What I Learned from my First Solo

I started ground school back in February. I passed the written in April, and started proper lessons later that month. Last week I reached another major milestone in my flight training: the first solo. Before I took off, I thought the first solo was more of a celebration than anything else — a congratulatory romp around the traffic pattern rather than a proper lesson where I learned things. But as my wheels touched back down onto the pavement, I realized that this might be the most important learning lesson I’ve had in quite some time. So, what did I learn?

I really can do this

When you’re cruising around the skies with your flight instructor in the seat next to you, there’s no pressure. If you miss a call from ATC or improperly perform a procedure, he’s there ready to jump in and help out. Even if the worst should happen, he has the experience to put the bird on the ground safely even if your skills aren’t up to snuff quite yet.

On the day of my solo, we started off together (as normal) and did three laps around the pattern. After the third successful landing we taxied back to the FBO and he hopped out, his last instructions being to do it three more times without him and not to break the airplane.

As I latched the door closed with him on the other side, the reality of the situation began to sink in. I was about to fly an airplane by myself, solely in charge of its operation and ensuring that everything was done by the book. I was a little nervous as I received my taxi instructions from the tower, but as I started down the taxiway things just naturally fell into place. I had done this exact procedure ad nauseum, and I could probably do every checklist in my sleep by this point. In reality, it had been weeks since my instructor had to point out even the smallest flaw in my closed traffic operations — all he was doing was removing the safety net so that I could prove to myself that I was capable of operating without him.

In the back of my mind, I had always had my doubts about whether I would be able to make it through flight school. There’s a pretty steep drop-out rate, and I was afraid that I didn’t have whatever secret sauce ran made real pilots. I started to see a glimmer of hope after my latest stage check, when the crusty old retired fighter pilot who ran the school evaluated me and stated pretty matter-of-factly “well, you’re not gunna kill yourself, and you’re not gunna break the plane. I guess you’re OK to solo.” I’m thinking that’s about the best someone could expect in terms of praise around him. What really cemented that feeling that I might just make the cut was when I finally pulled back into the parking area at the FBO, right seat empty and not a scratch on the airplane.

I’ve been looking back over the syllabus for the course, and I think the solo might just be another landmark as well. Not only does it represent a point in my training where I’m trusted to know enough to stay out of trouble, but it also seems to be the end of the learning lessons. All that’s left are performance lessons — cross country, night flights, and finally the practical exam. Putting skills already learned to the test. And I can’t wait.

Nick Leghorn

Nick Leghorn is an instrument rated private pilot (ASEL), writer, and general techy nerd living in Austin, Texas.

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