Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Landing Blind: First Solo

"No matter how much training you've had, your first solo is far different from all other flights. You are completely independent, hopelessly beyond help, entirely responsible, and terribly alone in space."

-- Charles A Lindbergh, The Spirit of St Louis

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
26 Sep 2001N9327UHAI (Three Rivers, MI) - C91 (Dowagiac, MI) - HAI1.724.2

Learning Plateau

Five hundred feet and descending. The airspeed indicator is pegged at 60 knots. I am lined up perfectly for runway 23 at the Three Rivers - Dr. Haines Municipal Airport. The sight picture is good; I am neither too high nor too low. I ease the throttle back to idle and adjust the pressure I exert on the yoke to maintain 60 knots. My aim point, the large "23" painted on the end of the runway, remains fixed in my windscreen and growing larger. Closer...closer... I drift over the runway numbers and note the subtle flattening of the perspective. I am very close to the ground now and pull back gently on the yoke to assume a level flight attitude. Wait, wait... There it is, a mild sensation of sinking. Time to flare. I pull the nose higher, pitching to, then above, the horizon. But my pull on the yoke is too abrupt and the airplane climbs for a moment before exhausting its remaining kinetic energy.

The stall warning horn shrieks as the bottom drops out. THUMP! BANG! RATTLE!

The weeks leading up to my first solo epitomized the phrase, "learning plateau" and the solo was a long time coming. My instructor, Bill, and I spent hour after hour grinding around the pattern in poor little 27U, a slightly battered 1976 Cessna 150M. Every time, as the runway expanded to fill the windscreen, something would freeze in my brain and I would plunk the airplane down in the least graceful way possible.

Rain and Picket Fences

I took an unexpected vacation from flight training in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. September 26 is my first time back in the cramped cabin of 27U. Though good visibility VFR, the weather conditions are not inspiring. Cold drizzle leaks from a high overcast cloud layer, covering everything with a pervasive dampness. I have my first experience with actual carburetor icing then, as the little Continental begins to lose power while taxing to the runway. Weather reports show that conditions are better to the west and we decide to fly from our home airport of Three Rivers, Michigan to nearby Dowagiac.

After a brief flight, we find Dowagiac's 5,000 foot paved runway under overcast, but dry, skies. There is a visible break in the cloud deck at the western horizon. Bill calls my attention to the world's edge and what appears to be a ragged picket fence in the distance. As I stare, puzzled, Bill explains that we are seeing the skyline of Chicago. Looking with a more knowledgeable eye, the Sears Tower and John Hancock buildings become obvious as the two tallest features running south to north. It is a day of striking clarity in the Midwest for Chicago to be visible from nearly 75 nautical miles away.

Soon, we are on short final for runway 27 at Dowagiac. With airspeed pegged at 60 knots, the large runway fills the windscreen as it has many times in the previous weeks. As the perspective flattens, I level the nose and wait for the inevitable sinking sensation. When it comes, I counter with backpressure on the yoke. With a bit more sink, I increase the pressure. 27U continues its descent without ballooning. As the stall horn begins to blare like the bleating of a wounded animal, I continue to pull the yoke toward my chest. With a gentle bump, we are rolling nose high down the runway. In my excitement, I relax back pressure on the controls and the nosewheel contacts the runway with a maladroit thump.

"That would have been perfect, but you relaxed your grip. Let's try it again," Bill says. With flaps retracting and throttle wide open, I direct 27U to lumber skyward and back into Dowagiac's right-handed traffic pattern.

On the second time around, I manage a repeat performance. Almost. This time, I consciously hold the yoke back as I roll out. The nosewheel finally kisses the runway as the little airplane slows to a near stop. "Perfect. Do it again." I don't need to be told twice and around we go a couple more times.

"Huh?"

On the fourth landing, Bill stops me before I can advance the throttle for another takeoff. "No, stop. Take me back to the end of the runway." Seeing confusion in my face, Bill adds, "it's time you did this by yourself." At those words, a flood of confused thoughts blasts through my head. Is this guy completely insane? I never expected to solo away from my home airport! But I just figured this out! Isn't it a bit early?

Later accounts from Bill would reveal that I articulated these concerns with a concise, "huh?".

With mental gears still spinning in a vain effort to mesh, I taxi 27U back to the departure end of runway 27, swing around, and stop. After Bill exits the aircraft, I simply stare at the empty right seat for a moment. Suddenly, itty bitty 27U feels big, empty, and a little scary.

Bill strolls clear of the pavement and waves. I open the throttle. The airplane is more sprightly than usual and lunges forward, reaching rotation speed far sooner than I expect. With little coaxing from me, 27U leaps into the air and climbs with unbounded enthusiasm. Intellectually, I am aware that aircraft performance will be better with only one person on board, but I am grossly unprepared for the magnitude of improved performance. I reach pattern altitude rapidly, aggressively pulling back on the throttle and leveling the nose to reign-in the Cessna, reasserting control as those mental gears start to mesh again.

Once on downwind, the pace of events slows enough for me to consciously realize that I am soloing an airplane. I am awash in a curious mixture of euphoria and panic. Reaching midfield, I mechanically pull the carburetor heat knob. This triggers a realization that, alone or not, I already know how to fly 27U. The apprehension flees and I simply fly the airplane as I have been taught to do.

On short final, I can see Bill standing to the left of the runway in front of the PAPI ("precision approach path indicator", lights providing a visual glideslope to landing pilots). I float over the runway threshold at idle, propeller windmilling. I pass Bill in an instant. With the stall horn wailing at peak intensity, I land without hardly a bump. I come to a complete stop, back-taxi to the start of the runway, and do it again. The second landing is by far my best that day.

As I prepare for the third and final trip around the pattern, the rain begins. It is a gentle rain and does nothing to impact visibility. Dusk is near and the sun has settled itself on the horizon, beneath the protective overcast. It peers at me under the cloud deck with blinding rays. I start rolling for the third take-off while pointed directly at the blazing fireball. Airspeed rises to meet 60 knots and pitching the airplane skyward brings relief to my eyes.

Upon turning downwind, I witness a rainbow taking shape in the light rain. Not the half-circle familiar to the earthbound observer, but a prismatic ring suspended in the sky. My course is directed through the center of the ring, as though it is a gateway officially welcoming me to pilothood. It will remain, for many years, the most memorable sight of my time at the controls of an airplane.

Abeam the numbers, the usual mechanics take over. Flaps at 10°, throttle to 1800 RPM, pitch to 70 knots, make a radio call. During the base turn, I add 20° flaps, pitch to 65 and call again. Turning onto final, I lock in 30° flaps and establish the proper landing pitch.

Gray Obscurity

Five hundred feet above the ground, I complete the turn to final approach. The world seems to simultaneously burst and fade. The sun is setting in truly spectacular fashion and I am now pointed directly at it. Runway and airport vanish into gray obscurity, fading relative to the setting sun perched directly at the top of my instrument panel. I cannot see the runway or read any of my instruments. Suppressing panic, I look around and see the world beyond my side windows continue to scroll past, my over-saturated vision rendering everything in shades of gray.

There is not much time. I think about aborting the landing in hopes that the sun will sink further below the horizon in the time it takes to negotiate the pattern again. But then something else catches my eye. Despite intense backlighting, lights from the PAPI are still visible. A mental picture from previous landings appears in my head - an image of the PAPI sitting left of the runway with Bill standing in front of it. I decide to continue the descent while steering to the right of those lights and using the view out the side windows to keep myself on course. I know the field - the runway sits in a clearing surrounded by grass that often doubles as taxiway. There are no overhead wires. I also know that the sun will appear to slip further below the horizon as I lose altitude.

A seeming eternity passes as I sink at an unknown velocity toward a runway that I cannot see. Finally, a few tens of feet above the ground, the horizon hides enough of the sun that my vision is restored. The instrument panel and the runway snap into crisp reality once again. I find that I am flying parallel to, but not over, the runway. I had underestimated the spacing between the PAPI and the nearest runway edge. I correct, centering the Cessna over the pavement. I pull the throttle and execute a surprisingly perfect, full stall landing.

Taxiing back to the departure end of the runway, my heart pounds in my chest. I cannot help but wonder what Bill will say to me when I rejoin him. Something like, "what the hell was that?" comes to mind. To my surprise, he says nothing about it all, but merely climbs in, secures the door, and buckles his seatbelt. "Let's go home," he decrees.

We launch from Dowagiac, the airplane losing its prior enthusiasm now that it is faced with carrying two passengers again. We are still climbing to a suitable cruising altitude when Bill looks at me and says in his quirky way, "well, I was beginning to wonder if you were going to land on the runway that time."

"I couldn't SEE it," I complain.

"Yeah, I thought so. It happens." We talk through my decision process and about other actions I might have taken (such as aborting the landing, reversing direction, and landing downwind). Afterward, Bill validates my choice by commenting, "well done." We leave Dowagiac behind, thus concluding my most memorable flying lesson.

It is an auspicious entry to pilothood. Years later, reflection in hindsight would find me grateful that I did not use up my reservoir of luck before building a solid foundation of experience; a downwind landing with the sun at my back would have been a better choice.

From time to time, I pass near the Dowagiac airport and drop in for a nostalgic circuit or two around the pattern. Every time I do, I become a first time solo student again. I have yet to see another rainbow, but my landings there are always better than the ones anywhere else.

Proof that 27U and I survived the first solo: here we are on June 29, 2003. Photo by Scott.