An airplane pilot's first solo is supposed to combine the thrill of a ski jump, the satisfaction of crossing a new frontier and the exhilaration of a bird. It's an unforgettable experience, the old-timers will tell you; and they are so right. I'll never forget mine, anyway. It was on a Friday the 13th.
I was taxiing past the hangar for my fourth take-off of the afternoon, thinking I should have taken up boating, when my mentor unexpectedly opened the cabin door. He just wants fresh air, I thought, and kept moving.
"How can I get out if you don't stop the fool thing?" he growled.
I put on the brakes.
October 11, 1954
"You said a half hour today. We've still got 15 minutes."
"Well, you might as well use it up. You're paying for it," he said, stepping out.
Once, in my aggressive teens, I had courted a girl for several weeks, with steadily waning hopes, and all of a sudden had found her cooperative. Then, like now, I was surprised to the point of utter confusion.
"The hell with this," I said. "I'm not ready."
"If you want to sit here talking about it for 15 minutes, it's all right with me," the instructor said. "Idling engines save us gas." He walked away.
"But I've been overshooting all my landings lately!" I hollered after him. "You said so yourself."
"If you're not landed by dark we'll bring you down with a 12-gauge shotgun," he promised over his shoulder.
BOOTED OUT OF THE NEST
So this is how they do it, I thought bitterly. No warning. Even a cold-blooded chicken hawk inches a fledgling out of the nest. He doesn't just boot it out with no choice but a good landing or a broken neck.
Well, I don't have to stand for it, I told myself, and so help me, I took off from the ground in that airplane with no thought but to get up in the air where I could think things over. If I decided it was no good, I would simply come back and solo another day. The human mind can be shockingly stupid sometimes—and all of a sudden the ground was 50 feet below.
There was no birdlike feeling about this. All I remember is an incredible loneliness. No terrestrial predicament puts you so completely and awfully in your own hands as a solo flight in a little airplane. The doting relative, the generous friend, even the kindly stranger, have been pushed hopelessly beyond your reach.
"My gosh," I thought, "this is nothing but a form of temporary suicide."
The spasm of loneliness became so monumental that I began to feel almost ennobled by it and regretted its passing as I found myself automatically performing the little cockpit chores preparatory to landing. By the time I was on the ground I was really disappointed at how routine it had been.
"Congratulations," the instructor said, coming up with a grin and sticking his hand out.
Oddly, my hand wouldn't come loose from the stick. I pried it free, finger by finger.
"Thanks," I said, only the word didn't come out. I reached to shake with him, lost my balance on the door sill and grabbed for the strut. My hand slipped off and I nearly went flat on my face in the dirt.
Now, as we walked to the office and my knees slowly turned from rubber to bone, I began to feel a sensation somewhat akin to exhilaration for the first time, and with it came a talking jag.
"...and the funny thing," I concluded at the end of a half hour's recital of the four-minute flight, to which the instructor listened patiently, this being part of his job, "the funny thing is that it was the best landing I ever made."
"It always is," he said. "I've never seen or heard of anybody making a bad one on the first solo."