The First Solo Flight

Since it's fresh on my mind, I figured I'd describe what my first solo was like, today, January 30th, 1996, around 2pm EST (19Z).

The Preflight Inspection

I walked into the hangar, to do the pre-flight inspection. When I opened the cockpit door, I heard a sound I normally don't hear when starting a flight. That's the sound of gyros spinning down. Though it's not that odd, since someone had flown the plane earlier today. Then it struck me. That wasn't the sound of gyros spinning down, it's the sound of gyros SPINNING. Someone had left the master switch on. The equivalent of leaving car headlights turned on. I shut it off, and did the rest of the inspection. Everything was ok. I mentioned the power thing to David, my instructor, and he said it didn't really matter since it could be 'hand propped' if necessary. We moved the plane to the ramp and went through the pre-start checklist.

The Engine Start

Finally we tried to start the engine. Try is a bit of an exaggeration. The prop spun perhaps half a turn and died. The second time it moved almost a quarter turn. And that was it. So "Stick," the veritable Jedi-master of the club came out to hand-start the prop. Something I've never seen done before. With it switched off (so it won't kick on) the prop is turned through several revolutions by hand. Then you switch it on and he spins it (just a little and gets his hands the hell out of there and turns his back leaning far away from the prop). It kicked on pretty easily.


When requesting to taxi, we have to hold short for a plane that's taxiing in (another student from the club). So then we taxi and proceed to do perhaps 6 touch-and-gos. One of them was a "short approach" in which you basically make it a short turn from going parallel to the runway (the "downwind leg") until you're lined up with the runway (the "final approach). This involves two quick, descending turns. No big deal, but I haven't done many of them.

Later, when requesting permission to land (actually, permission for "the option" which allows a full-stop landing, a touch-and-go, or a go-around, at the pilot's discretion), the tower told us we were #2, behind a landing ATR (you know, those commuter planes that got some press because they had a habit of falling out of the sky when they iced up). I responded. The tower REPEATED his clearance, slower, enunciating every syllable, "CES-NA 6-2-3-0-Quebec, You Are Number TWO, Landing BEHIND an Inbound ATR on Final, Clear For The OPTION. Caution Wake Turbulence." I may have responded with a "clear to land" rather than "clear for the option" the first time. But the same thing happened on another approach, and I'm not really sure WHAT I said incorrectly. Neither was David.

At one point, David takes my syllabus and holds it over the instruments. OK. I need to establish the right speed and altitude by visual reference. I do a landing like that. Take off the same way. When I level off at 1000' AGL (Above Ground Level) I'm pretty close, like 50 ft., not bad. Coming in, he checks the airspeed and I'm pretty good with that too, keeping it at 60 kts on the final approach.

So after doing several touch-and-gos, we taxi back and David tells me to go back out and do three touch-and-gos. He also tells me to expect the plane to perform differently with only one person. It's a small plane and 150 lbs. makes a noticeable difference. And also, if I'm requested to make a short approach, just request to extend the downwind approach or do something differently, as he doesn't feel I should have to do that/worry about it/deal with it on my first solo.

In the Cockpit, Alone

So. There I am. On the ramp. Engine running. Everything ready. I take a breath, press the mike switch on the control stick and say, "Ithaca Ground, Cessna 6230Quebec, on west ramp, ready to taxi for left closed traffic." (translation: I'm ready to taxi to the runway and do maneuvers while remaining in the airport's traffic pattern) I'm cleared to taxi (in addition to giving me wind and altimeter information).

Taxi, revisited

I taxi out. At this point, the plane is slowly going down the taxiway to get to the end of the runway. I have time to think. I look around, do a quick check of the cockpit, ponder briefly that this is my first solo. Eventually I get to the end of the taxiway (runway 32). I call up the tower. "Ithaca tower, Cessna 6230Quebec, ready for takeoff at 32." "Cessna 6230Quebec, you are cleared for takeoff. Left closed traffic approved. Report midfield." (translation: go for it, dude and let me know when you're on your downwind leg (parallel to the runway)). I respond, "Cleared for takeoff, Cessna 30Quebec."


Rev the motor a little, pull out onto the runway. Last minute check, make sure the heading indicator is correct (indicating 320 in this case), key, primer, everything ok, transponder on (it already was, I think I forgot to turn it off when landing with David). Lined up with the centerline, more or less. Full throttle. And we're moving.

50kts is the speed to rotate (lift the nose off the ground) and then the plane proceeds to lift off. And RISE. FAST. Damn, we're rising a LOT faster at this attitude than normal. I intentionally keep the nose a little lower than previous to make sure the airspeed is good. So at about 500' AGL, I make a 90 degree left turn and enter the "crosswind leg." And then after a bit (half-mile, give or take), make another 90 degree left turn and enter the downwind leg. As I get to 1000' AGL, I level off, let the speed increase a little and then throttle back a little. Everything is going like I've done it before. No surprises. I hear the tower/ground controller (same guy, different frequency, though he broadcasts on both) give a taxi clearance to a US Air commuter.

OK. I'm about halfway down the runway, parallel with it ("midfield"), I do the final landing checklist (fuel shutoff valve is on (i.e., fuel is flowing), mixture is set to full rich, seat belt is secure). I see the commuter on the alpha taxiway. I call up. "Ithaca tower, Cessna 30Quebec on left downwind, request the option." The response, "Cessna 30Quebec, make short approach, clear for the option."

OK, we just have to... (or as Homer's brain said, "Something said. Not good.")


rewind. He said, "short approach."


David said DON'T make a short approach.


Talking (Back) to the Tower

OK. Deal with it. The most important thing (and David had stressed it) is not to let the tower force you into doing something you don't want to do or can't do. OK. (fuck) This has all occurred in perhaps one second. My response comes quickly. "Cessna 30Quebec, request extended downwind." I deliberately did NOT repeat the holy words "cleared for the option" and the controller is required to get a read-back for those sorts of instructions (especially "hold-short" instructions). There is a pause. This was the same controller that had sounded testy before. He responds, "Cessna 30Quebec, Ithaca tower, state WHY." I respond, "Tower, 30Quebec, this is my first solo and I don't feel comfortable with making a short approach." Pause a beat. "Cessna 30Quebec, make right 360 turn and report left downwind." Brain going faster now. I repeat it back, "Tower, Cessna 30Quebec will make right 360 turn and report back on downwind."

I've done this maneuver (ONCE). I slow down (put in the carburetor heat and pull the throttle back so that I'll be making a relatively slow turn. The point of this maneuver is to waste time, so no sense doing it on a high power setting) and make a turn. The tower clears the commuter for take off.

I finish my turn and am now once again on the downwind leg (though pretty far up it). I call up again, "Ithaca tower, Cessna 30Quebec on left downwind, request the option." "Cessna 30Quebec, make right 270 turn and report left base."

Hubba? Something said. OK. Think. Right turn. 270 degrees. Two wrongs don't make a right, but three lefts do. So three rights make a left and that's the point, I'll end up as if I had made a left turn, just meandering around to get there. The base leg is part of the rectangle between downwind and final. So, I respond, "Cessna 30Quebec, making right 270 turn and will report left base." I make the turn and as I come out of it, I'm pretty much the right distance out for the base leg. I call up, "Ithaca tower, Cessna 30Quebec, on left BASE, request the option." And finally, "Cessna 30Quebec, clear for the option." "Clear for the option, 30Quebec."

The Landing

OK, now I can think about LANDING. I apply 10 degrees of flaps. The key is that I'm now landing starting on the base leg, skipping the first phase (it begins at the end of the downwind). So I want to be back at the same place when I get to where I'd normally be. I apply 20 degrees flaps at that point and am reducing the throttle. And then I turn onto the final approach. Once I get it lined up, I apply 30 degrees flaps (full flaps). Now the sacred mantra: "60, centerline, scan." Get the airspeed to 60kts. Line up with the runway's centerline. And scan. Look near and look far. Get the right perspective. We're coming down. The last 50' or so I start to level off. Entering "ground effect." At the very end, the flair. Get the nose up. The lower you get, the slower you get, the more you have to pull back on the stick. You have to keep pulling back. So I do and I touch down. Not too bad. Make sure the throttle is at idle.

Cool. That's number one. Pull up flaps. Full throttle. Turn off the carburetor heat (actually I think I forgot to do that this time...). Get it up to 50kts, rotate, take off.

Second Touch and Go

This time through was less complicated. On downwind, someone was taxiing and I heard the controller give them clearance to cross the runway. I call up, "Ithaca tower, Cessna 30Quebec, on left downwind, request the option." The response, "Cessna 30Quebec, Ithaca tower, continue."

Um. Think, Frank, think. you're going...why? He wants wants you to proceed with the landing procedures, but he can't give me clearance. Why? He just cleared someone to cross the runway, therefore the runway isn't clear now, but SHOULD BE very soon. I respond, "Cessna 30Quebec" acknowledging his message and throttle back, put in flaps as the plane slows, and make the turn to the base leg.

A few seconds later, the tower calls, "Cessna 30Quebec, Ithaca tower, clear for the option." OK, that's what I was hoping. "Clear for the option, 30Quebec," is my reply. Coming down a little fast, more like 70kts. Remember the mantra: 60, centerline, scan. Get things lined up, raise the noise a little. Increase power a little, as I don't want to reach the ground before the runway starts (that's considered bad form). Slowly reduce the power to idle, raise the nose into the flair, and make sure the nose stays up (keep pulling back on the yoke). And... we touch. Not too bad.

The Third Landing

Flaps up. Power on. Carb heat in (I made sure this time). Rotate. And we're off again. Turn to the crosswind leg at 500'. Turn again. Level off and reduce power to cruise speed. Landing check (fuel, mixture, seat belts). Call up. This time, no problems, I'm immediately cleared for the option. OK. Make this one good. Carb heat on. Reduce power. Keep the nose up, lose speed, engage flaps as soon as it slows enough. Turn. More flaps. Turn. Full flaps. I THINK I must've had a significant head wind, as I increased the power in the last phase, because I didn't want to sink that fast (the stronger the headwind, the steeper your descent angle will be, even though your sink RATE will be the same; e.g., in a 60kts head wind, you would be coming in for a landing vertically, you'd also be an idiot to fly in that weather but that's a different matter). Keep it descending. Maintain the airspeed. Enter ground effect, level off, flair, reducing power. Keep reducing it, keep pulling up. Stall warning horn going off as I'm coming down (that's actually not a bad thing when you're landing), touch down.

Engine idle. Flaps come up. Carb heat off. Take the first taxiway, "F." I see there's another plane that's coming along the taxiway perpendicular to me. No matter. I cross the "hold short" line, officially clearing the active runway and stop. And then I call the tower and say, "Ithaca Tower, Cessna 30Quebec, clearing active at Foxtrot." I know he won't let me go, but as long as he knows where I am. "Cessna 30Quebec, hold short of taxiway alpha for plane taxiing to 32." "Holding short of alpha, 30Quebec." The plane passes (a twin prop, private plane), and then "Cessna 30Quebec, taxi to the ramp, remain on this frequency." "30Quebec." I taxi to the ramp.

Stop. Do the mag(neto) check (turning the ignition switch off to make sure that'll stop the engine and as you hear it cutting off, you switch it back on). Notice the alternator needle indicates the battery is still charging, but much less than when we first started, which is good, means the battery wasn't destroyed. Then pull the mixture control to the 'idle cut-off' setting. Within a few seconds the engine stops (30Q is a bit temperamental, you actually have to push the throttle in a little after you cut off the mixture, for it to smoothly quit, otherwise it tends to cough and violently shudder for a while before it quits. Hear the same sound of gyros running that I heard when I started. But I switch the master switch off, and hear the familiar sound of gyros spinning down.

That's it. I did it. David comes out, congratulates me, and then tells me of the club "tradition" of putting your name, date of solo and such on a piece of cloth or shirt or something and display it at the club (I have seen a few of those before, actually). I wasn't particularly prepared for that situation, so all I can offer is literally the shirt off my back, which he gladly accepts. Takes a scissors and cuts a large square out of the front of my shirt (what the hell, there was a pasta stain that never came out anyway). Thus immortalized, my adventure draws to a close.

That was a "supervised" solo. I need to do one more of those and then have some dual work on spins and then I'll be able to solo out of the traffic pattern in the practice area (though if I don't fly duel or solo within 10 days my "currency" lapses and I'll have to go up with an instructor before I can solo again; they have fairly strict rules in the club, the FAA only requires 90 days before your currency lapses. I don't mind the extra precautions).

Final Advice

Oh yes, I almost forgot David's last words of advice when we were taxiing back. "Remember, if you don't like the way things are looking for the landing, just go around and try again. And if it's really bad, try to aim for something cheap."


Want to play "Name that Instrument"?
This link goes to Frank's first solo away from the airport.

Written on Tuesday, January 30th, 1996 by FNA