University of Soloing
Every Pilot remembers their first Solo - it is a pivotal moment in the history of each Aviators journey - Pilots are commonly asked, "how many hours when you solo'd?" Most will reel the number off like the memory checklists they are asked to recall daily, but I've not yet spoken to a single one who hasn't said that their first Solo Nav was a bigger deal, and more memorable. I've just managed to secure myself in that category in style - I'll be hard pressed to forget it.
When you explain your PPL training to someone who's only frame of reference for such a course is learning to drive, they will inevitably express disbelief that part of the process involves actually flying the aircraft on your own, for real, actually in the sky, alone. However, It is abundantly clear to me why solo flying is part of the training - particularly now.
Prior to last Saturday I had 15 minutes P1 (solo student) in my logbook, 15 glorious Gower dusk minutes, a brisk whizz around Swansea airfield in the Tomahawk with the runway in sight the whole time. Easy. Normally, the next lesson after, a student pilot will put a few solo circuits together and start consolidating their P1 time in a very gradual way. I, on the other hand, upped sticks and moved us to Brizzle right after my first solo, then didn't fly for 4 months before enrolling with Freedom. After about 5 lessons, Chris, my instructor, started talking about me going off and doing some solo nav; because he was happy with my flying, nav and radio. We plotted a simple route and planned to fly it together then he'd jump out and I'd do it myself. We planned this for about 3 consecutive lessons, but the weather just would't play ball... Until last Saturday when it kinda played ball, a little bit, it a bit didn't play ball, more just got the ball out. By which I mean, there was a tiny bit too much of a crosswind for Chris to comfortably let me go without us practicing a few Xwind landings to make sure I was on the ball. The plan was for me to nail a couple of cracking crosswind landings so he'd be happy, then we'd fly the route together once, then he'd jump out and I'd go on my own.
I didn't nail my crosswind landings in two attempts. In seven they were just about acceptable. I was not having my best day, I also managed to stamp on about 3 radio transmissions - a complete newbs mistake! Anyway time was getting on so after nearly an hour, Chris said enough was enough, if I was happy to go, I could go for it! - he trusted me implicitly and encouraged me that I was certainly good enough to go fly 75nm on my tod.
Feeling absolutely stoked and far from composed I signed my solo declaration, swigged a bottle of water to douse my dry mouth and ran back to Golf - Charlie Lima Echo Alpha. It was just past 1600 and I had to be back before 1700 for a 45 minute flight plus completing start & run up checks for the first time on my own - haste required.
Back in CLEA, I instantly felt at home, entirely accomplished, in control, proud, capable, I love the process of readying the plane and yourself to leave the earth, the strict process allows you the freedom to relax and know that all is in order, to feel in control.
Take-off is even better, climbing to 2500ft on your own for the first time better still, changing radio frequencies away from the home airfield is momentous and if you don't stuff your first basic service request up life does't get much better.
I set my planned heading, set my watch and watched as the Severn bridges got bigger and bigger in my window, right on my nose - well a bit to the left. This achievement was so damn effing awesome that I had to capture the smile that was hurting my face.
Over the bridges and right on time I turned onto my new heading of 125 for a track of 109 direct to a grass strip on the Western edge of Marlborough. After about 3 minutes of the 23 minute leg, I started looking for Badminton - it should of been right under me. I couldn't see it. At this point I probably got into a bit of a habit of looking right below me rather than out and at the big picture - my first big error. After about 7 minutes and plenty of faffing with the DI and compass to ensure my instruments weren't leading me astray I spotted Hullavington airfield (James Dyson's play park) right at the end of my right wing - it should of been under my left one. Bugger, I thought, I'm miles off track. Oh well at least I know where I am, I'll just put myself right (I'm actually saying all this out loud to myself, because it felt weird not to have anyone to talk to up there).
Just on from Hullavington airfield, I have Lyneham airfield which requires me to alter my course a bit to the right again to put in the correct place - this leg is proving surprisingly tricky, but I only have about 6 minutes to run and I'll be over Marlborough - in theory.
With about two minutes to run to my turning point my eyes are right down below me and sometimes, even, out the back; looking for something that will verify that I'm on the right track. I'm a little overworked now, my mental processes clearly aren't functioning quite perfectly, Chris's last words to me "just enjoy it" are far from being actioned. I wish I could see that bloody stone circle I know should be there about now. At my turning time I see nothing under me that I want to see, but up ahead there is a bit of a connurbation that could be what I'm looking for - but the roads don't look exactly right, the valley leading to it seems familiar, perhaps I've just had a slower groundspeed than I planned for. That must be Marlborough up ahead - I fly to it, disregarding what my clock is telling me - in fact, I can't tell you what it read when I did turn, out of necessity, overhead what turned out to be Hungerford. I realised it was Hungerford because as I turned my right wing tip pointed at a blinking big Mast right next to a busy Motorway and a disused strip. Elation, the Membury Mast stuck out of my VFR map like it was an extension of it's real life counterpart on the ground. Finally I could locate myself with certainty - I was nearly 6NM from where I should of been.
Getting home from there was easy: I followed the M4 back West, like I have so many times before on the ground, until I reached Wooton Bassett and turned onto my planned route back to Kemble. I called Brizzle Radar and requested handover back to Kemple Information and managed to contact them just before they hot footed it out of the Tower at 1700. Kemble is easy to find from a distance, it's numerous hulking 747's dotted around reflect the descending cotswold evening sun and act as giant approach lights.
Smiling, relieved and annoyed at myself I joyously rejoin the circuit via the overhead and revel in the soaring sensation of the descent at low power. I announce my intentions to kemble traffic as the tower is now closed, configure for landing, turn final and execute a reasonable crosswind landing.
One hour ten minutes of P1 for the logbook and a life long lesson.
This is why we Solo during training: If that flight was with my Instructor, by definition, he would of been in command. Psychologically that has implications; unconsciously I would of been delegating tasks to him and therefor not taking responsibility for the actions and not entirely understanding the importance of each.
My first mistake, as I mentioned, was to micro navigate (trying to spot and tick off small features close by) rather than look at the big picture. On my first Nav lesson, Chris told me all about this - "Don't do it", he said,
"Ok", I said. Then I did it, and lost sight of the big picture. I won't do it again.
My second huge mistake was not to react to the repetitive left drift I had encountered. Twice I found myself left of course, but my flight plan told me to fly 125 degrees, so I did. Not once did I think "this wind must be a bit stronger than what it was predicted to be 500ft lower 4 hours ago - I'll adjust my course to the right a bit". If Chris was with me he'd of spotted this and told me to adjust my course, I'd of understood why, but the noticing bit would of been him, and the lesson wouldn't of been nearly as rich.
My third mistake was to stop regarding the time when I couldn't find what I was looking for. If I'd turned on time, I would of found myself a lot sooner and my deviation from track would of been a lot less. Or even 2 minutes out realised that if Marlborough wasn't on my nose it'll be either side somewhere.
Ultimately, the lesson of my first Solo Nav is to treat every lesson as though I am the commander, as If I'm P1, to take responsibility for every aspect of the flight. I have learned that just because we have made a plan on the ground, the real world might not of read that plan, and it is my responsibility to check whether the plan is working and if not, act on it.
I have learnt the importance of owning each flight and not just going along for the ride.
Not a bad metaphor for life really.