First tailwheel solo: Jerry Rittenhouse

We recently asked pilots on our Facebook page to share the story of their first solos. Here’s Jerry Rittenhouse’s story: In 1965 at age 20, I heard of a 1941 Piper J5 for sale at Morton, Washington. The J5 was a 75-hp tailwheel lightplane. Morton was a logging town in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains south of Mt. Rainier (14,412 feet).

The airplane had been flown down from Alaska; the owner wanted $1,500. That November an early snow covered 6 inches of the short turf airstrip by Morton. I hadn’t soloed a tailwheel airplane. As a youngster in Republic, Washington, I had flown 10 hours in my uncle’s Ercoupe (nosewheel). In 1964 at Spanaway, Washington, Slim Lawson had soloed me in his Champion 7FC (nosewheel).

I estimated I could get out of the Morton Airstrip snow with the low stall speed wing, tailwheel and fat main tires. Strata clouds in the foothills reduced the ceiling to 500 feet. Out of the foothills, South Puget Sound had 20 miles visibility.

To start the engine, I had to pull the propeller down with my hands and get out of the way when the engine started. Propping the engine made me feel like a dashing swashbuckler.

The airplane slowly rolled toward the end of the runway in the snow. I was becoming quite nervous — should I chop the power? Then, all of a sudden, the airplane just jumped into the air where it belonged. I hugged the narrow paved road in the foothills to the good visibility of South Puget Sound and steered Northwest to the Tacoma Fircrest (Oswald’s) Airport.

The airplane floated down to the north runway and landed softly. I kept the airplane rolling straight down the middle of the runway to the end. I felt elated! Bud Oswald marshalled me to a parking spot. One brake didn’t work causing the airplane to taxi away from him in a circle — we got a good laugh at that.

Jerry Rittenhouse, Gig Harbor, Washington

Want to tell the story of your first solo? Send it to, put First solo in the subject line

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *