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Tue, Mar 06, 2007

Return To Flight, Part Four

First Solo... Third Time

by ANN Managing Editor Rob Finfrock

Note: This article was originally intended to be about a lesson I had at the beginning of February, covering emergency procedures... as well as the first time I experienced how the Evektor SportStar handles in strong winds. However, events this Tuesday morning compelled me to skip ahead a little bit; I think you'll understand. -- RF

Wing flaps to takeoff position... trim neutral... plenty of fuel... ignition on both, master switch on... canopy secure.

"Lights [landing light], camera [transponder to ALT], action [advance throttle]," I say, as I taxi to the hold short line for runway 17 at Grand Prairie Muni. "Time to commit aviation."

I'm speaking to myself; the right seat is empty. Time to do this flying thing on my own... again.

"Grand Prairie Tower, SportStar 6-7-6-Echo-Victor holding short 17, closed traffic, ready for takeoff."



Like many other "firsts" in life, you never forget your first solo flight. I'll never forget all the details of mine... the way the clouds miraculously cleared that Saturday morning... how, incredibly, a strong crosswind suddenly calmed, and began to blow straight down runway 21 at Belen Alexander Airport. The day was July 24, 2004.

My instructor, John, ran through some last minute advice as we taxied to park in front of the FBO. "You're ready," he told me. "And remember to flare." The last comment was a joke, regarding my propensity for smooth, but flat, landings.

This was a big day, not only for me but for John as well. I was his first student, ever. That meant he'd be riding right along with me in spirit -- perhaps a bit more so than other CFIs, with more first soloes under their belts, would -- as he nervously watched me fly the pattern at E80.

Throughout my training, John had become not just my instructor, but my buddy, too. No pressure.

I remember that as I directed N62507 to the end of 21, I muttered a quiet prayer; more of a request, actually. I asked for the spirits of my friends, family members, and cherished childhood pets who all had passed before me... to ride along with me for the next 20 minutes or so, if it wasn't too much trouble.

I have never felt such elation, as I did the moment the mainwheels of that trusty Skyhawk lifted off the asphalt that first time... as I realized, with equal parts wonderment and trepidation, that I was solely responsible for setting those wheels down again, safely. Preferably on the runway. I couldn't stop my left leg from shaking.

My first pattern was spot-on, except for a wide turn to base; I had to add power and "drag it in" a bit on final (John taught me power-off landings as rote.) I leveled off on cue, just past the numbers. The nosewheel settled a half-second after the mains touched the ground. Darn it... flat.

A quick flip of the switch to retract flaps, carb heat and throttle levers shoved to the panel... and I was off. OK... I have proven I can actually fly a plane. Time to do it again.

My second landing was my best; I flared at just the right time, and held the nose off until it absolutely couldn't stay off the ground. I still remember how triumphant the full-on wail from the stall horn sounded. Clean up the plane... and I was off again.

Around the patch a third time... and that was it. My third landing was flat, too; a bit better than the first, but not the work of art the second one had been. Oh well; I wasn't kicking myself too badly.

I had just flown an airplane, all by myself. I remember as I calmly taxied back to the ramp, grinning slightly as John took several pictures. I ran through the engine shutdown checklist...

... And the moment that prop stopped turning, and I shut the ignition and master switches off... I went absolutely nuts. "YEEE-Haw!" I yelled to anyone who could hear me.

Before we headed back to the Albuquerque Sunport, John bought me breakfast at Carolina's Cafe, the little FBO restaurant. We went over all the details of my solo excursion ("that second landing was fantastic!") as we both watched other planes land and taxi in, each of their pilots with a lot more experience under their belts than I had. Something to aspire to; the Saturday morning breakfast run.

It was a perfect day. And I have my shirttail, framed and hanging on my living room wall, to remind me of it.


"6-7-6-Echo-Victor, Grand Prairie Tower, report left base, cleared for takeoff."

"Will report base, clear for takeoff, 6EV," I reply. I note the time -- 8:05 am.

This time, my leg isn't shaking; in fact, I realize as I taxi the SportStar onto the runway, I'm not nervous at all; after all, I've done this before. This is going to be fun.

As you would expect for such a light plane, the SportStar is a lot happier with only one person onboard; the plane leaps into the sky almost immediately, just as Jay said it would. I raise takeoff flaps as the altimeter ticks by 750 feet, 150' above the ground, just like the checklist says to. The wind is blowing from slightly right of centerline; the faintest crab keeps the plane tracking straight down the runway.

I turn crosswind at 500' AGL, 1100 feet on the altimeter; I reach pattern altitude just as I start turning downwind.

Abeam the numbers... time to pull carb heat out. I do so by feel, without looking down. Throttle back, keep the nose up to slow into the white arc... first notch of flaps.

Hey, why do I suddenly feel hot air? I look down... and realize I've pulled the similarly-sized-and-shaped cabin heat lever, instead of carb heat. I roll my eyes as I correct my error.

"Grand Prairie Tower, SportStar 676EV turning left base 17, request the option."

As I'm the only aircraft around, Tower quickly clears me for the option. Second notch of flaps in. The southerly wind requires a healthy crab toward the field, and a little more throttle to maintain my descent rate than I had wanted, to keep from being blown wide of the pattern; I had turned to base a bit too late.

Fortunately, it all comes together as I turn final; a slight slip to the right keeps me tracking the centerline until about 100 feet off, and then the crosswind dies out.

I pull out the last bit of throttle once I know I have the runway made. Once over the numbers, I begin the flare. Not too fast... I admonish myself. Level off... stick back... back... keep it from landing... keep it off... main wheels down... keep the nose up... yeah!

The SportStar is lined up perfectly on centerline as the nosewheel touches down. I silently cheer to myself as I push carb heat in... and then kick myself as the plane veers slightly left, just as it has many times before. Other students I've spoken with say they do the same thing; Jay has assured me I'm not the only victim of the "SportStar swerve" (my term).

Flaps back to takeoff position, throttle in... and I'm off the ground again, well before the midway point on the field. The SportStar reaches for the sky like an eager bird, and I realize I'm grinning like a fool. God, this is more fun than I should be having on a work day...


My second "first solo" came almost exactly four months after my first. I had to look at my logbook to remember the exact date: November 20, 2004.

One week after I soloed at Belen that first time, I was driving a moving truck from Albuquerque to Dallas, due to a job relocation. After a month of settling into life in Texas, I restarted lessons with Monarch Air in McKinney, TX.

Of course, I had to go through flight training again... and my work schedule didn't give me a lot of time for lessons. I flew with my instructor, Ryan, five times over two months before earning his blessing to take flight alone, again.

Compared to my lucid memories of my first solo... details of that second solo flight, at the controls of N5187E, escape me. I can't even recall whether I took off from runway 17 or 35 at TKI. I do remember still being nervous, although I felt much more self-assured than I had been that first time. By that time I was also a little better with flaring on landing... but I'm sure at least one of those three landings was flat.

I soloed several more times over the next several months at TKI, both in the pattern and in the practice area over Lake Lavon. I learned a lot on those flights (including an interesting experience landing with a sudden tailwind -- a story for another time.)

The last time I flew 87-Echo was May 2005, just before my student pilot certificate lapsed. I had intended to get another one... but I got busier at my job, and money was tight anyway. Two months later, I went to Oshkosh with ANN; that quenched my thirst for flight somewhat. By January 2006, though, I was planning once again to get another student certificate and restart lessons yet a third time.

And then, as they say, life happened... and my best laid plans were tossed askew.


The second time around the pattern at GPM goes much the same as the first, except this time I turn base leg closer to the runway, to compensate for the wind. That seems to do the trick; just a blip of throttle keeps the plane on a steady 500 foot-per-minute descent rate, and by the time I turn final the throttle is pulled completely to idle.

This time, I keep the slip in all the way to the runway; the right crosswind is back, and I keep the stick moving to compensate. I land straight, but flat.

Carb heat in, flaps in one notch, let's try that again. Just to make life interesting, an inland gull swoops in front of me as I rotate for takeoff, about 200 feet ahead; it glides to the left well before it's a threat, although I bank the plane slightly to the right just to make sure.

Gotta make this one count, Finfrock, I think to myself as I turn crosswind. It's a pity Jay told me to go around the pattern only three times; I feel like I could do this all day.

"Grand Prairie Tower, 676EV turning base for 17, would like to make this one a full stop."

"6EV, cleared to land."

I manage to perform a successful full-stall landing, albeit a tad left of centerline. I clear the runway, clean up the plane as per the post-landing checklist, and taxi back to parking.

Jay is waiting for me in the office. "Good job," he tells me. "Let's see your logbook."

It's 8:35 am by the time I turn in the keys to 6EV... and I still feel the day should have some more flying in store.

"Does anyone have the plane scheduled at 9:00?" I ask hopefully.

By sheer luck, the schedule's open for the next hour (this is a rarity; as I've said before, Aviator's SportStar is a VERY popular aircraft)... so I ask Jay if it would be all right for me to go out there once more, ostensibly to perfect my flare technique.

OK, I'll admit it now... I mostly wanted to have some more fun.

"Sure!" Jay tells me, grinning.

I eagerly accept the check-out receipt and keys. By now, the startup process seems very familiar... and the Tower sounds a bit surprised when I call in once again, requesting permission to taxi out.

Five more times around the pattern -- for eight total -- and I reluctantly call it a day. But only because now I REALLY have to get back to work; Jim's going to send the hounds out if I stay away too much longer.

It hits me as I drive home. I flew an airplane, all by myself... No matter how many times I've done that before, and will again in the future... it's still incredibly cool.

Coming Next Week -- Emergency Procedures, And Dealing With Strong Winds



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