward Fort Lauderdale. There, down below, was Deland airport. After looking down at it and remembering, I went to the back and pointed the airport out to Mr. Porter, the billionaire owner of the jet.
“Twenty years ago today,” I told him, “I did my first solo at that airport.”
He looked down and a huge grin of delight came to his face.
“And look where you are now,” he said.