First solo: Matt Ferrari

The day started out normal, another flying lesson, the same maneuvers I’d been practicing, nothing out of the ordinary. Flying back to the airport my instructor handed me the microphone prompting me to get an airport advisory. Without much choice, I said “Brainerd Unicom, Cessna 757 Echo Yankee, 10 miles out to the South, inbound for landing, airport advisory please.”

To a greenhorn, trying to talk and fly at the same time is no small task. Over the roar of the engine the speaker exploded, “Aircraft calling Brainerd, winds are out of the Northwest at 12 knots favoring runway three zero, no other reported traffic.” Hoping my instructor wouldn’t catch it, I quickly replied, “Roger, we’ll plan on landing runway three zero.” Before I could even get the words out, my instructor was grabbing the microphone: “Correction Brainerd, 757 Echo Yankee will be landing runway two three, runway two three at Brainerd.”

I remember thinking to myself, “God I wish I could talk like that!” His words were so quick, so crisp, so professional. Why doesn’t he lose 100 feet of altitude and stray 20° off course when he talks? He doesn’t even fumble with the mic trying to find the button.

Then I got kind of mad at him. The wind is right down runway 30 and yet he’s going to make me land on 23, that meant a dreaded crosswind landing. He does this to me all the time, why doesn’t he like me?

Out of the corner of his eye he looked over, yelling above the engine noise “Gotta practice those crosswinds!” Granted, to a seasoned pilot it’s nothing, but to a 10-hour student, 12 knots is a hurricane.

With three or four acceptable — if not downright pretty — crosswinds accomplished, he said, “OK, let’s see if you can still land this thing into the wind.” Sarcastically thinking that this is what you are supposed to do anyway, it occurred to me that this meant switching runways, another task equally horrifying to a fledgling pilot.

After just one landing he told me to “Taxi her in!” Something just didn’t feel right. Did I do something wrong? After shutdown he pulled out my log book and began writing. Boy, this guy sure is in a hurry today, I thought. Usually we sat down over a cup of coffee in the FBO while he tactfully exposed my shortcomings and lack of aeronautical prowess.

Deflated and a bit put off, I started to get out of the airplane. “Wait a minute, you’re not going anywhere,” he said. Thinking I had done something wrong, I looked at him, kind of stupid like. “What do you mean?” I said. He smiled, holding my log book open to the “endorsements” page, then said, “Take it around the patch three times and bring her in!” He plopped my log book on the seat he had recently vacated and slammed the door.

I remember sitting there watching him walk away thinking this is a bad joke. I’m not ready for this…am I? Just then he turned around and trotted back to the airplane. Excellent, I thought, this was just a silly joke, this isn’t going to happen after all. Anxiously chuckling to myself, I opened the window. “Oh yeah, one more thing,” he said. “Don’t forget to breathe!” Smiling, he patted the top cowl and off he went.

I couldn’t believe it! He left me there…alone!

“Well,” I said to myself, “I can do two things here: I can get out and walk away a failure, or I can go out and crash this thing with dignity!”

Matt Ferrari at his day job, just after landing in Luxembourg

Fumbling with the check list, I slowly got into the groove, thinking that, hey maybe I can do this after all. I taxied out to the runway, went through my run-up, made my radio call, dialed up all the courage I could muster, and lined up on the runway.

I pushed the throttle forward and started to roll. Something inside me knew everything would be OK.

Dividing my scan between staying somewhere near the center of the runway and the airspeed indicator, I felt the airplane getting light. One more glance at the airspeed indicator showed it passing 50 knots. I eased back on the stick. Just like always, the plane began to fly, maybe a little better though, without the weight of my instructor. Climbing out, I looked over at the seat next to me — yep, it’s empty alright!

I went around the three times my instructor told me to, then a few more. Eventually they had to call me in as the next guy was waiting for the plane. I didn’t want it to end!

Matt Ferrari, who now drives a 747 around the world for a living, is a CFI, CFII, MEI, and an A&P with IA.

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