It’s early on a clear, crisp winter morning and as the rising sun clears the horizon, its brilliance is complete with no clouds or haze to dilute the cobalt blue sky and no wind to force the cold down coat collars. The stillness and quiet seems to hold everything in its place as in a photograph. It’s the morning of a beautiful day that comes with a vague feeling of…reverence.
There is no one here but me. My truck sits in a parking area next to the flight line with the engine still hot from the high speed, pre-dawn run up the interstate that brought us here. It’s making those small clicking sounds common to cooling engines and although I’m a hundred feet away I can hear it. It’s that still and that quiet.
I’m standing on the flight line of a small regional airport that is a privately owned facility and an aviation landmark for over half a century. Frequently used by general aviation traffic the 3400 foot long, black, asphalt runway with its recently painted, white centerline runs north and south. A hill capped with a tangle of mesquite trees is an annoyance near the north end while tall, old growth oaks stand sentinel at the south. I’m in front of a row of airplanes of various size, shape and color. Some are sleek and sexy, some are plain, simple and basic but they all do variations of the same thing, they all go fast and high.
I have the feeling that my flight instructor wants me to solo soon even though the flight last week was mediocre at best. Hard landings accompanied by small errors and mistakes that had not been a problem before add to my frustration and generates some tension even though I’m confident that I can fly the airplane.
Cars begin arriving in quick succession now and one of them brings my flight instructor. As we begin the preflight ritual she doesn’t mention last week’s flight but as we buckle up to go she says she wants to stay in the pattern and shoot some “touch ‘n go’s” (a term that means the pilot lands the aircraft but as soon as it’s rolling and stable on the ground he quickly raises the flaps, adds full power and takes off again without coming to a complete stop). We fire it up then call for a radio check on the local air traffic communication frequency and get no response. I add some power and we ease away from the parking site tie downs and onto the taxiway heading for the run-up area pad near the departure end of the runway. The preflight run-up goes smoothly and when completed I add power to get us moving toward the runway. I stop at the “hold short” lines that separate the taxiway from the end of the runway and help regulate and position the aircraft getting ready for takeoff. My obligatory radio call to announce our intentions to any other aircraft that may be in the area gets no response, no radio traffic at all but since this is an airport with no control tower it’s not that unusual. We visually sweep the landing pattern around the airport for any traffic that may be there but not monitoring their radio. Nothing in sight, but I’m aware again of that small, vague feeling of unease that has been crowding me all morning.
My right hand eases the throttle forward to add some power and move us onto the runway as the left foot adds a little pressure to the left main gear brake and the nose swings to the left and brings the white centerline of the black asphalt runway into the center of the windshield. One quick glance down the entire length of it confirms it to be clear of obstructions but the trees at the far end over a half mile away always seem to loom larger when preparing for takeoff in that direction. Full throttle now and the surge of power to the prop increases the ‘G’ load to push the driver and observer back into the seats as the aircraft accelerates. The speed builds exponentially and the sounds of the propeller combined with the engine exhaust rises to that familiar high pitched buzzing roar. After a brief glance at the engine instruments and the air speed indicator I give the “Air speed’s alive” and “Engines green” call to my instructor in the right seat.
At about 55 knots I can feel that slight shudder through the yoke that indicates the wind over the wings has attached and has now become a lifting force and tells me that we’re ready to fly. An increase in back pressure on the yoke raises the nose wheel off the runway and a couple of seconds later we are airborne and I suppress the now familiar exhilaration that always wants to come out as maniacal laughter.
We climb out in the still smooth morning air as the runway markings fall away beneath us, then a climbing left turn onto the crosswind leg of the airport traffic pattern and we start setting up for some touch and goes. It’s still early with no other aircraft in the area and the radio remains silent as we complete the circuit of the landing pattern. The descending turn from base leg to final and we are at altitude and aligned, again, with that runway centerline. The airspeed is good and the VASI lights setting to the left of the runway indicate that we are on glide path. My eyes are on the white painted runway numbers near end of the asphalt strip with occasional side sweeps for traffic then at airspeed, altitude and the VASI as we glide in. I start to get a little fast and add a little back pressure on the yoke that raises the nose slightly to slow us down. My right hand is nailed to the throttle as my fingers slowly bleed power off to allow for descent. Somewhere outside that orb of concentration there is a feeling that “this is why we do it”. This feeling of clarity, communion and alignment with the natural laws of physics is never more apparent and profound for me as when on final approach. It’s my church pew but as that feeling tries to push to the front of my consciousness I force it away to focus on what I’m doing.
The touchdown is a squeaker and the best in a month. We do two more circuits around the traffic pattern and each touchdown is good but as I begin to go to full power for another “go” my instructor says no and to take her back to the office and I know that today is the day.
We taxi back and when we get to the hanger she pops the right door open to the rushing sound of the engine and propeller, gives me some last minute encouragement and instructions about what she wants to happen. Then she swats me on the shoulder, steps out and the door slams shut. When she is clear of the prop wash and walking toward the office, I add power again and head down the taxiway toward the end of the runway a half mile away. The strange thing is that I don’t feel as nervous as I thought I would. Focused, yes and alert but not particularly nervous.
I turn the radio volume up and visually scan the downwind and base legs of the traffic pattern while rolling. Then I’m there. The taxiway turns a 90 degree left and there are the “hold short” lines and the runway threshold markings of 17. When I get stopped I look right and visually check out the final approach leg. It’s clear and with no need for run up now, I call CTAF and announce my intention to the previously vacant sky but to my surprise I get a couple of acknowledgements. I release the brakes, add some power to cross the “hold shorts” then a left turn and the engine cowling swings to the left in a curious sort of slow motion before stopping and I’m looking down the full length of the centerline again. For a flash I’m tempted to stop and think about what I’m doing but I push that thought aside. I don’t need to think about it, I know what I’m doing, and it seems that a part of my soul has spent my whole life coming to this moment. The time for heavy thinking is past, now it’s time to do the deed.
So I quickly scan the instrument panel and mentally note indicated fuel levels, engine gauges, flaps settings, mixture and confirm full travel of rudder, aileron and elevator. The throttle starts to move and short seconds later the RPM gauge spikes up again and the speed increases rapidly and in seconds I again feel that slight flutter in the controls and I sense the airplane saying “OK sport we’re ready… do it”. Then we’re in the middle of the best take off I’ve ever made and I’m flying an airplane by myself.
As I’m turning and climbing into the crosswind leg the radio seems to come alive with the chatter of other traffic and as I look over my left shoulder down at the airport my heart sinks a little. Airplanes seem to be coming out of the ground and heading for the business end of runway 17. Oh crap, all of the old bastards that live at the airport have decided to “put ‘em in the blue” this morning right in the middle of my first solo. These guys are all old experienced pilots who fly like skateboard delinquents in an abandoned swimming pool. Nothing illegal, just fast and edgy and here I go, slow and mostly new. I was feeling pretty good a few seconds ago when it was just me up there boring holes in the sky but with other airplanes coming up to join me the process just got a lot more complicated and right then I didn’t need more complications. I actually thought for a minute to call everyone down there and tell them that I was on my solo flight and ask them to stay put for a few minutes. But then I thought “No, what the hell, bring ‘em up. If we die, we all die big”. By the time I turned final for my first solo touch-down I was a quarter mile from the end of the runway and I could see a guy beginning his take off role but I held my glide and keyed the mike to announce where I was and that I was on short final to keep the next guy in place behind the hold short lines. That guy held his position until I came past and as I was on my flare he called that he was pulling onto the runway. That panicked me a little but then I heard the tires squeak and saw that my alignment and attitude were good so I immediately flipped up the flap switch, went balls to the wall with the throttle, pushed the carb heat off and I was flying again. It all happened so fast that I was a little surprised to see the ground fall away.
Some guy came into the pattern behind me on my fourth circuit and radioed to say that he was having engine problems and would I extend my downwind leg so he could turn a short base and land before me. So I did and he did and when I touched down a few minutes later he was on the taxiway with his propeller stopped. The last pattern was a non event except for the fact that as I turned crosswind on the last lap my radio went dead. Yep dead silent, but by that time I was only about a minute from my last touchdown and all the other flying skateboarders had left the area so I continued on like I knew what I was doing and set it down and made a very careful taxi back to the hanger.
When I pulled up to the flight line there was Dee screaming and jumping up and down kind of weepy like and giving me a hug. I was one of her first students so I was glad that I hadn’t bent the airplane.
Like everyone tells you “you’ll never forget it” and I never will.
Later, after the dust had settled and pictures taken, I was leaving the airport and turned on the radio and heard that the space shuttle Columbia had broken up on re-entry and that, tragically, all hands had been lost. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years and put together the time line of what I was doing that morning and compared that with the moment to moment of the shuttle re-entry and disaster and discovered that at the same time I was experiencing my feelings of unease and reverence was before and during the shuttle disintegration somewhere over America. Many words, phrases and conjecture lend themselves to explaining something like that but none of them work here and there’s no reason that they should. There is no explanation…at this time.