First solo: Hugh O’Handley

We recently asked pilots on our Facebook page to share the story of their first solos. Here’s one from Hugh O’Handley of Pelzer, S.C.:  I have been lucky and have always had instructors that were great mentors. I first attended a flight school at Sky Acres Airport in Billings, N.Y., in 1973. I was 19 and, after having served two years in the Army as a helicopter crew chief, I was tired of getting my hands dirty and then letting someone else get to have all the fun.

I had accumulated approximately 8 or 9 hours over a 16 day period in May 1973 and then my instructor surprised me by asking me to stop next to the tower at Dutchess County Airport. He told me to go around three times and return to get him. I have to say that I was the traditional giddy student and was having a great deal of fun sharing the pattern with a variety of aircraft big and small. After a while I thought I heard my tail number on the radio; back then we didn’t use head phones and kept the speaker fairly low and learned to develop an ear for our tail number; it worked but I don’t think I could hear it well enough these days. It was my instructor (Tom) calling to ask if I want him to call back to Sky Acres to rent the plane for another hour; I was on my 9th go around and was having so much fun I had no idea.

My flying career abruptly came to a halt in December 1973 when I had a motorcycle accident that eventually resulted in amputation of my lower right leg. No bother — I continued to fly whenever I could scare up $30  to fly dual but life eventually took over and after two years in Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic school I embarked on a career of aircraft maintenance.

Fast forward to 2008: I was on my last significant work assignment before retirement in Iraq. While home on R&R in August 2008 I decided to find out if flying was still something I could and wanted to do. I once again lucked out and found an excellent instructor (Daniel) at the Jet Center at Donaldson Airport in Greenville, S.C. I flew for 1.4 hours; bought the books, took them back to Iraq and studied them for the 3 months I had left on my tour and started flying again in March of 2009. After 5 additional hours I soloed my 2nd time in April 2009; I wasn’t as giddy this time but I was definitely having fun. I was flying a plane I had never sat in but I did fine.

Being better healed in the financial department and in no particular hurry, I accumulated additional hours then at about 96 hours total time I took my checkride at Anderson County Airport in Anderson, S.C. Since then I have accumulated about an additional 60 hours flying my own aircraft. I’m part owner in a beautiful Piper Cherokee 180 based at SPA and I have two Ercoupes I am restoring — one that I flew down from Factoryville near Scranton, Pa., to Pickens County Airport in South Carolina in November 2010 and one I bought and trailered home from Clearwater, Fla., to my garage in 2011.

Over the years I have walked out of and away from more than one flight school or instructor that seemed to me to have a “Better Than Thou” attitude. I won’t spend my money where people treat me inferior or badly. I have found an even greater number of really nice people in and around airplanes these days. Even though I’m older now I’m still having as much fun as when I was a kid and learning new things each time I fly.

Regards, Hugh O’Handley, Pelzer, S.C.

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