Higher Learning - Story of a First Solo

The only thing better than laughter is sharing a lesson in utter silence, a demonstration of listening necessary for any true communication and learning.

Francis worked hard. She listened. She chose calmness. She was rewarded with the sound of only the aircraft making contact with Earth. Her instructor said nothing and touched nothing from downwind to touchdown.

Flying is soaring between Heaven and Earth with a very real sense of mortality and responsibility. It is a balance of forces to create lift and a balance of focus to maintain attitudes. For the pilot governed by Visual Flight Rules, 20 percent of one’s focus is on the instruments while 80 percent looks outside at what God created. While the former could precess or falter, the latter is true.

The night before that day, Francis fell asleep with visions of the skies, of the moving clouds and of seemingly still stars. She sat, just weeks before, on the other end of Earth. On the southernmost shores of Patagonia, the clouds change constantly, while the stars appear the same to her as to her friends half a world away. Francis dreamt of flying through the clouds that others only watch pass by. Her breathing slowed as she fell into a deeper sleep, humbled by her inability to touch the stars, though she would use them for aim, charting her map on the grid and in her heart.

The day began the same, with two taps of the snooze button, a stretch, and shower. She pulled her hair into a ponytail, applied mascara, and made her coffee like she makes her life: simple, smooth, and strong. Pouring the hot drink into her pink and white ceramic mug, she was out the door with her purse on one shoulder and textbooks stacked in her other arm. It was just another calm morning, except this one was a bit different.

She drove east from the city on SR33, Rachmaninoff playing on the stereo as the sky began to blush. The sun, at first shy, finally broke free from the horizon and glowed. When her eastern route turned south, Francis knew she had arrived. The docile western wind blew the mist to the edge of the field to linger, hanging between light and leaves, marking a clear path for her journey.

Francis and her instructor finished their coffee and briefing at Sundowner Aviation. On the cue, “Let’s go fly,” they were off to the hangar, preflighting as a team, with a shared intention of a safe change of command in moments that would instantly become memories to be cherished both now and then.

It was time for her feet to release their grounding from Earth and her hands to let go of their connection to people. She was flying solo. While her instructor challenged her to learn, she ascended faster with no body next to her. After over 100 commercial flights that year, Francis moved from a mere passenger to pilot in command.

No longer was her head cocked to the side, taking photos while gliding between cities, nor her energy spent napping between cocktails. She was awake. She scanned her periphery, but looked straight ahead at the curvature of Earth and sky, commanding the aircraft to fly where she looked. Viewing two-thirds sky and one-third ground, she flew the best angle of climb into calm winds from the west.

Francis made the radio calls at each left turn in the traffic pattern. While she often told no one of her travel destinations, it was her responsibility and authority as a pilot to announce her intentions and her positions in the air and on the ground. Her energy was a steady state of calmness, while she controlled the aircraft, reducing power and refining its pitch to descend and obtain optimal glide speed. She maintained her 70mph glide and placed the runway marking, “2-8,” at a fist’s height above the dashboard of the cockpit. She saw just one red light on the precision approach path indicator (PAPI). She was high as she flew over the “2-8” with too much energy and obeyed her instructor’s voice on the radio to go around.

She wanted to make her first landing, but now she knew she needed to figure it out. No one was going to land the aircraft but her. Francis needed to reduce power sooner on her downwind leg and slow the aircraft before beginning her descent, so she would have only the smallest corrections to make as she flew closer to Earth.

“Fairfield County traffic,” Francis made the call, again, to the local area and announced her aircraft identity, “Final. Runway 2-8.” Rolling out of the turn from base to final, she had two red lights on the PAPI. Her eyes scanned from the airspeed indicator, reading 70mph, to the runway markings. She was on the glide path and only had to maintain speed and manipulate power settings as needed.

“The plane will fly where you look,” she heard her instructor’s voice in her head. The radio remained silent as she cleared the “2-8” marking and looked down the runway, leveling off and reducing power to stop the descent. She still carried slightly too much energy but was prepared to fight for a safe landing.

Francis continued to reduce power and raised the nose just before touchdown. Hello, Earth, she exhaled as the tricycle wheels connected with the runway. She released backpressure on the yoke to lower the nose, and pulled the power to idle. She made her first solo landing! Francis raised the flaps and added full power, keeping her butt over the center of the runway while pushing forward on the yoke to keep it grounded, resisting the trim that helped her fly smoothly moments before. At 60mph and full power, she pulled back on the yoke and applied a bit of right rudder, finally allowing the plane to do what it craved - fly!

She only had to make two more landings to legally complete her first solo, striving to improve her use of energy with every turn.

Five approaches and four landings later, Francis taxied to the airport, completed her checklist and powered down the aircraft. She opened the door to share in the listening to and creation of laughter with her instructor.

“I got some video,” he told her.

She laughed more, knowing the landings were not as graceful as she desired. “That is why I write fiction,” Francis told her instructor. “I can make it more elegant than it actually was.”

While the grace may not have been ideal in every approach the aircraft made to Earth, it was certainly present in the pilot’s approach to learning, as she demonstrated her ability and willingness to improve every day. The science is written and the responsibility accepted. But the art was hers to learn, to create, and to refine.

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