Well today was finally the day! My first solo flight! The day started out rather discouraging. The automated weather at Thun Field (KPLU) is still out, so we’re still going on best information we have available to determine what the weather is doing, which usually means checking the METAR and TAF at McChord Field on JBLM. They were reporting Marginal VFR conditions with the ceiling between 1,800 and 2,000 feet. Pattern altitude at Thun is 1,500 feet, but being a student pilot I need to maintain at least 500 feet of vertical separation from the clouds, which means the clouds need to be at a minimum 2,000 feet.
I arrived at the airport at 9:30 for my 10AM flight lesson. I checked the gas and the oil in the plane and began my weight and balance calculations. Since the automated weather was out, AND I REALLY wanted to fly, I calculated the cloud base by taking the ambient temperature (57°) minus the dew point (50°) and divided the result by 4.4 and multiplied by 1,000 to get a good guesstimate of the cloud base. That put me at about 1,509 feet. Crap. I informed Meg about the weather and she asked if I was in a crunch for time today. I wasn’t. (I really love being self employed) So she told me to go ahead and pre-flight the plane so if the ceiling improved, we could just hop in and go. I headed out and did my preflight and Meg followed shortly after. She went over to the two guys that had just landed in the Cub and asked for a PIREP (Pilot Report) from them and they confirmed that the cloud base was right at 1,500 feet. Bummer.
We went back inside and Meg asked if I wanted to fly some emergency scenarios in the Redbird FMX. This weekend Safety In Motion is making the Redbird available to pilots all over the region to come in and sharpen their skills and Meg has designed a bunch of different scenarios to put them through to help them learn how to handle situations before they encounter them in real life. It’s a really cool thing that SIM Flight Center is doing to keep our General Aviation community safe. I jumped at the chance!
The first situation she put me in was at Johnson Creek, Idaho (3U2). The situation was this: The airplane was slightly overloaded with extra weight in the back. Density altitude (The strip is at 4,933 feet MSL) and it’s a grass strip. Surrounded by a canyon. So I had to do a high performance takeoff (never done one) climb out with an overloaded airplane in density altitude. In a canyon. No problem. So we took off and then Meg informs me that I just forgot my dog back at the airport. (I would never forget my dog!) So now we have to do a 180° turn in a canyon, and land back on the same runway that I just took off from. No problem! HA! Well I did it with some coaching from Meg.
Next up, she put me at Tacoma Narrows (KTIW) and I was a freshly minted private pilot that needed to get the equipment for the band to my buddy’s wedding in Bremerton (KPWT). The conditions were abysmal, but still technically legal for me to fly. So I took off and you can guess what happened next, Meg put the God in Godlewski and now I was in IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions)!! Meg asked “What are you going to do now?” “Cry” I replied. “There’s no crying in flying! How about you drop down below the clouds?” So I descended from 2,500 feet to 2,000 feet and did some scud running out to Bremerton. “OH CRAP, your engine just quit from carburateor icing!” as I watch the propeller stop turning just as I have the runway in sight. So I do a couple of S turns to lose some altitude and bring it home on the runway. Survived again!
Next we were flying into Hoquiam (KHQM) and the visibility was steadily decreasing. This one wasn’t too horrible, I just basically made a straight in to the west and landed on that nice long runway. Not much drama there. No worries, plenty of drama coming up!
Then I was magically transported to Runway 31L at Boeing Field (KBFI) at dusk. (I still can’t wait to REALLY land there) Apparently Teri and I had just had dinner in Seattle and were in a hurry to get back to Puyallup. I wasn’t paying any attention to the big freighter that just took off in front of us, so as I rolled down the runway and took off, I encountered a whole butt load of wake turbulence! The Redbird moved up, down, forward, backward, left and right and holy cow was it impossible to figure out which way was up! Somehow I managed to keep it somewhat under control and then I hear this SMACK!! Meg slapped the side of the Redbird and said “What was that? Do you still have your landing gear over there?!” I looked to the left and sure enough, I had my landing gear, she casually mentioned that the right tire was gone. Oh sweet, this will be fun. So we declare an emergency and I turn back toward the filed. I have to do a 360° turn to lose enough altitude and I ended up landing on the grass . . . Left wheel first. We were fine until the right wheel touched down and flipped us over! Good possibility we survived, but the plane was all the more worse for wear.
Finally I was back at Tacoma Narrows (KTIW) and it was dusk and I was headed back to Thun Field. As I headed east, the visibility got worse and it got darker and darker. About the only thing I could see were the lights from McChord as I passed over (with clearance of course) and just off in the distance, I could see the rotating beacon of Thun Field. I entered the pattern on a 45 for runway 34 and executed a pretty good landing.
Well, now that we were done in the Redbird, it was time to see if we could get some real flying in! A quick look outside and check of the weather told me that yes, we were going flying! Meg got another PIREP from the guys in the Cub and it was confirmed. We climbed in and started the engine and headed down to the runup area. We did our preflight runup and it was time to go! Today was again going to be “Pattern A Go Go” where we’d just stay in the pattern. We took off on Runway 16 and my take off felt really good. I decided when I got up this morning that whatever happened today, happened. I was not putting any pressure on myself to solo, I was just going to fly and let it happen. We flew the pattern and I set up for my landing. The landing was OK, but not fantastic. Time to go around again.
We taxied back for lap two. Again, takeoff was great, pattern setup was better and the landing was slightly better. Taxi back for lap three. Takeoff great, pattern better, extended the downwind a bit, landing even better. As we were taxing back, Meg said “So? What do you think?” I replied “Let’s go around one more time” So we did. This time, takeoff, pattern and landing were about as good as I’ve done to date. So after landing and taxing down to the end of the runway, Meg asks “Well, are you ready?” and I reply “Yes!” She says “Well we have a problem then.” My hopes sank ever so slightly, but I didn’t think whatever it was would be too bad. So I ask “What’s that?” She replies “I need to get out!” So we taxi back to the ramp, and I shut the plane down. We take out my log book and Meg signs off my solo endorsement. Then she signs off my medical certificate and hops out of the plane. She tells me she’ll be on the handheld radio.
We try to do a radio check, but I can’t hear her. She can hear me, but I cannot hear her. She runs in to get another handheld. I just sat there for a minute wondering if I should just go, or wait for her? Finally I just decided to go for it. As I was taxiing towards the runup area I heard “823 how do you read me?” “5 by 5!” Was my reply. Good, at least I knew I could hear her if I needed something! I taxied down to the runup area and started my runup checklist. Since we had shut the plane down, I needed to do a full runup again. Once that was done, it was go time. Time to put the months of training to the test and see if I actually knew how to fly!!
I pushed in the throttle and taxied up to the Hold Short line for Runway 34: “Pierce Traffic, Cessna 84823 taking off Runway 34, Left Closed Traffic, Pierce”. As I’ve mentioned before, at Thun Field, we do not have a tower, so we communicate to the other planes in the vicinity our intentions and we are responsible for maintaining separation between aircraft in the pattern. By saying “Left Closed Traffic” I was letting the other pilots know that I would not be departing the traffic pattern, but would be staying in and just circling the field with the intention of landing again. I remember my days climbing Mt Rainier, summiting is optional, returning to the parking lot is mandatory. This is pretty much the same thing, deciding to take off is optional, returning to Mother Earth is not. It’s just how much grace can you muster when you finally settle back down? Or as Meg likes to say “I haven’t had one stay stuck up there yet!”
One final look out to be sure no one was landing, a deep breath, push the throttle in and roll onto runway 34. I was just going to pretend Meg was still in the plane, although clearly she was not. As I turned onto the centerline and pushed the throttle all the way in, I said “Own that centerline!” The plane began to pick up speed and started bombing down the runway. At about 40 Knots the airspeed indicator came to life and I exclaimed “Airspeed Alive!” At about 60 knots the front wheel got light, she was ready to fly, and so was I! I pulled back on the yoke and I was airborne. For the first time, I was really flying all by myself. The months of training. Hours upon hours of studying, fighting with the FAA for my medical certificate, taking and passing my written exam, it all paid off in that instant the main wheels left the runway!
As I lifted off, Meg came on the radio and said “Airspeed” in her best Dutch voice. Dutch was her flight instructor and that’s what he said to her when she soloed. She keeps that tradition alive and says it to all her students when they solo.
I climbed out at 73 knots and as I flew over Sunrise Village and climbed to 1,200 feet, I started thinking about the next task at hand, getting back on the ground without breaking anything! “Pierce Traffic, Cessna 84823 turning left crosswind for Runway 34, Pierce”. Continuing to climb, at about 1,450 feet I started to adjust my power and bring it ever so slightly back so as not to overshoot pattern altitude of 1,500 feet. I did anyway. “Pierce traffic, Cessna 84823 turning left downwind runway 34, Pierce”. I gave her a little bit of nose down trim and readjusted my altitude to 1,500 feet. I lined up on the soccer field in Silver Creek and brought my throttle back to 2,000 RPM. I activated carburetor heat. Cruising along at 90 knots. White Arc confirmed, I dropped my first notch of flaps.
When I was abeam my intended point of touchdown, I brought the throttle back to 1,500 RPM and gave a twist of nose up trim. As I continued on downwind, I dropped another notch of flaps. (I have a tendency to come in high and fast, and I wanted every advantage on this, my first solo landing) “Pierce Traffic, Cessna 84823 Turning Left Base, Runway 34, Pierce”. I clicked the mic five times to activate the PAPI lights to tell me if I was high or low. 4 white, still high. One more notch of flaps.
“Pierce Traffic, Cessna 84823, turning Left Final runway 34, Pierce”. Here we go. Here’s where the rubber meets the road. You can takeoff, but can you land?! I heard Meg in my head saying it’s all about power management. I was still a little fast at 70 knots, so I pulled the power all the way out. As the plane slowed down and started to descend a bit more, one red light appeared on the PAPI, then two. Just a squeeze of power to maintain this glide slope. Three reds, but I have the runway made. Don’t flair to early. Over the fence, over the grass, start your round out and start your flair. Let the runway come to you. Wait for it. Six inches over the runway. Wait for it…. Touchdown on the mains! Let it roll, you’re not done yet. Feel the shimmy in the front wheel, keep the yoke back, no brakes yet. Wait for it to slow down and roll out. Apply brakes gently and evenly. Turn off at the next taxiway. Go past the Hold Short line.
“Pierce Traffic, Cessna 84823, clear of Runway 34, First Solo, Pierce.”
I DID IT!! I FLEW A PLANE ALL BY MYSELF!! And here’s the video to prove it! You can skip to 8:30 for my first takeoff and 18:43 for the second if you’re so inclined…
I pushed the carburetor heat in, brought my flaps up, and taxied back to the ramp. “Pierce Traffic, Cessna 84823 taxing for the ramp”. I went back to where Meg was standing, she came over we chatted a bit, she grunted and seal barked. (Trust me, this is a good thing) She asked how I felt “Great!” So she told me to go around again. I won’t bore you with the details, my second landing was a bit harder than the first, but I made two solo laps in the pattern!
After I taxied back to the parking spot, we had a bit of ceremony to take care of. After a student’s first solo flight, it’s tradition for the instructor to cut off the back of the students shirt to signify they no longer need an instructor tugging on their shirt tails telling them what to do. So Meg appeared with a pair of scissors and proceeded to cut the back of my shirt off. She then gave me a stuffed tiger tail to represent the tail that I had just lost. I proudly display that on my flight bag!! It’s also tradition for the instructor to give the student a call sign. I had been dreading that my call sign was going to be “Parking Brake” because I almost always forget to release the parking brake after we do our runup. But Meg looked at me with all sincerity and said that from here on out I shall be known as “Wog” as in polywog because I literally worked my tail off to get here. (By losing nearly 60 lbs from the time I started flying to the time I soloed, and I assume through all the fight I had to go through with the FAA for my medical certificate.)
We went back into the school after I secured the airplane, and Meg filled out my log book, she wrote down the time I was in the Redbird, then the time of our dual instruction and then said “Oh no, I have a horrible cramp in my hand, you’re going to have to finish this!” (Gawd I love that all of this means just as much to her as it does to me!!). She handed me the pen, and I got to log my first time as pilot in Command (Solo)!! 0.2 hours!! AWESOME! She wrote on my shirt tail that she had cut off “FIRST SOLO! John Hurlbut 08-21-14 C-172 N84823 Runway 34 ‘Wog’ Meg Godlewski” and I got to hang it on the wall in the training room where some 6 odd months before, I started ground school. I looked up there everytime I came in and thought “I can’t wait until mine is up there!” And now it is!
There’s one problem though. I want it back! I want to proudly display that in my pilot’s lounge at home! Meg and I made a deal, when I get my Private Pilot’s License, I can have it back. Goal set!
This was by far one of the most amazing days of my life! You will never forget your firs solo! And I certainly won’t, because I have a seriously long ass blog post about it! But honestly, this is a major accomplishment! I want to thank Bill McGowan who let me fly his plane for the first time when I was 12 and started this dream. My parents who always told me I could do whatever I wanted if I put my mind to it. My adoring wife who has put up with more talk about aviation this year than anyone should have to endure, I love you baby. Safety In Motion Flight Center at Thun Field for running a truly top notch flight school. And above all, Meg Godlewski, WP, my CFI. You madam are an unbelievable instructor. You have the heart of a teacher, and you were born to fly. I am truly blessed to have you as my instructor! Here’s to many more hours in a tiny plane together as I finish up my PPL and move on to my Instrument Rating!
Dreams really do come true.
Congrats!! You’re right, you will never forget your first solo. Mine was without the cutting of shirttails (I don’t really know why, but it just wasn’t something my instructor did). I really wish I had an audio recording of my conversations with myself during my solo because I was giving myself quite a pep talk. There is a point when it really registers that you’re ALONE! You look at the seat next to you and smile because… it’s empty!
Congratulations John! So proud of you, you have done just what you set out to do every time. Grateful to call you friend!