Learning to Fly: When things don’t go as planned (The story of my first solo)

Don’t you just hate it when an experience you have is very different than what you had hoped for? Sometimes it turns out to be just as fun. Sometimes you feel like the moment is ruined forever. You could end up with an even grander story to tell or you could end up like a bride on her wedding day when she notices one bouquet of flowers is out of place on the table in the back corner of the reception hall. As for me, I’m still trying to figure out where I stand on my first solo flight. Let’s go back to the beginning.

Since the last time I wrote about Learning to Fly, a lot of my work has been on landings. It took a lot of work to get those to the point of being consistently safe. Having gotten to that point and focusing a lot more on my ground course work, I finally got to my next phase check. Phase checks are like a test on your progress. My first one was months ago and it tested me on basic handling of the aircraft, stalls, and some other maneuvers. The next section focused on nothing but landings. It’s one of the toughest things for new pilots to grasp aside from talking to the tower.

Fast forward to this past Tuesday. Almost every year at about this time, dust from the Saharan Desert in Africa gets blown all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and makes its way to the southeast portion of the country. It keeps tropical storms and hurricanes at bay for a bit but, wow, there’s a hell of a haze in the sky. The phase check for landings is usually one of the tougher checks in a private pilot’s course. Tuesday’s test was even tougher with the haze creating visibility problems and the fact that I had to land in a pattern I was unfamiliar with. But I aced the test, both on the ground and in the air. Even got high praise from the instructor administering the test. And with that, I can now be endorsed for solo flying!

The big day comes. The energy and excitement level is through the roof! I had actual dreams of this. It’s nothing I hadn’t done plenty of times already but this time I would be fully in control of the aircraft with nobody to help fly it.

I’ve got this. I’m ready.

We started out in a quick dual flight of myself and my instructor. Demonstrate three good landings then I’m off on my own. The day started like any other time: briefing, preflight, fly. But I knew things would be going differently when it came time to turn the engine over. Vapor lock had got us.

It was hot. Excessively hot. One viral social media post referred to it by stating that “This is NOT the heat that Whitney Houston wanted to feel with somebody.” (Enjoy the earworm!) The hottest day of the year so far at KNEW as a matter of fact. It took a number of tries and a few tricks but we got it started, did three touch-n-go’s and came back. We parked and went inside (because it’s HOT!!!) for my instructor to do some last paperwork and give me my endorsement in my logbook. As I try to start the plane again, the vapor lock trouble comes back.

Vapor lock in an engine is when the fuel vaporizes before it gets into the combustion chamber. Heat is the biggest cause of it. It was already a hot day here in New Orleans and trying to start a hot engine was next to impossible.

After about 30 minutes of letting it cool and three different tries, the engine finally turned over! Finally, it’s happening!! Taxi, run-up, and takeoff all went great! I started with a touch-n-go then I remembered what the plan should’ve been: 3 full stop taxi-backs. A taxi-back is when you do a landing like normal and return to the start of the runway. My excitement got the best of me a bit. Next pass, I’ll remember to do it.

A quick touch-n-go by yours truly!

As I pulled off the runway for my first taxi-back, I went through the post-landing checklist. It’s incredibly easy to memorize: retract flaps and lean for taxi (“lean for taxi” refers to changing the air/fuel mixture to a different setting. In this case it means that the engine doesn’t get as much fuel sent to it while taxiing around the airfield). Gotta remember to change it back on the next takeoff.

The tower directed me to hold short at the end of the runway. There was a lot of traffic coming in. After about a 10-minute wait I heard it: “9ER, right closed traffic, cleared for takeoff, 36R.” Let’s do it again! I crept on to the runway, lined myself up and gave it full throttle. I started picking up speed but something wasn’t right. The engine. It sounded…different. And it shouldn’t be taking me this ling to get up to speed. Quick glance at my airspeed indicator, how am I not at Vr yet? (That’s the point at which I can pull back and liftoff) Something’s not right. I have enough runway. I’m not taking off.

I pulled out the power from the engine and got on the brakes. Once I knew I could still be in control and what my plan was I told the tower (Fly the plane first, then do everything else. That’s how to handle emergencies). That was it. The day was done. I wasn’t sure what was going on but I decided to head back in. On the way back, I gave a brief description to the tower about what was going on.

I had two rules for my first solo:

  1. Don’t get noticed by the FAA
  2. Don’t end up on the news

One of those rules was broken.

Aborted takeoffs are supposed to be reported by the tower to the FAA. Is anything going to come of it? Am I in trouble? Nah. It’s one of those situations where they just want to know about it. And it was after I gave my report to the tower that I noticed it. The reason why the engine didn’t feel right. Experienced pilots reading this already figured it out: I didn’t set the mixture for takeoff.

I’m a boneheaded idiot who made a rookie mistake. I should’ve aced this first solo. Now I’ve ruined the only first solo I’ll ever have.

Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. I still had fun. Lots of it. And my flying days aren’t over. The best ones are probably still to come. My instructor still said it counts as a successful first solo. And everyone else I’ve talked to, other pilots and flying fans alike, all agree on the same thing: I made the right decision in that situation.

My first solo is a textbook example of great aeronautical decision-making or ADM. ADM, put simply, is making safe choices when it comes to flying, even before takeoff. Head cold? Nope, not flying (and no, pilots should not take decongestants). Weather moving in? Wait for it to pass instead of rushing to get ahead. Traffic in the practice area? I’ll go somewhere else.

In my case, I made the decision to not try to force myself and the plane into the air. Did I screw up? Yes. But whether it was my mistake or not, I already had one problem. I could’ve made it worse. The best bet was to just play it safe.

So, how do I feel about my first solo? As I type this, I still giggle with glee at the thought of being alone in the aircraft. I’m amazed I’ve gotten this far. My first solo was nowhere what I dreamt it would be. But, in retrospect, I came away with something more than most new pilots do on their first solo: experience. When I talk about my first solo in the future, I have a teaching tool to go along with the story. A real-world situation, an example of how to make a good decision to stay safe, regardless of what caused it. I got more that I dreamt of on my first solo.

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