If you’re a pilot, there’s really not another moment that surpasses a first solo. Many other pilot milestones come after, but though some may equal the momentous experience, I’ve never found any that actually surpasses my first solo, and that includes even supersonic solo flight, solo formation, aerobatics, or any of the other big events like checking out as an airline captain.
Here’s an excerpt from my new book, “An Airline Pilot’s Life,” (Amazon’s #1 New Release in commercial aviation) that will allow you to ride with me on my initial solo in a Cessna-152 after I’d had just over eight hours of flight instruction.
The book is on an introductory price of only $3.99. This Part One of the story is over 300 pages long, spanning my early flying experience, detailing my passage through USAF pilot training then six years of military flying throughout the Pacific and Asia.
Part Two covers my decades as an airline pilot, starting as a flight engineer at the world’s largest airline and continuing through years as a pilot on the MD-80, DC-10, F-100 and 737. Join me in the cockpit as both first officer and then nearly three decades as a captain. Part Two will be released in both Kindle and paperback formats in May.
Here, then, is a sample, a chapter that focuses on my first solo. The setting is at the Bedford Flying Services flight school at Roanoke, Virginia’s Woodrum Field. As an Air Force ROTC cadet selected for USAF pilot training after graduation from the Virginia Military Institute, I was enrolled in the USAF Flight Instruction Program. The program was equal parts flight instruction and screening for the Air Force. There was a basic syllabus designed to get a cadet ready to solo in minimum time and as importantly, see who had the aptitude (or didn’t) to become an Air Force pilot before arriving at a pilot training base.
After a few hours of flight instruction from Pat, I was handed off to another flight instructor, a younger guy that the other Flight Instruction Program cadets had warned me about.
Bob was a former enlisted guy, a boom operator on a KC-135 crew. He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, having had five years of “yessir-ing” officers on his assigned flight crew, pilots and navigators, but now we who’d soon be officers would have to answer to him. I think he may have resented the fact that he was helping us along the Air Force pilot path he’d never had an opportunity to travel.
His attitude was both aloof and condescending, especially compared to Pat’s easy-going instructor attitude. But for me, I had enough faith in the two Cessna-152s and my ability to fly them or as accurately, let them fly as they’d been designed, that I wasn’t going to let his attitude be an obstacle. Besides, for an FIP cadet who’d endured over three years at VMI, his caustic attitude was barely amateur level by comparison.
He was sarcastic in the plane and seemed to set up each maneuver as a test, then scoff if it didn’t work out perfectly, which often it did not. I had less than ten hours flying time, so chances were good, given my inexperience and his obstructive attitude, that my maneuvers would be somewhat rough. I didn’t let it bother me, although one of my classmates was having a very difficult time with Bob.
Bob actually let one nose high stall accelerate into what I realized afterward was a spin. We were nose low, corkscrewing toward the ground and that, I found out later, was definitely not in any part of the flight syllabus.
But if his intent was to have me lock up, or to panic, it didn’t work. The lesson of my skydiving streamer still held full sway: panic is never, ever an option, period. I fell back on Pat’s offhand remark and just pulled the power back, since we were in a dive, and let the plane right itself and eventually, return lift to the airfoil so we could fly again.
Maybe that was Bob’s backhanded way to build my confidence, which it did. I knew I’d be fine in those planes come what may when I was solo. Most of all, as I’d learned from skydiving, I could trust myself to keep a cool head
Or maybe it was his way of weeding me out, tripping me up, undermining my confidence or worse, the Air Force’s confidence in me. It didn’t work. I had more faith than ever in the two little planes and my ability to shepherd them around the bumpy skies of Roanoke.
On a late fall afternoon Bob and I went up in 11-Juliet. He sat next to me, elbow to elbow, taciturn as always. He’d shadowed my preflight walkaround, seemingly bored. I did all of the preflight radio clearances and we taxied out, lined up on runway 23 and took off.
We flew directly to the practice area and immediately worked through all of our maneuvers and a stall recovery series. I really felt it was unfair, two against one: me and Juliet against Bob, and he didn’t stand a chance. Whatever he demanded, we could do. Stall, falling off on the left wing? Give her slack, let the nose fall, tap the rudder, level the wings, feed in power—not too much, climb back to the original altitude.
Compass figure eight? Watch us. Slight back pressure and a touch of rudder, let the compass and Juliet swing her nose at a thirty degree bank left to right, in her own time; remember where you started, track back with the nose just above the horizon, now reverse course, smoothly. No rush; let her fly. Claim the peaceful time lag as your own little slice of calmness.
“I’ve got it,” Bob said abruptly, then aimed us toward a field a couple thousand feet below and just north of Interstate-81. I had an inkling of what might be coming next. Fine, I decided. Bring it on. It’s still two against one.
Bob pulled the throttle completely back and the engine fluttered to idle, the prop practically feathered.
“The engine just died,” Bob said, sounding annoyed. “Land.”
I set up a long, lazy downwind. I searched, then spied a smoke stack near the western edge of the practice area, all the while easing Juliet lower, trying to keep a clean, power-off airspeed to stretch our powerless flight. Smoke showed wind out of the west, so we’d land into the wind.
I eased a wide turn to the left, into the wind. I slowed, gradually fed out landing flaps. And waited. How far would he take this, I wondered, as we slipped below five hundred feet. But I also didn’t worry: I’ll land it in the field, I don’t care—that’ll be your ass, Bob, not mine.
At about three hundred feet, Bob pushed the throttle back in and the engine buzzed back to life. We climbed, and I retracted the landing flaps.
We entered the landing traffic pattern for runway 23 at Woodrum Field. I taxied us clear after a routine landing.
We taxied back towards the departure end, but at midfield, Bob spoke again.
“Pull over here.”
I swung us off the taxiway and pulled into an apron abeam the flight school. I let the engine idle. He popped open his door.
“You ready?” he asked.
Sweet Jesus. Ready? Ready? I was born for this.
He nodded. “Do a couple patterns, touch and goes, then park it back at Bedford Flying Service.”
I nodded. He strapped down his seatbelt, then left, clicking the door shut securely, walked away and didn’t look back.
I nosed 11-Juliet forward, back onto the taxiway. I paused at the departure end and ran through the magneto check fairly mechanically. We’d been flying for an hour, the magnetos, the ignition, the airframe, me—we were all ready. This wasn’t about manuals and numbers and specs—this was about flight.
In that golden instant I had the rare sense that this was momentous not just for what it was, a first solo flight, but for what it meant. There are unique, lifetime flying moments that matter more than anything in a pilot’s life. Few they are, and I somehow intuitively knew the truth: whether you went on to fly supersonic, aerobatics or formation in an Air Force jet solo, or commanded an Air Force flight crew on trans-Pacific missions or succeeded in airline captain upgrade and took on worldwide jet flight with hundreds of souls in your hands—nothing would outdo this first solo. Nothing. Equal maybe, add to the legacy, but never surpass this moment. I knew that, even as a twenty-one year old strapped to a beautiful little Cessna, I knew that.
And I made a point of savoring the reality, burning it into my memory as a golden moment, even back then. I knew it belonged equally to the tough guys like Clark King who punched me into reality, to Buck who held me strictly accountable for my life, to Coach Wade who led with tough but caring leadership, to Major Sullivan, who found me a way forward from disaster.
But it also belonged to me and I’d damn well own it, every God-given second. Cleared for take-off I took a deep breath. This is mine, I resolved. I don’t deserve it, but no less than anyone else who’d attained it, nor any more than those who hadn’t. But I can own it, do it justice.
I had a weighty premonition that once I left the earth solo, nothing would ever be the same again.
When the sturdy little engine reached takeoff power, I released the brakes. We rolled into the headwind, she steadied, then Cessna 9811 Juliet and I rose into the sky, alone.
We climbed to pattern altitude as I’d done a dozen times before and I allowed myself a glance to my right, to the empty seat, and a real peace and jubilation warmed me from the inside out. This was how it was meant to be. Airplanes just fly better solo, I realized, because flying was all about the aircraft, you, and flight. That’s what mattered and everything else was just giving the devil his due for the privilege of flight, of piloting.
And I was right—I was never the same after that. This was what my life was meant to be. And in that moment—at long last—it was mine. And there was no way, not so long as I breathed, that I’d ever let it go.