First solo

The first solo flight is a bit of a rite of passage for student pilots. Up until that point every flight is conducted “dual” with an instructor. After solo approval the student can then practice maneuvers without the instructor.

In several pilot-related tasks sometimes I feel like I’m in a hands-on a science fair exhibit. You know the sort – “Come here and see how soap was made in 18xx!” There are several examples of this but let me talk about radio first.

Before the solo flight a number of requirements need to be met. The radio exam is one of them. The candidate is expected to study the Industry Canada guide, and pass an exam.

Let’s start with the guide. It describes message standards and procedures for transmitting messages using what is quaintly called the radiotelephone. Each message is supposed to begin by stating the call sign of the station to be addressed, followed by the call sign of the transmitting station, the message, and word to signal the end of the message. “Over” means the message is over and a reply is expected. “Out” means the the message is over and a reply is not expected. Messages are intended to have structure in the same way that emails have a structure – a message header, and a message body. However, humans do not communicate like computers, and as an example of the gap between theory and practice, I have never heard anyone use “over” or “out” when actually using the radio.

The guide also describes practices that frowned upon or outright illegal. For example, use of slang such as “breaker breaker” is discouraged, and making false emergency calls is illegal.

Radiotelephone procedure words also reveal some strong French influence. MAYDAY is a corruption of “m’aider.” According to the internet, the word was devised by an Englishman at Croydon airport, looking for a word that sounded sufficiently French and English enough to satisfy French and English aviation authorities. PAN, which is the somewhat less-serious version of MAYDAY, is from “en panne”, which means “broken down” or “out of service.” “SECURITE” – intended to warn of hazardous conditions, is pronounced “securi-TAY”, not “securi-TEE.”

Once studied out, there is a written multiple choice exam, and then an in-person exam where a qualified examiner (In this case, one of the owners of the flight school) tests you on your knowledge. An interim “Restricted Radiotelephone Operator’s Certificate – Aeronautical” is filled in on a well-photocopied form, followed by a small square of paper furnished by Industry Canada.

There is another multiple choice exam – the PSTAR – that tests you on basic aviation rules and regulations. Like the rules of the road there are priority traffic and signaling to respect.
Finally, a checkride from another instructor ensure that the other instructor has not missed anything. To be perfectly honest I wasn’t particularly confident after that checkride but but flying, like many other endeavours, is about pushing boundaries a little bit at a time.

After the instructors were reasonably satisfied I would bring the plane and myself back in one piece I only had to satisfy Mother Nature. Being my first time I needed calm-ish winds but between my day job and the weather it was actually several weeks before the big day. In the meantime I watched the weather like a hawk, but one day it all came together.

I arrived at the school, ready to go.

“So David, the weather looks pretty good, so go out there, and show me a few safe circuits, and we’ll go from there.”

It was a studiously low-pressure, low-key approach. No early expectations. Just fly safe, and do it again on your own. It was late December and I remember it was pretty late in the day. Overcast, but high clouds. Having flown countless circuits, we did two (Or maybe 3) uneventful circuits until my instructor called “For the option” to the tower, meaning the option to go around for another circuit, or the alternate option to land, stop, and taxi back out to the school. After another reasonably good landing we asked to taxi out.

“Are you ready to do your first solo?” my instructor asked.
“Sure am” I crackled over the intercom.

We taxied back to the school and my instructor reminded me that the plane would feel much lighter and climb faster without him in it. Back at the school we shut it down, my instructor climbed out and turned the plane around. Doing this is much simpler than you might think. One leans down on the back of the plane to lift the front wheel off, and pushes the plane in a 180 degree arc.

Once me and plane were pointed in the right direction I went through all the checks again. I called ground control and asked them for one circuit. I taxied the plane over to the runway hold short line and called tower to ask for takeoff clearance.

“Fox Papa Bravo Kilo you are on Ottawa ground, contact tower on 120.1.”

Woops. I’d forgotten to change frequencies. Mega newb mistake. Also something that every airplane on tower frequency would have heard, including the parade of Air Canada, Westjet, and Porter flights that come and go every hour. Do they pilots laugh? Or curse? Or most likely – ignore? I don’t know.

Takeoff went smoothly, and as expected the climb was much quicker without my instructor. At four hundred feet above the ground I adjusted the plane for cruise flight – turning off the backup electric fuel pump, raising the flaps to cruise, and reducing the propeller speed. In the downwind leg (Flying parallel to the runway) I did downwind checks, and called for landing clearance. Downwind checks are completed to make sure the plane is OK to land.

“Ottawa tower – Fox Papa Bravo Kilo is downwind runway 22”
“Fox Papa Bravo Kilo, Ottawa tower. You are number one behind a Cessna.”

Looking for airplanes while one is also flying is a bit of an acquired skill, especially if your natural instinct is to study the terrain, not look for planes. Fortunately this time the traffic in front of me was easy to find, and I called “traffic in sight.”

I didn’t have whole lot of time to enjoy the view or celebrate the occasion. I did permit myself a “Damn, I’m flying a plane.” The whole thing felt so well practiced that it didn’t seem like much of an occasion at all.

“Fox papa bravo kilo – Ottawa tower. Cleared to land, runway 22.”

I acknowledged the call and set up the approach. Power at 15 inches of manifold pressure. Landing flaps. 60 knots airspeed. Propeller at maximum rpm. Switch on carburetor heat. On the final approach I would be keeping the airplane lined up with the centreline of the runway, ensuring I kept 60 knots airspeed, and also ensuring that I was descending toward the numbers on the runway. Once over the numbers I flared – reduced the power to idle and gently raised the nose to bleed off the excess speed – and touched down, about 400 feet after the numbers.

Once on the runway I taxied out and wrote down my landing time. I was surprised how little time it took – less than 15 minutes total. Back at the school I cracked the canopy and my instructor came to shake my hand while someone else took a picture.

Per a Canadian tradition someone had also prepared a bucket of (warm) water to douse me with – another moment which was faithfully recorded.

As I said it was a great feeling and yet somewhat anticlimactic, which I think in flying is exactly we all want from a flight really. Any flight that you would call “exciting” is probably not something you’d want to repeat.

Once I demonstrated I could do this once, I would be permitted to practice circuits (Takeoffs and landings) on my own. The next milestone is a solo flight to the practice area …

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