Lesson 17 – First Solo

I could tell something was planned when my instructor started briefing me on engine fires during start, on the ground and in the air. I thought to myself “Uh-oh, there are some boxes to be ticked here”. And of course, it was all preparation to getting me ready for my first solo landing.

It wasn’t going to come immediately, of course. First he had to satisfy himself that I was on a half-decent flying day and, having not been up for a fortnight, I was a bit unsure that I would be.

The wind was a bit stronger than I’d have liked, but it was virtually straight down the runway. It meant the first circuit was a tiny bit wonky as I didn’t correct enough for the crosswind component, but it came together at the end. Even the touch-down was okay and, as ever, I was told I could have held off a bit. Flying the approach with a strong headwind was interesting given the amount of still days, tailwinds and crosswinds I’d had. A fair fistful of power was needed even quite close to the runway.

The second landing attempt didn’t go so well. Airspeed was a touch on the high side – closer to 70 knots rather than 65 – and alignment wasn’t perfect so I was adjusting when I was still about 30 feet off the ground. It just didn’t feel right so I started a go-around, and there was going to be no instructor-hopping-out on this run.

The third landing brought back one of my bad (involuntary) habits: it was going almost perfectly, and I was determined to keep the hold-off going with some more pull-back on the stick. Unfortunately, my other hand moved in the opposite direction and I added a few hundred RPM of power. It was time to abort and a go-around at about 50 knots and probably 2 feet off the runway. That was definitely the landing that got away.

Still, my instructor was happy with the decision and everything I was doing, so the plan was to make the next to land and stop… gulp. Except that this was the worst landing I’d ever done. After some previous hold-off attempts where I’d thought I was still a couple of feet off the runway but was only a few inches, I was trying to re-adjust my perspective. Unfortunately, that meant we pretty much dropped the last couple of feet with a big “thud” – at least on the rear wheels, but it wasn’t pleasant.

No time to dwell and the plan continued, but we’d do another attempt the him in the other seat “just for confidence, even though your flying is fine”… yeah, right. This one went well, though, and everything felt in control all the way down. Of course I could have held off a bit more, but I’d rather keep getting a feel for how far to pull and land slightly early than go too far the other way and balloon all the time. And as the instructor said: once you’re slow enough and it’s on the rear wheels, it’s going to be a good enough landing.

So we taxied to a patch of grass near the holding point and after a radio-in for a callsign change to “Student Golf Mike Juliet” out he hopped. I ran through the pre-take-off checks, waited for a couple of other planes to taxi past, one of which I probably didn’t have to but I just thought I didn’t want to feel like someone was waiting for me. Taxi, ATPL checks, radio call, line up, and then I was off.

Take-offs are rarely anything worth talking about, and this was the same – thankfully. It felt like the wind was maybe stronger, but less gusty, which suited me fine. Then the turn onto crosswind, downwind, radio call, BUMFLITCH checks, and in no time at all I was turning onto the base leg and getting set up for the approach. It passed in a flash.

Given the wind, and having experienced it a few times now, I had a better sense of how much power to leave in on the approach. Apart from seeing the speed get close to 60 knots when I added the third stage of flap (when the magic number to aim for is 65) the approach was as good as any.  There seemed to be no trace of crosswind as I passed over the aerodrome threshold and, adding a touch more power to make sure I got to the numbers, I think I timed the flare well-enough. Maybe it was a fraction of a second late, but soon we were nose in the air flying level just above the runway. A touch of hold-off and then I felt the rear wheels touch and let her settle down on the nose wheel when good and ready. That was a relief!

If there’s anything in the post-mortem of landings I’d do better it would be, of course, more hold-off. But at that time the last thing I wanted to do was to end up going back into the air again and, in my book, touching down gently at 50 knots is a landing I’m happy with.

After-landing checks, taxi back, park in a gap that I thought looked tight but turned out to be fine, and then my first solo shutdown – more stressful than I thought it would be with plenty of “did I leave the iron on?” type thoughts as I walked away from the plane.

Apparently “all the old guys” (whoever they are) were also watching my landing from the radio room to check on how well I’d been taught! I’m glad not to have shown either of us up.

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