Here We(I) Go
I think it is a credit to the professionalism and teaching skill of my CFI that this felt like a routine flight. It was personally thrilling, but technically boring.
The day had arrived. He knew it. I knew it. The weather was perfect. I was ready. He told me we would go up and start practicing touch-and-goes here at FRG. If all went well, he would ask me to land and bring him back to the ramp, and off I would go for solo touch-and-goes!
Low Approaches & Ground Effect
I was, oddly, not as nervous as I thought I would be. We went up just like any other day and started working the traffic pattern. My CFI even threw in a new maneuver, a low approach, which helped take my mind off of the inevitable. Low approaches are a great way to help learn about ground effect. Without getting too scientific, ground effect means, thanks to some aerodynamic stuff going on between the wing and the ground, the airplane can fly at a slower speed very close to the ground. You may have noticed it on a commercial flight during landing. The airplane seems to stop descending just before touching down, holds there for a second or two bleeding off speed, then settles down onto the runway. When performing a low approach, that’s exactly what you do, except you add a touch of power and keep flying the airplane a few feet above the runway without touching down. What this boils down to practically is A WHOLE LOTTA FUN. Ground effect acts as a sort of cushion of air, and we got to zoom down the runway on top of it before pulling up like a rocket at the end. In all seriousness, it helped me to understand the limits and, well, the effects, of ground effect. In a normal landing, I only feel ground effect for a second or two before touching down, so being able to stay in it for the length of the runway and feel it out really helped me understand it.
Shut Up, Zack, And Get To The SOLO!
OK OK fine. After the low approach, we went around the pattern one more time and then he told me the next landing would be a full-stop with a taxi back to parking. THIS WAS IT. I WAS ABOUT TO SOLO. We get back to parking and he tells me to just do a 180 and shut it down so he can get out. He started gathering his things as he talked me through what he wanted me to do (3 full-stop landings, taxiing back to the start of the runway each time). He was cordial but serious, and tried to put me at ease:
“Everything is nice and normal, alright? Nothing changes. If you don’t feel comfortable or something happens, just come back. We will do it another day, no big deal. But, you’ll be fine. I’m positive that you’ll be fine.”
I knew he had confidence in my ability, and I felt pretty confident. It was just three times around the pattern, so it consisted of doing something that we practice EVERY time we go flying. But I still couldn’t believe it was about to happen. Luckily, the routine of it, accompanied with judicious use of checklists, was extremely calming. I let the ground and tower controllers know that it was my first student solo, so I knew they wouldn’t throw anything crazy at me. They definitely spoke more slowly than I had ever heard them speak before. I taxied out, got my clearance, and pushed in full throttle. My instructor is not a large guy by any means, but in a tiny Cessna 152 cutting the weight of the pilots in half makes a huuuuuuge difference. I was off the runway and into the air super quickly, and zoomed up to traffic pattern altitude faster than I ever had before. Final approach was a challenge; it was hard to get used to the lighter weight of the aircraft. I landed, and when I taxied back towards the beginning of the runway, I saw my CFI standing there on the apron. He was standing about as close as he legally could to the end of the runway, so I was giving him a good show with my landings. I went around for two more, progressively better, landings and then brought it back to parking by the office.
I wish I could say there was something more exciting that happened, but I think it speaks to the professionalism and teaching skill of my CFI that this felt like a routine flight. It was personally thrilling, but technically boring. People have been asking me how it felt, and all I can say is that I was so busy concentrating I didn’t have time to be scared or ecstatic until after I landed. I made my radio calls, flew my pattern as precisely as possible, tried to nail my final approach speed and smoothly transition to landing.
And that was it. I soloed. I FLEW AN AIRPLANE BY MYSELF. My CFI came over to congratulate me, and we headed into the office, where I got a round of applause from other CFIs and students. This was a huge step, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.