Warning: This work has been rated 18+.
My unwavering excitement overwhelmed my immense anxiety as I walked out to the airplane. It was a surreal day; the sky was clear with a few wispy clouds and unusually calm winds, the temperature was pleasantly around sixty degrees and the traffic wasn’t too extreme. For me, however, those small details weren’t exactly my top priority. I slowly approached the airplane assigned to me for today’s flight; she was brand new, fresh off the factory floor, and couldn’t have been more than a year old. Her white paint glistened in the sunlight, complimenting the dark green on the leading edge of her wings, the tail with the University of North Dakota’s logo, and the stabilators also in dark green. Her registration, N817ND, was painted largely on both sides of the aircraft just behind the windows. She was a beautiful machine and would be my chariot in the sky for the threshold I was about to cement in my budding aviation career. My flight instructor, a man with the most well-kept beard I’d ever had the pleasure of being acquainted with, was ready for the significance of today as well. We started off the day by flying the airplane in the airport traffic pattern, which was simply a circuit; a racetrack in the sky if you will, that started and ended on the runway. After doing three, I take the airplane off the runway and onto the taxiway. He turns to me and says the following.
“Okay, just drop me off at the bravo ramp. Don’t let me forget to stick these solo endorsements in your logbook,”
“Uh…,” I reply nervously. “Yeah, okay,”
And we do just that. I turn off the taxiway into the ramp, parking by another airplane and ran the shutdown checklist.
“Okay, you get to sit here and relax. Just hand me your logbook,”
I do as I’m told. He puts in two endorsements in my logbook; one allowing me to solo the airplane and another endorsing me for landing with a total of 10 knots of wind. And now, it’s the moment I had long been waiting for. It was finally time for my first solo flight, where it would be just me on the airplane and I’d be the sole manipulator of the controls. I’d be taking my life into my own hands and would have only myself to blame if something went wrong. I sat there, that beautiful spring afternoon in a daze as I realized what was about to happen. My anxiety slowly wavered in and I had to remind myself that I had done this before and it was all very procedural. My flight instructor stood off in the distance to watch me start up; he’d soon make his way to the control tower to watch me from above as I flew around. I got out my checklists and slowly ran the before start checklist. I reached down, grabbing a black lever below the instrument panel and pulled it, pressing down on a knob attached to the front of it to secure it in its position, labeled “PARKING BRAKE,” I then adjusted my seatbelt and ensured the cabin door was closed and latched. I reached up to the overhead panel and on the far left, armed the emergency battery switch, made my way to the right and turned on the anti-collision lights and strobe lights, and then turned on the two magneto switches. On a sidenote, the airplane I was flying, a Piper Archer TX, had a simplified design and was regarded as one of the most technologically advanced training aircraft thanks to its large instrument display panels capable of showcasing an abundance of information. This panel came in handy as I looked down, and saw that the E Volts circulating in the airplane was greater than 23.3 as required in the checklist. With this confirmed, I once again reached up and turn on the airplane’s battery switch and alternator. The before start checklist was complete. I glanced to see how hot the oil temperature was to determine if I needed the engine start cold checklist or hot; and verifying the engine was hot, that was an easy choice. In the middle of the airplane was the throttle quadrant, with my throttle lever and mixture lever. I pushed the throttle to be open about a half inch, I reached up again to the overhead panel and turned on the fuel pump switch and ensured my mixture lever was at idle. I then opened the window and yelled “CLEAR,” to ensure no one was around me. On the very far right of the overhead panel was the starter; a simple button, black with white lettering that I needed to hold down as my engine came to my life. I put one hand on the mixture lever and while pressing the starter, gradually increased the mixture. The propeller began to turn as the engine sputtered to life until it finally kicked in. The blades began spinning to where they quickly disappeared. I looked over my shoulder, gave my instructor a thumbs up and he began walking away to the tower to observe my flight from there. I’ll skip over the rest of the checklists I ran, but soon I was ready to go. One thing to note is that my university requires students with an instructor to have the callsign “Sioux” followed by their tail number, but solo students to have the callsign “Green”. I soon contacted the control tower for my taxi clearance to the runway.
“Grand Forks ground, Green One Seven with information sierra at the bravo ramp, looking to taxi for the closed traffic,”
To quickly break down the importance of that radio transmission; Grand Forks ground is the audience who I’m addressing. They’re an individual in the control tower at the airport who are responsible for giving us aircraft on the ground instructions in moving around to and from the runways. Green One Seven is my callsign as previously mentioned. Information Sierra is a fun one to explain; before we can officially begin our flight, it’s important for us to obtain the weather of the surrounding airfield in a coded format that’s recorded and updated hourly on a typical day, with each new issuance being assigned a unique letter identifier. I have to confirm that I read it and am familiar with what’s going on as it contains crucial information about the operation going on at the airport. The bravo ramp is where I’m located, taxiing is the term used for airplanes moving around on the ground and the closed traffic means I’m staying in the traffic pattern and not going anywhere else…back into that invisible racetrack I go!
Before long I was issued my taxi clearance and began making my way to the runway…by myself, for the first time. It was hard to comprehend what was about to happen, a moment I’d waited for my entire life. I prayed out loud as I made my way, taxiing a little fast in my honest excitement and anticipation. I arrived at the runway and held just short of it, switching to the tower frequency. This was it, if anything were to happen to me here, it’d be all of my own accord. The entirety of my training and life’s ambition led me to this moment. I surpassed the doubt of my peers and myself, I relished in the support of friends and family, I stayed fixated on my goals and ambitions. I deserved this. I wanted this. I was going to own this.
“Grand Forks tower, good afternoon, Green One Seven holding short of runway three five left, ready for departure,”
“Green One Seven, Grand Forks tower, cleared for take off runway three five left, make left closed traffic,”
“Cleared for take off runway three five left, make left closed traffic, Green One Seven,” I said as I began making my way out to the runway.
I lined up with the centerline and took a brief moment to take it all in. I was staring down at the longest runway the airport had; with tire streaks and fading white paint, it was about to be my best friend for this great endeavor. I gradually advanced the throttle to full power and heard the engine roar to life as the airplane accelerated down the runway. I began looking at my airspeed indicator and saw it come to life.
“Airspeed alive,” I said to myself.
“30 knots…40 knots…50 knots…54 knots, rotate,” as I slowly pulled the yoke back to point the nose of the plane in the air.
One thing you must remember. Humanity has long been fascinated with flight and as a species, we’ve spent centuries learning how to conquer it. The Chinese started with giant kites in an effort to understand the air, Leonardo Da Vinci drew sketches of gliders designed for endurance without producing any of their own power, countless individuals jumped off cliffs with giant wings made of fabric only to end with a dramatic fate, followed by countless human beings who’s lives ended in tragedy in the name of science. As my wheels left the runway to embrace the yonder, not only was my own life past a personal threshold, I was the result of centuries of research of trial and error that claimed the lives of many. As I left the surly bonds of earth, I couldn’t help but look both left and right and saw the ground fast fading away and getting smaller as my altitude increased.
“Oh shit,” I said to myself. “I’m fucking flying,”
And I was, I was fucking flying. I kept a straight path until I was nearly two hundred feet off the ground and made a gentle turn to the left and continued to climb until my altitude read 1,600 feet, which was the altitude for the pattern at this particular airport. I turned again until I was directly parallel with the runway and about a half mile away. I brought the power back as I leveled off, ensuring my airspeed didn’t surpass 100 knots. Everything here was about to happen very quickly, so I didn’t have the luxury of pulling out my phone to take a selfie. In seconds, the controller contacted me to clear me to land.
“Green One Seven, cleared for the option, runway three five left,”
When he told me cleared for the option, I could do one of three things: I could land and come to a full stop and taxi back to parking, I could land, stop on the runway and take off again with the remaining distance, or I could abort my landing if I found it too unstable and circle back to try again which was known as a “go around,” and I elected to do the second. I passed what’s known as my “a beam point,” which is a mental point on the runway where I begin to reduce my power and prepare the aircraft for landing. I reduced my power even more and pointed the nose down to start my gradual descent; as I did so, I reached down for a long silver lever in the middle of the flight deck that allowed me to extend my flaps. The flaps increases my surface area on the wing; increasing my lift but also the drag, which is pretty cool as it allows me to have a steeper angle of descent while maintaining a safe and comfortable airspeed. This particular airplane allows me to have three flap settings at 15 degrees, 25 degrees and 45 degrees. I brought in 15 degrees as I lost two hundred feet of altitude and began another turn to the left, where I was now perpendicular with the runway. As I did so, I strived to maintain 80 knots while bringing in a second notch of flaps, adjusting my power as necessary and still continuing a gradual descent. I then turned on the final, where I was now directly lined up with the runway and just had to fly the airplane to my touchdown point. I needed to be at exactly 66 knots, or at least five knots higher. If I was to slow, I’d descend to early and run the risk of hitting the airport fence, the grass before the runway or anywhere else I wouldn’t want to be. If I was to fast, I could overrun the touchdown point or never land at all because I was too high. I kept it right where I wanted it and slowly brought her down. My anxiety, my worries no longer existed. The entirety of my existence was confined to one thing; getting my wheels on the pavement and staying lined up with the center. I brought in full flaps as the runway grew bigger, as if opening its arms up for a hug as my little airplane and I rushed to be reacquainted with our old friend. Before long, I was directly over where I wanted to be, just mere inches off the ground. I pulled the yoke back to assume a nose up position, otherwise known as a flare so that my two main wheels would touch first and then I’d gradually lower the nosewheel. I did just that and applied brakes, bringing her to a complete stop on the runway. There wasn’t any time to waste, I quickly retracted my flaps all the way and applied full power and was back in the air in no time. It was simple, I’d do everything just as I did before. As I climbed out, the tower told me to hold off on my turn and would let me know when it would be safe to do so. I acknowledged and allowed myself to climb back to 1,600 feet and passed the road that ran by our airport. I looked down to see cars driving, looking no bigger than the matchbox toys I used to beg my mom to buy for me back when I was a kid. I soon was given the go ahead to begin my turn and did so, following the same steps as before. Not long after, I was again lined up with the runway. Off the perimeter of the airfield are manmade ponds that tend to shimmer when the sun is directly on them; I vividly recall how their reflections danced in the cockpit as I was cleared for the option and made my way down. However, as I was just seconds away from being over the runway, I saw my airspeed dangerously slow at 55 knots. I thought about going around and trying again, but at the same time, I was a little high and I estimated that at my current rate of descent, I could safely make it. If I didn’t, I supposed it could be a learning lesson for others who would find themselves in this spot. At my steepened rate of descent, it wasn’t long before I found myself just inches again above the runway and acted accordingly. Unfortunately, my landing was a bit rough and I felt the jolt as I brought the airplane to a stop. I figured this was good, and it was time to call it a day before my luck ran out.
“Grand Forks tower, this is Green One Seven, this is gonna be a full stop,”
“Green One Seven, turn right off Charlie and contact ground, congratulations,”
“Right at Charlie and contact ground, Green One Seven, thanks,”
I taxied off the runway and stopped as soon as I cleared it and ran my after landing checklist before going back to the ramp. I shutdown the airplane and was in huge disbelief. My instructor was already waiting for me as I climbed out with a huge smile on his face; to this day, I still think he was more proud and excited for me than I was myself. Why wouldn’t he be? It was a celebratory moment. He took a few pictures of me posing with the airplane and soon after, we headed inside. With each person we passed, he made it a point to tell them I just had my first solo, a moment that would resonate with me for the rest of my life. The majority of Earth’s population have never stepped foot in an airplane, much less flown one. To have finally been able to fly one solo was not only a testament to my persistence, but a huge privilege. In hindsight, that moment was special for a variety of reasons. The biggest one was that at a point in time, here I was flying an airplane that I didn’t own, without a pilot’s license, a thousand feet off the ground over a hundred miles per hour over a state I was still learning to call home.