Not dying at the fickle hand of physics develops nerve, sure, but the first solo landing and take off…..that’s gut wrenching. And it really shouldn’t be. By the time you get to that point, you’ve flown metric assloads of patterns and touch-and-gos, so it should all be nearly second nature, but having never done it without someone sitting next to you ready to take control means that your mind starts throwing around doomsday scenarios. And so it was, one chilly morning, that we landed at a little airport (they’re mostly little in Alaska) where my instructor hopped out and yelled over the engine, ‘I’LL BE OVER THERE FREEZING MY ASS OFF NEXT TO THOSE CESSNAS! DON’T HIT US! YOU’LL DO FINE! YOU’RE A LITTLE LOW ON GAS, SO DON’T SCREW THIS UP! NO PROBLEM!’ *thumbs up*
My first thought as I taxi’d away was similar to something I recalled thinking a couple years earlier as I drove up the Yukon leg of the ALCAN on my way to Anchorage. I stopped for gas as it was getting dark (you really have to plan this because civilization seems perfectly separated by a full tank of gas in the Yukon) and the proprietor and her hairy friend advised me to keep an eye peeled for the moose who like to roam near the roads at night. The moose, you see, stand at the perfect height so that if a person driving, say, a Pontiac Sunbird were to hit one, the legs would be demolished, but the torso would slide right up the hood, through the windshield, then try to explain that to St. Peter when you see him. I have never seen so many imaginary moose on the side of darkened desolate roads than I did that night.
The thought in both the cockpit and the car, one while taxiing for take off and the other while preparing for moose death, was that dying now wasn’t really all that bad a prospect. All drama aside, though, nary a moose was seen on either the runway or the road, and while the first landing was a bit shaky (my God, there’s got to be ice on that runway, what the hell am I thinking, I could still be in bed, etc.), the following two were right on the money, the instructor hopped back in, and off we went into the pitch black morning, south toward the Knik Arm and the loving embrace of Elmendorf.
Aside from it being a mandatory right of passage on the road to the license, the solo bestows upon the solo-er the opportunity to fly alone. This is great news for both instructor and student, as the instructor no longer needs to endure an hour or more of S-turns or spectacularly mediocre touch-and-gos, and the student gets to experience the freedom of being alone in control of an aircraft. The time logged from this point forward involves mostly cross-country solos to points far off hither and yon, with time spent pre-flight charting the course, checking the weather, etc. At this point, even the most seemingly mundane activity in the air was remarkably relaxing to me and I loved every minute of it.
I was a first lieutenant at the time and had just learned a valuable life-long lesson about being highly visible and successful: Regret frequently stalks those who overachieve. A fighter wing generally has (had) at least four groups (operations, support, maintenance, medical) commanded by colonels. Each of these colonels has a staff headed by an executive officer, who oversees all of the administrative blah blah at the command level, as well as herding the administrative cats in each of the group’s squadrons. The job looks amazing on the resume, but it kills you. Normally captains are chosen from the pack to fill these roles, but I was ‘rewarded’ for my ‘intrepidity’ as a new first lieutenant with this ‘amazing opportunity’. The job crushed me, or rather, I crushed myself in the process of doing the job. I had an amazing parking space and the office was lovely and comfortable, which briefly helped take the edge off the 12-hour days. Flying helped maintain my sanity and it had as much to do with my success in that job as anything else more tangible might’ve.
Sir @ August 10, 2009