All By Myself

Aeronca Champ -photo by michaelfliesblog.comMy flight instructor told me to do a couple of touch and goes and then sat back. I ran the throttle of the two seater Aeronca Champion up and taxied down to the end of the field and lined up on the grass runway. It was a gorgeous day, about seventy degrees and a partly cloudy sky. There was about five miles an hour of wind that blew straight down the runway at me. At the moment I was the only one using the airport although there were a bunch of people here and there. Some were polishing their airplanes, some were just chatting with the other pilots, and others were people just looking around at the diverse collection of planes that made Evergreen their home base. I tested the ailerons, elevator and rudder, ran the throttle up to 1500 RPMs and tested the magnetos by switching from one to the other and back to both. With no noticable change in engine sound I dropped the throttle back, let go the brakes and rolled into position. I pushed the throttle slowly until it was wide open and the little plane bumped and waggled its way up the runway going faster and faster. I gave the stick some back pressure and before long the wings took the weight of the plane and we lifted off.

With the 85 horsepower Continental motor chugging away, I pulled the throttle back a little and climbed to 500 feet. Because Evergreen sat right across the Columbia River from Portland International Airport, our pattern was lower than the standard. At 500 feet I turned crosswind and the little plane aimed right at PDX and the river, but I turned with the wind long before I reached the shore. I flew eastward, 180 degrees from my takeoff direction until I’d passed the end of the runway and the airport perimeter. Turning left, north, and started my descent, then turned again on final and dropped the rest of the altitude and touching down in a perfect 3 point landing. We coasted ahead and I added full throttle, lifted the tail and repeated the process again.

As we were on final approach, my instructor, Bob Nelson, told me to make a full stop midway up the runway. I shrugged and did his bidding. After all, I had a mere three and a half hours of flight time. He was the boss. The plane came to a halt and Bob opened the door and stepped out. “Okay,” he said. “Now do it again. A pair of touch and goes and on your third landing, taxi up to the hangar.” He shut the door and walked away. I yelled to him but he either couldn’t hear me over the rumble of the engine or he was ignoring me. The fact was, I was being soloed. It was time to fly the airplane on my own.

I looked ahead and saw a clear runway and so I ran the throttle up and the plane accelerated quickly. With only me in the aircraft it sped to takeoff speed in a wink of an eye and it ascended so quickly it was as if the plane had become helium filled. In no time at all I was at six hundred feet, a hundred feet above pattern altitude. I pulled back on the throttle to the point it sounded like it was idling yet the altimeter said seven hundred feet. I pulled the throttle all the way back and turned toward the river. Gliding, I turned with the wind and coasted eastward, parallel to the runway. Down wind and turning onto final I still hadn’t given the plane any more throttle. I glided to a touchdown and bounced once because I didn’t keep the nose high enough. I rolled out a little and then dutifully pressed the throttle forward and the plane virtually leaped back into the air. This time I backed off the gas right away and crawled to my assigned five hundred foot pattern altitude. This time I flew a crisp cornered pattern and did a good three point landing.

I was sweating, both from the sunshine greenhousing through the wide plastic windscreen and a bit of nervousness and so I pulled the sliding window backwards to open it a little. The side window was merely a pane of clear plastic sitting in aluminum tracks. I rolled ahead about sixty feet and then advanced the throttle for my last trip around the pattern. The plane jumped back into the sky and the wind blew through the open window harshly. I went to slide the window closed again and it popped out of the track. I found myself holding the window with my throttle hand, controlling the stick with my right hand, and my head was wondering what to do with the window instead of paying attention to the flight. I guided the pane of plastic down between the wall of the airplane and the pilot seat and grabbed the throttle. My altitude was eight hundred feet and I’m sure the people across the way in the Portland tower were eyeing me suspiciously. I yanked the throttle closed and repeated the gliding and rounded cornered pattern of my first circuit. I pasted the landing perfectly but my face and ears were burning as I taxied up to the hangar. I just knew I was going to hear that I’d failed my solo.

At the hangar, I shut down the motor and took a minute to get the window back in the track before opening the door and climbing out. I walked into the flight shack to find my instructor sitting at the desk, feet up and reading a newspaper. “Ah, you’re back.” he said. “Congratulations. Good joob.” He had me hand over my log book and signed me off for solo flight. I was amazed.

“Does anyone ever fail a solo?” I asked him.

“Think about it a minute,” he replied. I did. Okay, if you flew by yourself then you flew solo. Even if you crash, you’d have still flown solo.

“I guess not.” I said. Bob pointed his finger at his temple and made a screwing motion. Then he stood up, whipped out a pair of scissors and cut the tail off of my shirt. Important safety tip, do not wear your favorite lucky shirt to solo an airplane. I became a shavetail, was handed a solo certificate that had my name emblazoned on it and showed a baby bird being kicked out of the nest. My name was written on my shirttail and it was hung on the wall with the other shards of accomplishment.

On my ride home I beamed from the seat of my Kawasaki motorcycle. I was a pilot.