Lesson 17 – First Solo

I could tell something was planned when my instructor started briefing me on engine fires during start, on the ground and in the air. I thought to myself “Uh-oh, there are some boxes to be ticked here”. And of course, it was all preparation to getting me ready for my first solo landing.

It wasn’t going to come immediately, of course. First he had to satisfy himself that I was on a half-decent flying day and, having not been up for a fortnight, I was a bit unsure that I would be.

The wind was a bit stronger than I’d have liked, but it was virtually straight down the runway. It meant the first circuit was a tiny bit wonky as I didn’t correct enough for the crosswind component, but it came together at the end. Even the touch-down was okay and, as ever, I was told I could have held off a bit. Flying the approach with a strong headwind was interesting given the amount of still days, tailwinds and crosswinds I’d had. A fair fistful of power was needed even quite close to the runway.

The second landing attempt didn’t go so well. Airspeed was a touch on the high side – closer to 70 knots rather than 65 – and alignment wasn’t perfect so I was adjusting when I was still about 30 feet off the ground. It just didn’t feel right so I started a go-around, and there was going to be no instructor-hopping-out on this run.

The third landing brought back one of my bad (involuntary) habits: it was going almost perfectly, and I was determined to keep the hold-off going with some more pull-back on the stick. Unfortunately, my other hand moved in the opposite direction and I added a few hundred RPM of power. It was time to abort and a go-around at about 50 knots and probably 2 feet off the runway. That was definitely the landing that got away.

Still, my instructor was happy with the decision and everything I was doing, so the plan was to make the next to land and stop… gulp. Except that this was the worst landing I’d ever done. After some previous hold-off attempts where I’d thought I was still a couple of feet off the runway but was only a few inches, I was trying to re-adjust my perspective. Unfortunately, that meant we pretty much dropped the last couple of feet with a big “thud” – at least on the rear wheels, but it wasn’t pleasant.

No time to dwell and the plan continued, but we’d do another attempt the him in the other seat “just for confidence, even though your flying is fine”… yeah, right. This one went well, though, and everything felt in control all the way down. Of course I could have held off a bit more, but I’d rather keep getting a feel for how far to pull and land slightly early than go too far the other way and balloon all the time. And as the instructor said: once you’re slow enough and it’s on the rear wheels, it’s going to be a good enough landing.

So we taxied to a patch of grass near the holding point and after a radio-in for a callsign change to “Student Golf Mike Juliet” out he hopped. I ran through the pre-take-off checks, waited for a couple of other planes to taxi past, one of which I probably didn’t have to but I just thought I didn’t want to feel like someone was waiting for me. Taxi, ATPL checks, radio call, line up, and then I was off.

Take-offs are rarely anything worth talking about, and this was the same – thankfully. It felt like the wind was maybe stronger, but less gusty, which suited me fine. Then the turn onto crosswind, downwind, radio call, BUMFLITCH checks, and in no time at all I was turning onto the base leg and getting set up for the approach. It passed in a flash.

Given the wind, and having experienced it a few times now, I had a better sense of how much power to leave in on the approach. Apart from seeing the speed get close to 60 knots when I added the third stage of flap (when the magic number to aim for is 65) the approach was as good as any.  There seemed to be no trace of crosswind as I passed over the aerodrome threshold and, adding a touch more power to make sure I got to the numbers, I think I timed the flare well-enough. Maybe it was a fraction of a second late, but soon we were nose in the air flying level just above the runway. A touch of hold-off and then I felt the rear wheels touch and let her settle down on the nose wheel when good and ready. That was a relief!

If there’s anything in the post-mortem of landings I’d do better it would be, of course, more hold-off. But at that time the last thing I wanted to do was to end up going back into the air again and, in my book, touching down gently at 50 knots is a landing I’m happy with.

After-landing checks, taxi back, park in a gap that I thought looked tight but turned out to be fine, and then my first solo shutdown – more stressful than I thought it would be with plenty of “did I leave the iron on?” type thoughts as I walked away from the plane.

Apparently “all the old guys” (whoever they are) were also watching my landing from the radio room to check on how well I’d been taught! I’m glad not to have shown either of us up.

Lessons 13, 14, 15 and 16

Too much excitement to write about the flying… Lesson 13 was a second dose of stalling, this time in flap and base to final configurations i.e. stalling in situations that are more likely to happen on an approach. The stalls were all cut off as soon as the warner sounded and, to be honest, the process is fairly straightforward. The only thing to watch is making sure I dip the nose before putting the power on rather than doing both simultaneously.

After stalling up at 3,000ft or so we had some spin recovery sessions while we had the height to lose. Again, it seemed fairly straightforward: power to idle, wings level, then pull up. It might be different close to the ground but at a couple of thousand feet there’s plenty of time to sort it all out.

Lesson 14 (if I remember) was some great fun in practice forced landings out over some deserted marshland on the south side of the Thames. Being able to put some dramatic(ish) weaves in to lose height and get approaches sorted out was a lot of fun, although I still found myself going quite long into the field at the point that I’d ideally be aiming for. I feel like the landings would happen, just I’d rather get them at the near side and not have to still be losing height at the point that I’d really like to be touching the ground.

Still, there are plenty more of those to come, which is something to look forward to as they were one of the most enjoyable things yet.

Lessons 15 was back to circuits and getting ready for my first solo. Apparently the landings were good enough now, even with winds outside of those that I’d be allowed to fly solo in, so it’s just a case of waiting for the right weather – which could be any time between now and Spring. The funny thing is that although it’s definitely a big milestone to get out of the way, and I’m keen to do it, I don’t feel like I need to tick the “I flew solo after X hours” box. So we’re just going to carry on with the course and let the weather do what it likes.

Lesson 16 was steep turns, which was short and, again, relatively straightforward. It shows how much more natural being in the cockpit becomes after all these lessons as the steep turn I got to do on my trial lesson (albeit with the instructor at the throttle and balance ball) felt like we were spinning around with no idea which way I was facing. This time, rolling in and holding altitude came fairly naturally, and after a couple of practices even rolling out onto more-or-less the right heading was okay too.

After the turns we came back for another couple of circuits, with first an overhead join and then a flapless approach. The crosswind was gusting a bit, and again more than I’d be doing on a solo, and the approach was going well until I tried to get as much hold-off as I could and felt like I’d pulled back a bit too hard. Apparently it was actually fine, but I was worried that we’d keep going up into the air and losing speed at the same time. As it turns out I must have done all of this at between about 6 to 12 inches off of the runway and, what I thought was a balloon (over-pulling and ballooning up into the air) wasn’t much of one. Still, I wasn’t sure about it so went into a go-around which my instructor says should give me some confidence as I was doing about 50 knots and under 2 feet above the runway at the time. I still think I did the right thing once uncertainty entered my mind, but I also wish I’d known that we were only 2 feet over the runway and not the 6 feet or so I felt we were as we’d have landed just fine.

Still, the next (or one of the later) approaches to land worked well, even with a good dozen or so knots of crosswind. Given how much pain crosswinds had caused me in the past this was the highlight of the lesson and helps my confidence no end. Being able to feel what was happening with the gusts and direction, and the correcting rudder on touchdown, really felt like flying. I can’t say that I won’t have many more over-control moments, but if all of my crosswind landings were like that then I’d be happy.

Now I just need the weather to clear before I forget how to fly, let alone land.