The First Solo

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Note: I wrote this within hours of returning home after the flight. I did not edit it since.


Today (July 10, 2001), I got home about 5pm and did my personal checklist. Left leg—check, right leg—check, left hand—check, right hand—check, eyes—looks ok, brain—still missing. Yes, I had not lost anything. Nothing was amiss, not a scratch anywhere. But I realized, I had cut the cord. The cord, that had me bound to the other woman in my life.  

Prior to coming home, I had gone over to Chandler Municipal Airport (CHD) to spend an hour practicing takeoffs and landings. I was assigned to fly a white Piper Warrior, tail number N80565. After the elaborate preflight inspection (of the airplane) and the power-on testing (called “run-up”) I had taxied to edge of the active runway and called the control tower for takeoff. “Warrior 80565, cleared for takeoff on runway 22 right, for closed right traffic”, was the response.   

So I pushed the throttle up and buzzed along for the takeoff roll. I was cleared for the “right traffic” pattern. This means I would climb at a steady pace along the runway heading, till I was about 400 feet off the ground and then make a quick, 90° right hand turn. After I was flying perpend° right turn. This would of course, put me going back, parallel to the runway (called the downwind leg). Maintaining my climb, I would be at the edge of the runway when I reached about 1000 feet off the ground. At this point, I would level off, reduce power, wait about 10 seconds, to fly along the length of the runway and then start descending. One more 90° right turn, I am flying “base”, and then another right turn and I am on “final”, flying to the landing point on the runway. On final, I would perform one of the trickiest maneuvers known to humans—landing a plane. As soon as I touched the ground, I would gun the engines and go off again.

After about five touch-and-go-s, my instructor, Susie, told me to drop her of at the control tower. She climbed up the tower, to watch, and left me with instructions to go and try it by myself, three times. This was the dreaded moment. This must be the real origin of the phrase “going solo”.

Total Control

The plane felt empty and light. The controls moved smoother, the cockpit was quiet. I spoke to the ground controller and he gave me the clearance to taxi to the closer active runway (22 right). The weather was clear, sunny, humid, and about 97°F and the plane was a furnace. As I stopped on the “hold short” line, I noticed a plane approaching for a landing. My glasses were splotched with sweat, so I took them off to clean. The inbound plane touched down, and I radioed the tower “Chandler Tower, this is 80565, holding short of runway 22 right, for touch and go-s, need right traffic, this is my first solo”. The response was tinged with a smile. “Roger, please switch to Chandler Tower at 126.1” I had forgotten to change the frequency on the radio, and was talking to ground control.

Feeling embarrassed I flipped the radio and called tower. Tower cleared me to “taxi into position and hold”. So I moved on to the runway, pointed the plane in takeoff position and noticed the just landed plane was still waddling in front of me. As the plane turned off the runway, the tower called, “Warrior 80565, cleared for takeoff, make right traffic”, said the voice. Oh my, thank you, I thought, I had forgot to request right traffic. (They could have assigned me left traffic, which is a significantly more complicated pattern from the right runway).

Full power, follow the centerline, and the plane accelerated as fast as the fan mounted on its nose could pull it through. I watch the needle climb to 60 knots, nose up, 70 knots pull harder and the plane lifts off. We are in a steep climb, I lower the nose and the plane speeds up to 80 knots for the “best rate” climb. Then I turn crosswind, and downwind holding the speed steady. At 1000 ft, I power back, go through the landing checklist, fly abreast of the landing end of the runway and power down again, and began descending. I hear a voice, “Warrior 80565, cleared to land on 22 right, you are number 2 following a Cessna on short final”. I looked over my right wing to see another flying object whizzing past, down below. “565, clear to land, 22 right, traffic in sight”, I respond.

I am soon on final; I am slightly slow and a bit low. A female voice speaks to me, “Add power if you need to”. Of course, I need to—so I give it some gas. I look over to the next seat. It was empty. The voice was in my head. She may be gone, but her voice will dog me forever.

I speed up, align and soon I am on top of the runway about 15 feet up. I stop my descent, level out, and note I am off to one side. Too late to correct, I realize, but not too bad, hold it up, power cut off, let the speed drop, the plane sinks, I pull harder and with a thud, we are on the ground. I disengage the flaps, steer to the center and then power up. Within three seconds or four, we are airborne again, and I have done my first solo landing.


Back again, on my second final approach, a bit too high. I turn off the power, full flaps, and aim straight at the tarmac. I come down steep, but the speed is fine. Just before hitting the ground I pull up to stop my descent. I pull too hard and the plane lifts off. Now I am flying level, way above the runway. I bring it down slightly, careful not to slam it down. It sinks, I pull up, and it flies up again, slowing down as it rises. I need power, or it will stall and fall. Add some gas, fly level a bit, and then cut the power. Slowly the plane settles down and I am on the ground, and have lost a lot of valuable runway length. Flaps out, power up, yes, we can make it, pull the nose up, and off we go.

Third landing was picture perfect—well almost. Glide slope looks great, speed is right (70 knots), the alignment is perfect, and this one will be a breeze. Not. 

At about the moment of touching, one wing floats up, and one wheel touches and the plane swerves to the left. I correct, and it overcorrects. I am on the ground, going 70 knots, and crossing the runway sideways to the right. I swerve again and this time I get back control, in the nick of time. Let the plane settle and apply brakes. Words cannot explain how close this call was.


Pick up the even more relieved Susie at the control tower. She was doing her best to be completely ecstatic. “You solo-ed, you did a great job!” That was very sweet, but not quite honest.

Next is a long arduous task of really learning to do a lot of things right. Maybe someday, I can go to Chandler Airport, pick up the keys and head over to lovely Sedona for a quick lunch. Nah, the Mexican food is so good in Puerto Penasco, on the lovely blue Sea of Cortez (yeah, “south of the border”)