On April 7th, 2012, I flew my first solo flight in an aircraft. Since October 2011 I've been training for my Private Pilot's License. Since late December the weather has been pretty terrible so I've only flown a hand full of times.
The day started with pretty poor conditions around the airport. There was low hanging cloud and intermittent rain. Worse, I was recovering from a stomach bug that had made me feel a bit nauseous.
As the day progressed the weather and my stomach improved. The cloud base retreated higher in to the atmosphere and the wind dropped to a small southernly wind. It was starting to look like it might be the day I fly solo!
My lesson was at 16:30pm. I normally ride on my bicycle to the airport but I decided to drive to the airport because my stomach still wasn't quite right. It had been three weeks since I'd last set foot in the cockpit of an aircraft. Two weeks earlier there had been mist covering the runway which prevented any VFR flights, instruction flights included. Last week my instructor was off with laryngitis and all his lessons were cancelled.
So with ever improving conditions, the gauntlet was down: could I, after three weeks out of the seat, fly the plane sufficiently well to convince my instructor to let me fly solo?
We'd made an agreement on a previous lesson that my instructor would be treated like a passenger. He wouldn't say or do anything unless I did something genuinely dangerous.
The lesson was also the first time I fully operated the radio. Sure, I was doing radio calls before the lesson. You have to at Liverpool Aiport as it's air traffic controlled. However, it was the first time I actually dialed in the frequencies and switched between them.
I selected the ATIS frequency and recorded the pertinent information. The wind direction, dew point, runway in use. I then got my taxi clearence from Kilo to Golf. We trundled out at slow speed following the yellow taxiway center line. We were cleared to take off so we got on the runway and I selected the 7010 transponder code. Then above us only sky.
The first circuit was a right hand circuit off runway 27. This lesson was also the first time I did that particular circuit pattern. I've done right-hand circuits on runway 09 but never on 27. I had to promote my passenger to flight instructor for a couple of seconds to understand my waypoints around this new circuit. With these instructions properly understood, he was demoted back to a passenger.
The important part then came: the landing. The landing was good. After three weeks out of the seat, I'd not forgotten the importance of holding off until the plane sinks on to the runway.
The next four circuits were all left-handers and were pretty consistent. There were little mistakes on each of them, all in different places, but I knew I was now at a position where I could fly the circuit safely. I felt like a pilot. I felt confident I could fly a circuit or two by myself with no great dramas.
Then on the fifth landing, we were cleared for a touch and go but my instructor says while we're on the runway: "Can we convert this to a landing?" The time had come.
We then exited the runway, and passed Kilo. At this point he gives me a quick "You'll be alright, just remember your training." style talk. He sits with me while I do my call for taxi instructions. After this, he steps out of the plane and I flip the ceiling switch for door security. I'm on my own.
I roll out of Kilo back on to the taxiway with a mixture of intrepidation and of fear. I watch another PA38 in front of me taxi to Golf and hold. I sit behind him with my parking break on. He's then given clearence to takeoff and I edge forward to the hold point on the runway. This guy is in the circuit too, so I think to myself "just be aware of that."
I then get cleared to take off. I line up on the runway centre line and take a deep breath. I then advance the throttle forward. First to half way and then once I'm confident the plane is moving under control, I advance it to full.
After what seems like an eternity, I see sixty-five knots on the airspeed indicator and I rotate. The plane lifts off the ground and I start to question my own sanity! I now have to land the thing.
A plane without an instructor is noticably lighter. It climbed away more sweetly than it did just fifteen minutes ago. In no time, I was at 500 feet and turning for the cooling tower on the south bank of the Mersey.
Soon I was a thousand feet and leveling out ahead of my downwind leg. I had the Ravenair PA38 in sight and made sure not to turn on to the downwind leg until he was definitely in front of me. His crosswind leg was quite a bit wider than mine, probably because he wasn't climbing as fast. I turned downwind and got my downwind call in. I was cleared to report final, number two to the traffic in front of me. I started my pre-landing checks.
Having completed my pre-landing checks, I double checked my alitude was still a thousand feet and looked out for the lighthouse on the north bank of the Mersey. That's the waypoint to turn base. With the traffic clearly in sight, I turned on to base.
When flying around left hand circuit at Liverpool on runway 27, the goal is to be around 700 feet over Hale Village. When I was flying the downwind leg, I hugged the south bank of the Mersey quite closely to give me maximum set-up time on the base leg. I actually set up the plane a little too quickly and lost a little bit too much height. As I flew over Hale Village, I was at 600 feet. I added a little extra power to maintain my height for a while and then turned on to final.
I reported that I was final and was cleared for a touch and go. I hadn't worked this out at the time but I had made a mistake in my downwind call. I simply said "Downwind, Golf-Sierra-Hotel" rather than "Downwind to Land, Golf-Sierra-Hotel". I immedaitely said "Cleared to Land? Cleared to Land?" quite harshly and nervously. The controller captiulated and cleared me to Land.
After screwing up my height a bit on base, the final leg went really smoothly. I was descending nicely and holding the center line with my rudder. Gentle flicks on the yoke were required to keep the wings level and the IAS hovering at 70 knots. At about 20 feet I pitched up in to the hold off and cut the power. The plane touched the runway and I was safely back on terraferma.
The usual post landing steps were taken: the carburetor heat was switched off, the flaps were retracted and I applied breaks to slow the plane down before turning off the runway. I was quickly cleared to return to Kilo and taxied back with an elation and disbelief (Did I really just do that?). Once I passed Kilo I radioed in for the final time and parked the plane in the hanger. All that was left to do was to shake the hand of my instructor.
And that's the story of my first Solo.