By MARK J. DONOVAN
As I recently celebrated my 49th birthday, I couldn’t help but be a bit reflective about my life to date. I’m quickly nearing the half century mark and still feel I’ve got a lot more to accomplish, but a lot less time to do it.
By most accounts I’ve done a lot — went to college, got married, had three kids, was involved with a successful high tech start up, and traveled extensively around the world. That said, I still felt I was missing the one thing that many a soul dreams of: The chance to really be free. Free from the hassles of getting up every day and traipsing off to the same corporation for the 8 to 5 work day, free from the work office politics and gamesmanship, free from the daily crap spewed from the mouths of talking news heads and, most importantly, free to fully pursue my own interests.
I think my deep personal self reflection began at the start of my 48th year as I watched my kids become young adults. As part of my life review, I decide to make some changes and tackle goals that I had put on the back burner. At the top of my list was to finally make the commitment to complete something I started 25 years ago — getting my private pilot’s license.
Out of college and freshly married, I sporadically took flight lessons, but I wound up putting my “hobby interest” on hold due to a shortage of spare cash and the typical chores of life as a young husband and father.
Early this spring I decided it was now or never, so I checked out a few local flying schools and got my flight physical. It wasn’t until I was talking to the doctor who gave me my flight physical that I decided upon what flight school and airport to take my lessons from. I chose Concord Aviation Services at Concord Municipal Airport (CON) in New Hampshire for a couple of reasons: Safety and financial. CON has two relatively long and wide runways and little air traffic. Second, it has no control tower. Consequently I could learn to fly without worrying too much about bumping into anyone on the ground or in the sky, and I could spend more time flying rather than watching the Hobbs Meter turn (effectively the money meter) while sitting on the tarmac.
My first time up flying again was on a cold, high overcast spring day in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk with a young pilot who could practically be my son. Though young, Christophe Matson is a qualified flight instructor who has thousands of hours flying various types of airplanes. I quickly learned he is a stickler for details and, for that, I thank him. There is little room for error when flying an airplane and a non-attentive student pilot should not be sitting in the left seat of any airplane.
After my first flight instruction in nearly 25 years I was hooked again — however this time I was committed to following through and getting my private pilot’s license. After 15.7 hours of learning how to fly again, practicing takeoffs and landings, recovering from power on and off stalls, and handling emergency situations, I soloed early one morning in late May under perfect weather conditions.
I had completed four takeoffs and landings with my instructor. After the fourth he told me to pull over onto the taxiway, because “I had used too much of the runway on my landing.” I hadn’t thought so, but I wasn’t going to disagree with my instructor. We were halfway down the taxiway heading back to the end of the runway when he told me to pull over on the apron. He then said, “You’re out of here.” He went on to say my four landings were perfect and that I was ready to fly solo.
While he endorsed my student pilot license and logbook, I tried to control my legs from shaking as I held the brakes. I was feeling both elation and trepidation. After what seemed an hour, but was actually just five minutes, he put away the paperwork, told me to do three takeoffs and complete stop landings, and then return back to the apron and park the plane. With that, he exited the plane and I was sitting there all alone.
After a few minutes of running through my checklists, I was racing down the runway and pulling back on the yoke. I was flying solo! As the ground fell away I began to relax and feel more comfortable.
At 800 feet above the ground I began my left 90° turn onto the crosswind leg. At 1,000 feet above the ground, traffic pattern level, I was turning left again for the downwind leg of the flight and radioing my intentions. Halfway down the downwind leg, I began to configure the plane for slow flight. I reduced power, turned on the carburetor heat, and lowered flaps 20°.
As I looked out the left window of the plane, I observed that I was flying parallel to the end of the runway. I pulled back the throttle to idle and pushed the nose over for best glide speed. After only a few seconds, I saw that the end of the runway was 45° over my shoulder and began my base-leg turn and radioed my intentions. At approximately 500 feet over the ground on my base-leg, I made my turn on to final and lined up for my landing.
The runway came up fast, and as my instructor had taught me, I separated my upper and lower body into two halves. I used my arms and the ailerons to keep the plane lined up over the center of the runway, and I used my feet and the rudder pedals to keep the plane parallel with the runway. As I came in over the runway I pulled gently back on the yoke and began my flare out. A couple of seconds later I heard the main wheels touch down. As the plane slowed down, I gently released pressure on the yoke to bring the nose wheel down. I had completed my first solo flight and landing.
As I taxied the plane back to the end of the runway I saw my instructor out in the field giving me the thumbs up. I returned the hand signal and went back and completed two more perfect landings.
As I parked my plane and shut down the engine, my instructor was at the door with a pair of scissors in his hands as I stepped away from the plane. After a big handshake, as well as a hand hake from another pilot who had just flown in on a small jet and who had watched me solo, my instructor asked me to turn around. While I faced away from him he proceeded to cut out the back of my shirt. This is a ritual that has gone on for about 100 years in the aviation industry. History has it that when early student pilots first learned to fly they did so in open-cockpit aircraft where the instructor sat in the back seat of the plane. Since there were no radios, the instructor got the student pilot’s attention by pulling on the back of his shirt. Once a student pilot soloed, there was no longer a need for the back portion of the shirt, so to signify the milestone the instructor cut it away.
With my first solo flight behind me, I’ve continued on with my flight training, sometimes flying solo, and sometimes flying with my instructor. Cross country flights and learning air traffic control radio operation are now the focus. With any luck — and a lot more learning — I hope to take my private pilots test and have my check-out flight within the next few months.