I can’t think of a sharper divide to have to cross. There are no half-measures here. Either the instructor is in the plane with you or he or she isn’t. Unless you’re going to try to solo a Predator APV, there’s no radio control unit that the instructor can sit there on the ground with and help you out if you run into a problem. You are completely and absolutely alone and on your own.
And that, in large part, is what aviation is all about. Self-sufficiency, courage, and skill – all in one of the most objective tests you’ll find anywhere.
There are as many stories of first solos as there are pilots. This one is mine.
Flight did not come easily to me. I didn’t really get the bug until seeing the Tom Hanks-produced minisieries From the Earth to the Moon. It’s a little odd, I know, because there’s only one sequence in the series that contains any general aviation. But the series rekindled the wonderment I felt as a kid and I resolved that I’d pursue the experiences that were as close as I could get to mankind’s exploration of space.
My first few flights were not what I thought they’d be. Everything was strange, the airplane didn’t want to listen to me, and – to top it all off – I got pretty green around the gills. This was disappointing, especially because I had spent hours and hours on Microsoft Flight Simulator and with all of the books I could find on the subject and had arrived the first night of ground school prepared to teach the class if need be. At least inasmuch as you could teach a ground school class based solely on what you can read.
It got better after that, but I still got the sense that this was something that I would have picked up a lot easier had I started earlier in life. You can teach an old dog new tricks – and I’m not even that old – but it was clear to me that I didn’t have the kinesthetic learning ability that I’d had in my twenties. I suspected then that the instrument rating was actually going to be easier for me than the private ticket because it’s more cerebral and less kinesthetic and my instrument training so far has proven that out.
Another thing was that I went it mostly alone. Many student pilots come up in a community of pilots. For some, it's a mother, father, uncle, or some other person that introduces them to flight and coaches them along. For others, it's the students and the certificated pilots and the instructors who hang around at the flight school trading stories and experiences.
I was among those without an immediate circle of pilots. I was on good terms with the other members of my ground school class and we headed out to the bar a few times. I even sat right seat on a flight to Oshkosh with a guy I met in class. But the demands of a law practice and a new family and the thousand other things that happen while you're making other plans happened to me. I saw people as I came through the pilot's lounge on the way to and from the flight line for a lesson, but that's about it.
A community of pilots is an important thing to any student. You get to see and hear other approaches to aviation. You get to benefit from war stories and near-misses and the mistakes of others. And you get the camaraderie that comes from being part of a demographic that makes up only a half of one percent of the US population.
Lastly, I was more than a little conflicted about flying in the first place. Flight is not without risk. Most of you have seen the poster in your local pilot’s lounge showing a picture of an airplane hung up in a tree and containing the immortal quote from the World War II advisory: “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect.”
Getting hurt or killed would be bad. But what would be worse would be the effect of a flying-related casualty on my ability to meet my other responsibilities. I had been married for almost ten years by then and I had a son on the way. I had a mortgage, a car loan, student loans, and other obligations. My wife was not crazy about the idea of me flying, especially at this stage in our little odyssey, but she saw that I had a fire in my belly about it and let me make the decision.
And even if general aviation is as safe as we know how to make it, it is a substantial departure from the average person's mostly two-dimensional life. From mixing it up on the ground with business jets to talking to ATC to coming to grips with that dangly feeling that comes with the nose-high attitude and mushy controls in slow flight. It all takes getting used to.
It all piled up and began to take on the mantle of self-doubt. Nobody likes to talk about anxiety associated with flight. From the Wright Brothers to the barnstormers to the Mercury Seven to now, pilots are supposed to be steely-eyed missile men oblivious to danger and fear. Anxiety is communicable by words and actions. And I think that pilots often try to be firewalls by judiciously avoiding words or actions that might spread it to other pilots. I did my part on that score, but that means storing up the anxiety and letting it feed on itself.
There’s a level of anxiety at which you’re not fit to fly. It can be strong enough to become a basis for denial of an airman medical certificate or, at a lesser level, it can cause your instructor to stay in the plane or to ground you. I wonder if there’s some way which we as pilots couldn’t talk a little more freely about whatever anxieties we have and use it as a tool to defeat the anxiety in the first place, rather than internalizing it and inviting the feedback loop that could cause otherwise capable student pilots to hang up their headsets. Flight instructor and aviation comedian Rod Machado is just about the only widely-heard voice in this wilderness and his articles in AOPA Flight Training and on his website are great.
So I drove back and forth to the airport with my little bag of conflicts and anxieties and did the best I could to become the best pilot I could.
My first lesson was in February of 2001 at Oakland County International Airport near Pontiac, Michigan. I flew with a guy named Josh, who was a CFI and CFII and the instructor who taught the ground school. The weather conspired to keep us on the ground on all but the two of our scheduled times at Pontiac, but at least I was settling into the routine there.
Then, after the ground school finished, Josh moved to a school at the Ann Arbor Municipal Airport about 40 miles away. I trusted Josh and they had good aircraft at Ann Arbor, so I uprooted and started driving to Ann Arbor for instruction.
In the course of all this, I went in for my aviation medical exam. I called the AME’s office that morning and asked whether I needed to fast. The receptionist said that I could eat whatever I wanted, whereupon I ate a bagel with jelly on the way to the AME’s office. I turned something the wrong color and the AME promptly deferred my file to Oklahoma City. He also apparently closed his practice and retired the week after that. So I got with my family physician and went about rebutting the bagel-induced results.
When the Michigan winter began loose its hold on the landscape, I booked every Saturday and Sunday morning from 8:00 to 10:00 and began training up to three and a half hours a week with Josh in a Piper Warrior II. I was, of course, waiting on my medical, so we went out and did a lot of high airwork and even flew a cross-country to Lansing.
The Tuesday before Father’s day, I got a call from Josh. One of his other students, who was solo-rated, had just purchased an experimental Mustang II in Caro. The Mustang was a taildragger kit plane with side-my-side seating, max gross weight of 1.350 pounds, a nine-gee-rated airframe, a 180 degree-per-second roll rate, a 160 or 180 hp engine, and a wood prop. Josh wanted to know whether I would give up my reservation on Saturday for the Warrior so that he and his student could go pick up the Mustang. As compensation, Josh offered me the right seat for the ferry flight while his other student flew the Warrior back.
I had long ago set a personal limit for myself under which I would only fly non-experimental aircraft. There’s nothing inherently wrong with experimental aircraft. But, as a class, they don’t fit my current risk profile. Besides, Josh had only been tailwheel-rated for two weeks and I wasn’t comfortable going up in that hot of a plane on the pilot’s first flight of that particular aircraft. I told Josh that he could have the Warrior and that I’d just see him on Sunday.
I had a chance to sit in the Mustang on Sunday before Josh and I took the Warrior up. Josh’s student had apparently told Josh to fly the airplane and get comfortable with it, after which Josh would instruct him in it. Josh was excited about flying the Mustang.
A little later, we were up in the Warrior. There was a stern crosswind from the north when we took off on Runway 24. With the Father’s Day fly-in and pancake breakfast going on, the pattern at Ann Arbor was getting full, so we headed to Willow Run about 10 miles to the east.
By this time, I had 20 or 30 hours in the plane. I had received a provisional letter from the FAA Flight Surgeon, but not the actual medical certificate. Nevertheless, I had made good use of the time since leaving Pontiac and was getting a lot more comfortable in the airplane. My high airwork and ground reference were good, most of my landings were salvageable, and I had apparently made points with Josh by not being afraid to go around if I didn’t like an approach.
I put it down unassisted two or three times on Runway 32, where the wind was more or less right down the centerline. I dropped it on the mains pretty hard, but I got it down safely each time. At one point, Josh turned to me and said, "You got your medical yet?" My heart leaped into my throat. I showed him the provisional letter that I had received from the FAA, but he shook his head and handed it back to me.
We departed Willow Run on the downwind and pointed her back at Ann Arbor. The crosswind was still howling along, but I managed to put her down pretty well twice, despite the crosswind. Josh was pleasantly surprised. After we put the plane back in the hangar, we strolled out onto the ramp to see the aircraft that had flown in for the pancake breakfast. Josh introduced me to a Stearman pilot as one of his students and said, "He's coming along fine, except that he needs at least a seven-knot crosswind to land."
Josh went off into the crowd and I headed for my car.
Josh's life had four days left in it.
From NTSB accident report NTSB CHI01LA181
On June 21, 2001, at 1405 eastern daylight time, an amateur-built Masko Mustang MII, N24898, piloted by a commercial pilot, was destroyed when it impacted terrain following a loss of control while maneuvering in the traffic pattern at the Ann Arbor Municipal Airport (ARB), Ann Arbor, Michigan. The aircraft had just completed a touch and go and was turning from the upwind to the crosswind leg of the traffic pattern for runway 06 (3,500 feet by 75 feet, concrete). The local flight was being operated under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 91 and was not on a flight plan. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident. The pilot and the pilot rated passenger received fatal injuries. The flight originated from ARB at 1353. Witnesses to the accident saw the airplane make a steep right turn prior to spiraling to the ground. A postaccident examination of the airplane revealed no anomalies that could be associated with a pre-impact condition.
The pilot held commercial and certified flight instructor certificates with airplane single engine land and instrument airplane ratings. The pilot also held a ground instructor certificate with advanced and instrument ratings. According to Federal Aviation Administration records, the pilot reported having 398 hours of flight time as of March 15, 2001. The pilot's logbook was not recovered.
The pilot rated passenger held a commercial pilot certificate with airplane single engine land and instrument airplane ratings. He held a certified flight instructor certificate with an airplane single engine land rating. The pilot rated passenger also held a ground instructor certificate with an advanced rating. According to Federal Aviation Administration records, the pilot rated passenger reported having 307 hours of flight time as of May 10, 2001. The pilot rated passenger's logbook was not recovered.
Toxicology tests performed on the pilot and pilot rated passenger were negative for all tests performed. Autopsies were performed on the pilot and pilot rated passenger by Washtenaw County on June 22, 2001.
It was reported that the airplane was purchased on June 16, 2001. The pilot was the flight instructor of the new owner. The owner was not aboard the airplane when the accident occurred.
I was driving home from work when I heard the report on the radio that a small plane had crashed in Ann Arbor. I fished out my mobile phone and dialed the number to the flight school. When the office manager answered, I told her that I had heard about the accident. "Anybody we know?" I asked.
"Steve, it was Josh."
After the homeowner's association meeting that night, I went home and had to tell my wife, "Hon, I have to go to the airport. Josh got killed. I'll be back late."
I drove to the airport. Josh’s car was there. The Mustang has apparently come down on the airport perimeter fence just in front of the EAA hangar near the departure end of Runway 6. They had cleared away the airplane and done what they could to repair the ground around the impact site. I actually had a hard time finding the site even though it was right next to the road. I drove back home flipping radio stations and listening to the accounts of the crash, few of which got the story right.
I don't want anyone to think that the accident had more of a role than it did. I wouldn't have done what Josh did, if only in that I don't fly that type of aircraft. This accident didn't fall within the envelope of risks that I had set for myself as acceptable. It's apples and oranges, really.
But it was another stumbling block. I lost a friend and I had an object demonstration of the potential dangers of flight. And I had to switch schools again because Ann Arbor was suddenly short of instructors.
It's hard enough to do a thing when you can just go do it and have done with it. Like a bungee jump or something. It's another thing entirely when circumstance walks alongside you and keeps giving you opportunities to blink. I still carries my little bag of anxieties to the airport and back. I took it to work. I took it into the shower. I took it into my dreams.
I resolved that this was a horse that I would have to stay on or I might never go further. It was crunch time.
I got my medical certificate shortly after that and, after the weekend, I started calling flight schools. Nobody flew Warriors, but there was a school over at Willow Run called Air One Aviation that had an Arrow and I could transition to it if I flew Cessna 152s for awhile first.
The day I showed up for my first lesson at Air One, I ran into one of Josh’s other former students. Apparently, there had been a steady stream of us coming through the office in the preceding few days.
The 152 was a lot smaller and a lot more susceptible to the turbulence caused by the convection of the summer heat. Don, my new instructor, was a recently-laid-off cargo pilot who was instructing to make ends meet until be got called back. The airplane obeyed Don and he promised that it would soon obey me.
The first flight, we went out and did the high airwork. Where the Warrior had stalled like a sea turtle, the 152 wanted to spin. Slow flight was a pendulous dance on the rudder pedals. The 35-knot stall speed in the 152 meant that slow flight involved puttering along at about that speed. You could get a backward ground track if the wind was just right and that decreased sense of forward motion was enough to really give you the sense of just being suspended up there in space.
And to top it all off, Don decided to show me a couple of spins. One to the left and one to the right. Lots of chlorophyll in the windshield. Rotating chlorophyll. He said that he spun all of his new students and that those whom it gave the willies were probably better off finding that out early on. I wasn’t a guy who needed to be told about the willies, but I kept that to myself.
We did one other flight to get me familiar with the low airwork and spent a good chunk of that flight in the pattern. If I had problems with the 152 in the stall and the other high airwork, I made friends with the airplane on final. It landed beautifully. In ground effect, the plane wouldn’t stall until it hit something like 25 or 30 knots. You could almost get out of the plane and run alongside to help it down. One of the first solid moments of confidence that I had was on short final to Runway 23. Perfectly stabilized in the approach, I knew that I could get her down on the centerline and stopped before the VASI lights.
The bag of anxieties still sat right behind my seat. I knew that the time was coming when Don would get out of the plane. He said at one point that four was the magic number. When a student pilot can put together four consecutive good landings and shows that he or she is not afraid to go around if need be, the student pilot is ready to solo.
July 14, 2001 dawned warm and a little hazy. I drove the 45 minutes to Willow Run with a knot in my stomach. I had greased almost every landing the last weekend, and I would be an idiot if I thought that the time to solo wasn’t coming. In fact, I would be an idiot if I didn’t think that the solo was going to happen today. The anxiety bag on the passenger seat of the car shifted around a little and gave off a threatening vibe. Baby on the way in December. Student loans. Mortgage. Wife I love. Old dog trying new tricks. Is the dream worth it? What if? What if? What if?
We did 11 trips around the patch (yeah, 11) before he got out of the plane. The last four or five were with different flap settings and the last one before the solo was a short approach with a simulated engine failure and no flaps.
After the last one, Don said, “Let’s taxi back so you can solo.”
I was numb and only taxiing the aircraft out of reflex. “You sure about that?” I said.
“Steve, I’m convinced that you won’t bend the airplane or yourself. You’re ready. I wouldn’t solo you if I didn’t think that you were ready.”
We taxied back to the ramp. On the way, Don called the tower and let the controller know that he was about to have a student solo in the pattern. We shut down the plane. Don signed my logbook and the fuel truck topped off the tanks.
After I got back into the plane, Don leaned in and said two things.
He said, “Steve, you have a full load of fuel. You don’t have to land for four hours. Pick approaches you like and go around if you don’t like what you see. "
Then he said, “You’ve got my checklist there. Don’t augur in. I’d hate to lose that checklist.”
“Fuck you, Don, and get away from my airplane,” I said, or words to that effect.
I started up the plane, got the ATIS, called ground, and taxied out to the threshold of Runway 5L. Once there, I turned the plane into the wind and did a full runup. All the while, I tried not to look at the now-empty right seat. But I could still back out. As long as I didn’t call the tower.
I keyed the mic and called the tower. I was surprised at how confident I sounded. Not quite a West Virginia drawl, but calm and collected.
“Tower, Cessna 94891, student pilot, holding short Runway 5L with Whiskey, would like to take off, remaining in the pattern.”
“Cessna 891, cleared for takeoff, make left closed traffic, wind 340 at five.”
“891 is cleared for takeoff, Runway 5L, will make left closed traffic.”
I inched out and centered the airplane on the centerline. 7,700 feet of runway stretched out in front of me. All of Willow Run Airport was mine if only I had the guts to take it. I could still back out. I could call the tower and claim an alternator undervolt or any of a thousand other things.
I spoke over the intercom. “What do you believe about yourself? Heels on the floor. Let’s go.”
I firewalled the throttle. This is it. If I rotate, there’s no turning back. The idea of not going through with it washed away in the time it took to reach 50 knots. The yoke grew stiffer in my hands. The vibration from the nosewheel through the pedals gave way to the feel of the rudder behind me. 50 knots. Now or never.
The airplane rose readily into the air, apparently happy to find itself 170 pounds lighter. I held a death grip on the yoke at 65 knots. 800 feet. 900 feet. 1,000 feet. 1,100 feet. Time to start the crosswind.
The airplane tried to turn for me. She passed through 20 degreed of bank and then 30 degrees. My hands were so sweaty that I was afraid that my left hand was going to slip off the yoke as I fought the overbanking. I added my right hand to the yoke and then leveled out on the crosswind.
Climbing like a homesick angel, I was practically at pattern altitude by the time I started the turn to downwind. I relaxed a little once established on downwind. The runway was right there to my left. I had done this 11 times in the last hour and a half. I wanted to nail this one.
Abeam the numbers. Carb heat. Throttle to 1,500. Trim. White arc. First notch of flaps. Trim.
“891, cleared for the option Runway 5L.” came the call.
I heard myself say, “891 is cleared for the option Runway 5L.”
70 knots. Second notch of flaps. Trim. Start the base turn. Descending.
Roll out on the centerline. 60 knots. Left aileron for the centerline. Right rudder to point her down the runway. The sight picture that I had first seen the week before came rushing back.
Just over the ditch short of the threshold with the runway made, last notch of flaps. Flare. Keep her straight. Try to keep it flying. Try to keep it flying. What do you believe about yourself?
The mains touched down, followed by the nose gear. Without waiting, I pulled up the flap lever, firewalled the throttle again, and again headed down the runway.
I got two more trips around the patch and then taxied back.
“Congratulations on your first solo, 891,” came the call from the tower. I babbled something in reply and turned onto the ramp.
Don met me on the ramp and congratulated me. We filled out the logbook for the flight. A quick picture next to the plane and then it was over. I packed up and headed for the parking lot. Then the parking lot and the airport grew small in my rearview mirror.
The bag of anxieties was still there with me in the car, but it was a lot less noisy and seemed a little lighter.
On June 21, 2002, I walked through the dewy grass next to State Street up to the new fence off the departure end of Runway 6 at Ann Arbor. I pulled out a copy of the page in my logbook showing the entry for my first solo and clipped it to the fence.
Work and a new son and lots of other things intervened, but, on June 21, 2004, I made that same walk and, this time, I clipped a copy of my new private pilot certificate to the fence. With each, I included a quote from French poet Guillaume Apollinaire:
Come to the edge, he said.
They said: We are afraid.
Come to the edge, he said.
He pushed them.
And they flew.
Again, it's not that Josh's accident loomed larger than it actually did. I would have duct-taped that stuff to the numbers at the approach end of 5L at Willow Run if I could have, but the fence was the best place available. So it became my touchpoint.
I still have that bag of anxieties. I still carry it around and can’t seem to be entirely rid of it. It moves around a little there in the backseat of the Cessna 172s that I fly now and makes burbling noises and smells slightly reptilian. But it is no longer the millstone that I carried heavy on my heart in the days before my first solo. It is no longer the Wednesday anxiousness or Thursday loathing or Friday dread that it used to be. It could have been debilitating and ended my flight training and the Big Dream right there at the hold short line of Runway 5L. Facing that challenge is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but in that is the source of the pride I feel at having done it.
I’m sure that hundreds of others around the world soloed for the first time that day and I’m sure that some got over obstacles even bigger than mine. But none of them was in my airplane with me. We each face our own little bags of anxieties in our own ways, picking our own battles.
I have learned that the figurative little bag of anxieties is a part of my flight gear just like my tangible flight bag. Perhaps even more so, because, although it’s bothersome sometimes, if mostly just reminds me that aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous, but, to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect. And that’s a reminder that every pilot can use now and then.
I have a colleague where I work named Brendan. We were having lunch one day and talking about flight when he said, “You know, there are pilots and then there are guys who have pilot’s licenses.”
There isn’t a malicious bone in Brendan’s body. He’s a good Joe. But he doesn’t get it. I don’t hold it against him, but the fact remains that he doesn’t get it.
I say that anyone who sits all alone in an airplane at the end of the runway, firewalls the throttle, and rotates is a pilot.
I’m not Scott Crossfield or Marsha Ivens and neither are you. I’m not going to the moon and I’ll probably never even fly a turbine aircraft. But I’m a pilot. Because of what I did. Even if I hadn’t gone on to get my private pilot certificate, or even gone back to the airport at all. By every measure that really matters, I’d be a pilot.
The aircraft left the ramp with one guy in it. It made three trips around the pattern and returned to the ramp with one guy in it. That guy was me. Res ipsa loquitor. The thing speaks for itself. On July 14, 2001, I joined the community of pilots.
I am not the same person I was before I soloed. Maybe it’s a small difference between old me and new me. But pre-solo me didn’t know whether he had it in him to get it up and get it down all alone. Pilot me knows about the reserve that he has within him and that it’ll open up and carry him through if only he’ll call on it and believe things about himself that we wants more than anything to know are true. There is no courage without fear.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Superman and Harry Potter and Fletcher Seagull, all in good measure. I’m a pilot. The rest is gravy.
To hell with the credits. Call in sick tomorrow and go to the airport or wherever else you think your soul will have room to unfold so you can have a good look at it.
You can choose the battlefield, but you can’t avoid the battle. Go pick a fight with your limitations and transcend them.
Have a nice day.
NTSB accident report for N24898:
Information about Josh and the scholarship that bears his name:
Joshua Esch Mitchell Aviation Scholarship
For students pursuing studies in the field of professional pilot with an emphasis on general aviation, flight engineer, or airway science.
Eligibility: US citizens enrolled in a full or part-time program at a college or university in the US providing an accredited flight science curriculum. All applicants must have a minimum cumulative grade point of 2.75 and be entering the second year (or above) in college. For further details visit online at: www.grfoundation.org.
Contact: 161 Ottawa Ave NW Suite 209-C, Grand Rapids MI 49503-2757
Phone: 616 454-1751 x 103
Cash award: $500-$2000
More information: www.grfoundation.org
Theme from Milliways (Go for TMI) by Steve Tupper
Steve Tupper: 12-string guitar, mandolin, and violin
From the perpetually in-process album Songs from the Rodger Young: The First Folk Music of the Journey to Mars and Back
(c) 1998-2006 by Steve Tupper
Various pilots whom I accosted with an MPe recorder, including those at Tradewinds Aviation and Flight 101 at PTK, various senior members of the Oakland Composite Squadron (GLR-MI-238) of the Civil Air Patrol (USAF Auxiliary), and two of my neighbors.