Saturday, May 07, 2005

First Solo

I think about being in my teens and twenties, and listening to older people. Now, I’ve usually been a good listener, but often, my mind’s eye would roll a bit as I once again heard a friend or acquaintance talk about the passing of time.

“Enjoy this time, it’ll be gone before you know it.”

“I can’t believe I’m fifty. Sometimes I still feel like I should be in college.”

“I’m sixty years old, but it seems just yesterday I was your age.”

I’d listen, attentively, but it all seemed, well, less than profound, and maybe, even a bit trite. Everyone gets older, right? What’s so profound about that?

But now that I’m closing on my forty-ninth birthday, those statements don’t seem so trite at all.

The other day, while going through boxes in the garage, I happened upon my solo certificate from Army flight school. It isn’t an official military document; rather, the civilian contractor who provided the Army’s primary flight training handed it out. It’s kind of funny: It features an illustration of a daddy eagle dropping a panic-stricken younger eagle out of the nest. On the bottom, it’s signed by one Charles White, the daddy eagle who kicked me out of one particular nest.


May 7, 1975, Fort Rucker, Alabama. I was an eighteen year-old Warrant Officer Candidate, a helicopter pilot in training. The Army contracted its primary helicopter flight training to a civilian company, and my instructor, Mr. White, was a retired Army pilot. He was a great guy, patient, very capable as an instructor, and seemingly, a natural pilot.

I wasn’t a weak student, but neither was I a hot shot. In fact, I was strikingly average. My training period that day had started out badly: I’d botched a practice autorotation (sort of the helicopter equivalent of an engine-out glide to the ground) right off.

I completed two more autorotations, with Mr. White ready to pounce on the controls if needed. There was no need. They were much better than the first, and I felt a renewed sense of confidence. “Okay, let’s see a normal approach,” said my veteran instructor. I took off, and entered the traffic pattern again. When I finished the approach, he said, “Hey, that wasn’t bad. You’ve really come along on that maneuver over the last couple of days. Let’s see a hovering autorotation.”

Hovering autorotations, which simulate an engine failure at a hover, had been my strongest maneuver. Even on my bad days, I could do them well. “Good job,” said Mr. White. “Hover over to the ramp close to the ops building.” “What’s up?” I thought to myself. I set the helicopter down on the ramp, and then looked to Mr. White for an explanation. Instead of offering one, he got out of the aircraft. I assumed he must have needed to use the restroom. He secured his seat belt and shoulder harness, and before taking off his flight helmet, keyed the mike and said, “Okay: make three traffic patterns, then hover back here to pick me up. If you have any trouble, I’ll be in the control tower monitoring the radio.”

I watched him walk away. WHAT?! Surely he couldn’t be serious! Solo the helicopter, NOW? I keyed the mike, intending only to talk to myself on the intercom, and blurted, “Oh sh*t! I’M NOT READY!”

“Say I.D.,” transmitted the control tower operator, sternly. Oh, geez, I’d squeezed the mike button too hard and transmitted over the tower frequency! (It wasn't approved procedure to say "sh*t on the radio.)

So, without mentioning my aircraft I.D., I simply transmitted, “disregard.” The tower came back with a curt, “roger.” Whew.

One crisis averted, I felt overwhelmed with all of the items to remember just to come to a hover, never mind flying three traffic patterns. I heard my dad’s voice in my head: “Don’t sit there and think about it, just do it.” I increased the RPM to flying speed, did a quick pre-takeoff check, called the tower for clearance, and came to a hover.

At first, I wobbled around a bit, but quickly steadied out. “I might just survive this after all,” I thought to myself. I hovered out to the takeoff lane--sort of a mini runway--lowered the nose, and took off. I wobbled about once more during climb out, but steadied out again; I turned on crosswind, and felt myself grinning. I was doing it! I was flying a helicopter, by myself! I turned on the downwind leg, and stopped my climb at 1000 feet. Geez, this was going so smoothly. Then I looked at where Mr. White had been sitting. At an empty seat. At empty space. At sky where my instructor should have been.

“If I screw up, there’s no one here to save me.” I felt that sentiment more than thought it. I took a couple of deep breaths, then keyed the radio mike to transmit. “Allen Tower, Four-eight Foxtrot reporting downwind abeam.” There. I least I managed to get that radio call off without sounding like Mickey Mouse. “Four-eight Foxtrot, number three for landing, report turning final,” replied the tower.

I looked back at Mr. White’s empty seat. I still felt a stab of fear, but it seemed more contained. Actually, I noted, I was doing a pretty good job of holding my airspeed and altitude. Hey, maybe I was ready to solo after all! The tower operator interrupted me as I admired my work: “Four-eight Foxtrot, it’s time to turn base leg! You’re flying a helicopter, not a B-52!” Oh sheesh, sure enough, I’d gone way beyond where I should have turned on my base leg. “Four-eight Foxtrot, roger,” I replied, trying not to sound overly sheepish. Then another voice came over the radio. It was Mr. White, chuckling as he offered, “For a minute there, I was afraid you were flying to Florida.” I turned base leg, then reported turning final. It was time to land.

Suddenly, I forgot how to fly. The nose pitched up, then down, as if the helicopter were flying itself. I was getting into what the instructors refered to as "P.I.O.": pilot-induced oscillation. Over the radio, Mr. White’s calm voice again: “Just fly it like you always fly it.” As if by magic, I found that I was again flying the helicopter, instead of the helicopter flying me. I terminated the approach to a hover, then called the tower for takeoff clearance. In the next two traffic patterns, I made a triumphant emotional transition, from muted terror to, well, severe anxiety. On my last approach, Mr. White transmitted, “Okay, Four-eight Foxtrot, hover over here and pick me up.”

Mr. White climbed in, donned his flight helmet, and stuck out his hand in congratulations. “Not bad, other than that first traffic pattern. Mind if I fly us home?” (The “home field” was about fifteen miles from our stage field.) Not only did I not mind, I was relieved. Although exhilarated, I felt utterly spent.

That was thirty years ago today. Wow. And yes, it does seem, at times, like it all happened a few years ago, not three decades ago. And yes, that eighteen year-old is still there: he often sees me in the mirror and says, “Sheesh, man, what happened to you?”

I have 10,000 hours of flight time now, but I doubt I’ll ever forget the way I felt on that day, the day I survived my first solo.

"The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you’ve been." Madeleine L'Engle