After 22 hours of flying around the skies of Palo Alto and it’s various neighboring airports, I was nearing the end of the first major phase of my flight training. Looming off in the distance was the oh so imposing “Solo” flight. Webster’s dictionary defines the noun Solo (So•lo) as “something undertaken or done alone.” Whereas I define it as “What do you mean I’ll be the only one in the airplane flying this squirrel killing death machine?!?!” But it was an inevitable progression of my training.For the past couple of months, my instructor, the oh so funny (at least in his head) and king of the one liners (“Oh I’m sorry, were you trying to land in the duck pond? If so, the please don’t let me interrupt you.”), Josh Smith was unknowingly helping me hone my flying skills for this very moment in time.
With just over 22 hours of flying time in my Piper Cherokee Warrior II, I had progressed to the point of performing the six basic fundamental tasks that I would need within the allocated safety guidelines and being accurate within 150 feet and 15 degrees. These fundamentals were Steep Turns, Slow Flight, Power off Stalls, Power on Stalls, Simulated Engine Out at Altitude, and Take offs and Landings. And flight after flight, I took my sloppy turns, bumpy landings, and got them to a level where I was flying the plane by myself and Josh was mere there to help me fine tune. But it was fun. A lot of fun to get to this point. I had the confidence that I could do what I needed to and was still having fun doing it. But then this whole “solo” business crept up.
Immediately the fear started creeping in. The thought of being up in a plane all by myself and with no one there to guide me safely back to the ground was daunting. Luckily Josh and the West Valley Flying Club where I am doing my flight training had a tried and tested system in place for me and the thousands of student pilots before me: the Pre Solo Phase Check ride. That is where another instructor from the Flying Club takes me up and observes me as I perform the various maneuvers that are needed in order for me to safely fly Solo. All the way from preflight, to take off, to flying out to the practice area, performing the maneuvers, finding and returning to the airport, and then executing 3 safe landings. And as if that wasn’t stressful enough, there would be a couple of ‘emergency’ simulations to make sure I can handle that. Oh and did I mention the hour long oral exam on procedures, various scenarios, and ‘what if’ situations? But all this was there to check and make sure that I knew what to do in order to Solo. And the one thing I kept hearing was that Josh wouldn’t send me up unless he thought I was 110% ready for it. I’m very glad he had the confidence in me, because I had my doubts.
So with weeks of nightly studying, mentally going over each and every maneuver, emergency procedures, and stressing myself out, the morning came where I was going to meet with Steve Blonstein, the Chief Pilot of West Valley Flying Club, and go up for my Pre Solo Phase Check Ride. The 3 hour event started with the oral exam. What would I do if I had an electrical fire in the plane? Tell me about the Class B airspace entry requirements. What limitations do you have as a student pilot? But with a few hiccups, I answered them with ease. Then it was time for the flight itself. I was in my favorite plane (N47540), and I was flying the flight that I had done dozens of times before. With the push of the throttle and pulling back on the yoke, we were airborne. A turn to the right and we were over the practice area within minutes. Clearing turns to the right, enter slow speed flight, stall it, recover, another turn to avoid the mountains and then my engine shut off! Well, not in reality, but that was the emergency engine out simulation. Steve reached over and just pulled the throttle back and said your engine just died. Instinctively I turned towards the landing site I had chosen and began to go through my emergency checklist. Best glide speed, fuel, gauges, check this system, verify the primer is in and locked, and get ready to land. Eventually Steve was happy and we throttled up and headed back to Palo Alto Airport for the landings. This was the part I was most nervous about. But I only had to do 3, so no sweat! The first was normal, but then the second was a simulated engine out landing. That, I was not prepared for, but if it had been real, I would have gotten the plane down and walked away. Then another landing, and on the very final attempt, Steve tossed me a curve ball and simulated that my airspeed indicator had just failed. But I handled that as well (joke’s on him because I hardly use it when I’m landing anyways!), and before I knew it, it was over and time to taxi back.
Sure it wasn’t all smooth. At some point during the flight, my shoulder belt came off and I didn’t catch it till we were on our way back to the airport. I Forgot to turn the backup fuel pump on for landing, and could have been a bit smoother on my touchdowns. But was I safe? Absolutely! Could I do this if Steve or Josh were not in the airplane and I was all by myself? After the 30 min post flight debriefing, the answer was yes! I had passed! In the word of Steve himself, “Sagar flies the plane very nicely. Has good basic stick and rudder skills and handles the pattern well. It is my opinion that he is ready for solo flight.” What more could I ask for? It was over and I was so relieved. Now just sit back and relax right? Nope. Before I had a chance to celebrate my victory, on my very next flight, Josh had other plans for me.
Thinking we were going to do another training flight, I went out to my airplane to pre-flight it as I normally do. A few minutes later, Josh comes out and I ask him what the plan for today was. Then I heard it. That four letter word that I had forgotten about. SOLO. Surely he was just joking. But for once, Josh was serious. I wish I could say exactly what he said, but I was so surprised, that I don’t remember anything except “You can do this. I wouldn’t send you up unless I thought you could.” And with that he was walking away from the plane out toward the runway to watch me do 3 take offs and full stop landings. I remember sitting there and just following my checklist as I had done dozens of times before. I took a deep breath and contacted ground for taxi instructions. For some reason I told him that I was doing my solo, thinking that maybe he would warn everyone on the airport to watch out. I made it to the run up area and just followed my training. Check the mags, cycle the flight controls, switch to tower. Lights – Camera – Action. And with that I was cleared for my very first take off.
As I lifted off, for some reason I noticed my shadow on the ground as it was getting smaller and smaller. Sure I had seen this before, but on that morning, it seemed as if it was just so small. As I turned and leveled off at 800 feet for the pattern altitude in the downwind leg, I instinctively pulled my first notch of flaps and started slowing down. Then the thoughts just started running through my head. Keep the runway in sight off my right wing as I pass it. Turn base, add another notch of flaps and let the plane come down on its’ own. Runway still in sight, check! Begin the final turn towards approach and add my last notch of flaps. Control the nose with my rudder and use the ailerons to keep the plane over the center line. A little less power to come down a little, adjust for the slight crosswind, cut the power over the numbers and let the plane come down and then flare! And with that I did my very first landing.
But no time to celebrate, I still had two more to do. As I taxied back for the take off, I saw Josh on the side giving me the thumbs up. But wait, why was he moving it up and down and shouting the F-word at me??? OHHH! He was saying FLAPS! I had forgotten to put my flaps up. I was so glad to be on the ground that I had forgotten.
With that taken care of, it was time for another take off. As I was airborne, the reality set in that I was all alone. I started getting nervous and bit scared. What if something went wrong? What if I hit a bird? But I took a couple deep breaths and flew the pattern. While I make the landing safely, it was not as smooth as the first. But at least this time I put my flaps back up. Another wave to Josh and go back up for the last one.
This was a bit smoother and I had a couple of moments where I allowed myself to crack a smile and enjoy the moment. And after the last one, as tower advised me to contact ground, he added a “Congratulations on your Solo!” And then it hit me. I had just flown a plane all by myself and fulfilled a lifelong dream. While I am not quite done and a full fledged private pilot just yet, I am on my way. After I safely shut down the airplane and towed it back to the parking spot, I posed for a quick picture; my first as a pilot.
At West Valley, a solo is definitely a time for celebration. As I walked into the Club, the high-fives, congratulations, and pats on the back were coming at me from all direction. It was great to have so many people acknowledge and share in my achievement. And then there was Josh with a pair of scissors in his hand. Tradition dictates that whenever a student pilot solo’s for his very first time, that the instructor cuts the shirt off his back. So Josh tossed me a new “I just Solo’d” tshirt and I gave him my t-shirt to cut up.
And with pride he hung it up on the wall adorned with the other tshirts from past students.
I had worked hard to get where I was, but it was only because I had a great instructor helping along the way. And thanks to him, I had archived a life long dream. But I was only a part of the way there. While I had flown by myself, I still wasn’t certified to fly. In the next few weeks, I would learn how to fly across the country solo, and eventually with the blessing of the FAA, I will pass my check ride and become a full fledged pilot.