As Autumn carried along in 2015, my flying was going strongly for a while. But the midwest winter weather dropped down suddenly, throwing a big icy wrench into my flying plans, and temporarily thwarting my progress. I have not done a good job updating my blog, and I actually wrote this entry a while ago. Now that Spring is just around the corner, my mind is moving back towards getting back up in those skies and finishing what I have started. As I will be writing plenty more to chronicle my journey towards a private pilot license, I felt it is important to start off by posting old entries that I wrote and never got around to publishing. So let’s start with this accomplishment: My first solo flight to another airport!
I had been riding high on my previous accomplishments – my supervised solo. While it wasn’t the first time I was endorsed to fly solo in the pattern at our home airport, the last time i had done it was two years prior. Just weeks before this new endorsement, I had become so frustrated with my landings that I was ready to give up completely. While quitting seemed enticing, I forced myself to up my consistency and up my frequency, and see if that made a difference.
It did. I flew regularly, and I flew more often, and suddenly my landings were making senese again. I was cleared to fly solo in the landing pattern at our home airport. It was exciting! My supervised solo had been success. It was amazing to know that I could once again fly an airplane on my own. The rush of that airplane lifting up into the big blue skies above, controlled only by me, is a rush unparalleled to any other experience in the world.
The lessons continued after that solo. Now that I had flown on my own again, my instructor wanted to endorse me to fly solo to Morris, another nearby airport. Although I had flown here a few times with him in the past, the truth is that navigating there was daunting. The airport is basically surrounded by cornfields. I never understood how my flight instructor kept managing to find it, or how his brain was able to differentiate the endless patches of identical square cornfields to navigate to this airport.
I’ll confess that I also have a pretty significant fear of getting lost in the sky while flying. It’s so easy to get disoriented. Things look so similar. And it’s not like you can just pull over and ask for directions.
My instructor Joe was more confident in me than I was. He was sure I could find it, and decided to teach me how to navigate there using “Pilotage”. We began the flight, and I looked down again at the endless expanse of identical green and yellow patches steching below us like a great quilt. He then began to point out all the key landmarks that I needed to recognize. He showed me the southwest heading that we needed to fly on. He pointed out the strip mall below us. To the left was another aiport that I should be able to recognize. If I continued my gaze forward, off in the distance there was a power plant that I needed to stay North of. Beyond that, a freeway cut through the quilted earth diagonally. And just past the freeway, north of the town beyond, and blended into the scenery, was the airport.
We flew there and did a few landings. I felt good. Normally when I switched airports, my landings would fall apart for the first several tries. But this time they were all going ok. It did a lot for my confidence.
I still wasn’t confident in navigating there though, and so we repeated the flight the next time. The weather was different now though. The world below us was a lot more hazy, and I felt more nervous with the lower visibility. But Joe told me to stay focused on the landmarks. Here was the heading I was supposed to fly on. There was the other airport. I could see the powerplant. Beyond that, the highway was cutting diagonal. And finally, the airport revealed itself to me. We did a few landings, and they all went smoothly. I actually felt confident that I could find this place on my own.
And with that, he gave me an endorsement in my log book to fly solo to a new airport.
My next flight was a solo flight. It may not seem too novel, considering I already had a solo flight. But this time, the situation was a lot different. Previously, I had flown with my instructor for a while, and did a few takeoffs and landings in the pattern. Eventually he cleared me to go, and I continued my solo flight of takeoffs and landings. He stayed on the radio for much of the time. I stayed at the airport, and flew solo until the end of the lesson, where I met him afterwards.
This time the situation was different. This time I booked the flight and didn’t request an instructor. There were a bunch of forms I had to complete before making this flight. It involved determining runways, airport frequencies, performance calculations, weights and balances. That took a little bit of time, and I needed to get it all approved by an instructor before flying. But basically, they were letting me just come in, rent an airplane without an instructor, and fly away to a different airport. ALONE. The mindfuck of this can not be properly explained.
A strange combination both anticipation and nervousness surged through me as I walked over to the airplane. The forms took longer than I anticipated, and so I was behind schedule already. I felt the pressure of the clock, but I tried to make myself slowdown and not rush through the preflight. Better safe than sorry. I spent a lot of time slowly going over the checklists. I was nervous and it felt unreal to just show up on my own and fly an airplane. I had to fill up fuel, which I had never done on my own before. It would have been less stressful if I hadn’t already been behind schedule. I felt an overwhelming sense that everything was going wrong. That this was too big of a task for me, that there were too many little things I was missing. I felt like I couldn’t do it.
And then I did it. Suddenly I was taxiing the airplane, and I was too concentrated on my environment to continue feeding my self doubt. I was following runways and looking for airplanes, and listening to the radios. There was no time for nerves, there was too much to do and too much to be aware of. I was focused and in the zone. Suddenly I racing down that long black runway, alone in an airplane. And then I was taking off, up up up into that big blue beautiful expanse above. And then it was just me, with an empty airplane, touching the skies. It felt natural. My senses were sharp, The nerves had been transformed into concentrated awareness.
I turned onto my compass heading. I remembered how to navigate. I looked down. There is the strip mall. There is the other airport. There is the powerplant. I can see the freeway in the distance.
I had been so deep in concentration, so powerfully engaged in the activity of flying solo, that it wasn’t until I was almost half way to the airport when it suddenly hit me. The world suddenly spread out below me, powerful and vast. All the little details stayed in my mind, but I was also getting a sense of the bigger picture. I suddenly realized I was a single person in a little airplane thousands of feet above the earth. I suddenly realized that I was flying an airplane solo. And this was different. I wasn’t just flying in circles around the runway, talking to my instructor from the ground on the radio. I was FLYING! To another place! On my own!! I felt this incredible surge of exhilaration, freedom, and confidence that I had never felt on any of my previous flying lessons! The world felt huge, and big, and open, ready to explore. Suddenly I could see clearly, through all those hours of terrible landings, through all those frustrating maneuvers. Here I was, flying an airplane alone to another airport! I had come alone, rented an airplane without an instructor, and now I was flying!!!
I made it to the airport without problem. It was very crowded there. I flew i the pattern, made a few touch and goes, and and then flew home in time. I was a little late getting back, but not terrible. I landed safely, parked the airplane, and congratulated myself.
The interesting thing is how negative I felt for a while afterwards. I kept thinking of every little thing I did wrong. How long it took me to get the forms filled out. The minor things I had to redo during the preflight. My stumbling with fueling the airplane. The landing that was not perfectly smooth. The wrong turn I made while taxing back. The fact that I returned late. These negative thoughts overwhelmed my brain for a while, and I felt completely incompetent. At one point I wondered if maybe I should just quit. Mabe I wasn’t good enough. I had done so many things wrong.
And then I realized that I was dwelling way too much on the negatives. The important thing was to look at what I had done. I had rented an airplane on my own. With no instructor. I had flown to a completely different airport, solo. I managed all my landings safely. As the day went on, it began to dawn on me what I had accomplished. Something that I had never really believed I could do. By the end of the day, I was still dwelling, but now I was dwelling on my successes. After a long stretch of tedious and frustrating lessons, flying was suddenly amazing all over again! I felt a whole new world open up to me, and now all I wanted to do was explore it more!!!!