Learning to fly – PPL First Solo.

If you’ve read my previous posts you’ll know that after not really having any success with a fear of flying course, I took a trial flying lesson to see if that would help with my problem. After the experience I was still left with with this inexplicable fear, but I strangely enjoyed it to the point where I wanted to learn to fly and especially now I’d purchased a log book and had one flying hour written up in it! Another eleven hours and I could legally do a solo flight if I’d developed enough skill. The lad with the fear of flying going solo – that would be some achievement!

I’ve always been the kind of person to face challenges head on so I guess this was my way of dealing with my fear of flying.

I booked a full PPL course to start flying with the instructor who had taken me on the trial lesson. I purchased a flight training kit that came with the books I’d need for the five written exams, charts, marker pens, and a fancy little flight computer that looked extremely complicated. Although apprehensive, I was extremely excited. The first couple of lessons were relatively straight forward and involved general handling, a little navigation and an introduction to flying in the circuit – the circuit being a take off, a turn downwind paralleling the runway, then a turn onto final approach to a landing.. Unfortunately I was starting to see a cycle develop involving fear and apprehension before a lesson, followed by elation at the end of the lesson, but I persevered.

I studied for and passed the relevant exams that had to be completed before you could be sent solo, and made progress with the flying to the point at around fifteen hours I was ready to be sent off on my own into the circuit. The day arrived, and having hardly slept, my anxiety and I headed to the airfield. On the way I can remember thinking to myself “why am I putting myself through this?”, and I had no answer other than that the easiest way to deal with a fear of flying would be to simply not fly; but then that wasn’t going to happen as I’d been well and truly bitten by the aviation bug. I parked up and walked anxiously over to the control tower.

My instructor was already waiting with his coffee and beaming smile – he loved his job with a passion! We headed into a training room and he briefed me on the day’s agenda. We were going to “bash the circuit” for an hour, consolidating my take off and landings, and then once he was happy, we’d make a full stop landing, he would jump out and I’d head off to fly a circuit on my own. The weather was nice and warm but a little breezy due to convection from the warm ground, so I knew it would be a little bumpy up there in our small aircraft. I did the relevant paperwork and we headed out to the aircraft, jumped in and started up We then taxied to the runway threshold, did the pre-take off checks and took off – it was all very “matter of fact” as we’d now done this a few times. As much as I had that anxiety leading up to this point, once we left the ground, concentration left no capacity for anxiety.

I really did handle the circuit well – don’t get me wrong, even today I’m no Chuck Yeager or Top Gun, I’m a very average pilot, but things just really clicked in the circuit. Before I knew it, we’d been up there for an hour and my instructor was happy. “Let’s make this one a full stop, I’ll jump out and you can go and have a little fun on your own.” he said. The landing was a bit firm but safe even though I wasn’t happy with it. I wanted it to be perfect to boost my confidence as I was about to be sent flying solo! The kid with the fear of flying was going to fly an aeroplane on his own! We taxied onto the apron, he told me to keep the engine running and said he’d talk to me on the radio from the control tower. He jumped out and that was it, I was on my own!

Immediately I remember feeling a sense of anxiety and even a little panic. All sorts of absurd thoughts were going through my mind, and I was questioning whether I actually had the ability to fly a solo circuit. “What happens if I forget how to land?”, and “What happens if I get lost?” were amongst other irrational questions I was silently asking myself. I spoke out loud telling myself to calm down and that the only thing different was that the seat next to me was empty.

I slowly and methodically performed my before take off checklist, requested departure clearance from the tower and heard back “cleared to take off – your discretion” followed by “good luck and enjoy” coming from my instructor who was now also in the control tower. I lined up on the grass runway, slowly pushed the throttle lever fully in and then released the brakes. I was surprised by just how much more quickly the Cessna 150 accelerated with just one on board and before I knew it I was up to take off speed, so I slowly pulled back on the control column and left the ground – I was flying! There was no feeling of elation or smiles as I was giving total concentration to the task at hand. That intense concentration also had the effect of completely wiping out my anxiety; I guess my mind was so busy that there was no spare capacity for negative feelings. I turned crosswind, retracted the flaps, climbed to the circuit height and turned downwind. There was a brief moment to relax and I remember looking down at the airfield and the control tower with enjoyment before quickly realising I now had to perform a landing.

I turned onto the base leg, extended the flaps and started the descent. Everything was going really well – almost too well. I turned onto final approach and my height was just about perfect, extended the final stage of flap and was given discretional clearance to land. Thankfully there were no other aircraft ahead as I would not have wanted to do a go-around during my first solo. I cleared the threshold, reduced the power and flared, unfortunately a little high which made the touchdown a touch firm and slightly messy, but it was safe. I was on the ground and I had flown a circuit on my own! Congratulations came over the tower frequency and I was elated. It was my biggest life achievement so far after having children.

I still had a fear of flying but I had flown an aircraft with no-one else onboard – that was a really big step towards obtaining my Private Pilots Licence and that was my plan!

First Solo Tips.

I make the assumption that occasionally, student pilots might read these pages so I thought it might be useful to add a few tips that I’ve learn’t over the years.

if you’re in the process of learning to fly then the first solo can be a daunting task for some, as it clearly was for me. I’ve learnt a lot during my time as a pilot and I wish I knew way back then what I know now. Mental preparation for challenges like the first solo are just as important as the planning preparation you do before a flight. There are a few things you can do that will make the day enjoyable as opposed to just breathing that sigh of relief when you’re back on the ground.

  • Be well rested – It’s highly likely that you will be anxious the night before your first solo but a good night’s sleep is essential. Being unable to sleep will increase anxiety and your performance will possibly be affected. Avoid caffeine or alcohol close to bed time. Exercise a few hours before you plan to sleep as this will also help to take your mind away from any negative thoughts. If you don’t fall to sleep within half an hour or so, get up for a short while, take a bath, or listen to a little music then try again.
  • Have confidence in your ability – You’re about to fly the aircraft solo because your instructor feels you are ready – he has no desire to send you up on your own if you haven’t developed the necessary skill. Trust his judgement.
  • Tell yourself it’s just another circuit flight – The aeroplane doesn’t know it’s your first solo; it doesn’t know you’re on your own. It will fly just like it did with your instructor onboard (in fact it will perform a little better being lighter).
  • Put into practice what you’ve learnt – Plan this flight just like your other sessions. You don’t need to do anything different because you’re on your own. Use the checklists and fly the aircaft exactly as you do with your instructor and this flight will go exactly as planned.
  • Plan for a go-around – if you’re aware of other traffic in the circuit and keep your aeroplane nicely spaced, then a go-around is unlikely but always be ready to execute a go-around if something doesn’t go right, if you end up high or too close to another aircraft for instance. If you have briefed yourself on the procedure then it won’t surprise you should you have to execute one at the last minute. Remember, you’ve practiced go-arounds and your instructor has confidence in you.
  • Don’t feel pressured to fly – If something doesn’t feel right on the day. For instance, if you didn’t sleep as well as you’d liked, you’re not totally happy with the weather or something is just niggling you, tell your instructor – he will most likely turn the flight into a little more circuit consolidation. You can always re-book.
  • Enjoy yourself – You’re about to join an elite group of people – you’re going to fly an aeroplane solo, and you’re one step closer to having that licence in your hand.