Exercise 19: First Solo

– Cameron Grier, Commercial Pilot Student, Cooking Lake Aviation

Every Pilot will always remember the day they completed their first solo!

“I think you’re ready to solo”. It felt like a shot in the arm, and a punch to the gut at the same time. It was a vote of confidence, and a terrifying reality: I was going to have to fly the plane alone.

When you learn to fly you start with the basics. You learn how to fly straight and level, how to climb and descend, and how to turn. The fundamentals of flying then start to stack onto each other and begin shaping our first procedures. We learn slow flight which helps us to understand landing and controlling the aircraft at slow speed. Our climbs and descents turn into stalls and forced approaches. Practicing our 30 degree turns show us how to square out the circuit pattern. After you work through the basic procedures and your instructor feels that you’re ready, its time to start Exercise #17.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) defines the circuit as: “the specified paths to be flown by aircraft operating in the vicinity of an aerodrome.” For student pilots, it’s the culmination of everything we’ve learned so far. So commences a period of time where circuits consume your life. If you’re anything like me you had it running through your mind at odd hours of the night and during every drive out to the airport.

Transport Canada Circuit Pattern

“Watch your climb out speed.” 500 feet, Left turn 15 degrees.
Too slow, I have to watch my pitch.
“Remember to crab for the wind”
Hyper-focused on the altimeter working its way up to 3500 ft I snapped my attention back to the heading indicator.
“Get your nose down”
Attitude, power, trim, turn, 30 degrees.
I’d committed every part to memory. I understood the procedure, but putting it together took time. It was like a complicated piece of music. I could play each section, but playing the entire piece was another story.
“Don’t forget to make a call”
“Cooking Lake traffic this is Cessna 172 Foxtrot Oscar Romeo Echo on the downwind 28 full stop Cooking Lake traffic Oscar Romeo Echo.”

Flying the downwind was the only time for a quick review of the first half of your circuit and a reminder of things to remember for the landing. “You have to stay ahead of the aircraft”It took some time for this advice to sink in. Knowing what you wanted to do 5 minutes ahead of time? I barely had a handle on what I was doing in the moment let alone what was going to happen in 5 minutes.
45 degrees from the runway. Pre-landing checks, slow down, trim, start your turn.

Now the work starts. The last 2 minutes before the wheels touch the runway are the busiest. I’d start calling the tasks out loud.

“75 knots, 500 fpm. Drop flaps. Drop some more, slow down.”
It’d suddenly be time to turn final. Make a call, continue the descent, don’t forget about the little drop off right before the runway, power to idle over the numbers and… FLARE! I think it took me a few circuits before I remembered I should probably be shooting for the center line. We worked, and worked, and worked. Denis was patient. Each time around I’d get closer to getting the circuit together. I’d miss a different detail each time. Turn too late, too fast on the downwind, flare too early or too high, but we were nearly there.

It was time for the pre-solo check. This is usually the first time you have someone different on board the plane with you and I was nervous.

CLA’s Chief Flight Instructor Ben and I headed out to the practice area and ran through the procedures. To my amazement, he had been happy with all the upper air work but told me I needed a few more circuits to smooth out my landings and he gave me some helpful tips that really helped my circuits come together.

Cooking Lake Aviation G1000
Cooking Lake Aviation G1000

April 1st, 2016 I woke up nervous but hopeful that I’d get to solo. Denis and I hopped into C-FORE and headed up for a few circuits. After a few spins around the pattern he turned to me and said “Ok, I’m going to get out. Go around once and come back”. He unplugged his headset and got out before turning around and opening the door again. I waited for him to speak over the prop wash. Surely this would be the moment my instructor Denis would have something so important to say it would be forever stamped on my mind.

Something like “This is the first step to the rest of your life” or “This is the time to let your dreams soar” or “You can do this.” I pulled the right side of my headset off my ear-

“Don’t forget to lock the door- Have fun” He smiled and closed the door and I locked it. Sitting at the hold short line I could feel my heart pounding. I chirped on the radio “Cooking Lake Traffic this is Cessna 172 Foxtrot Oscar Romeo Echo holding short 28 for departure to the circuit.” My voice was shaking. I waited and no one responded. It was time to go.

All the little moments that had led me to here flew past. Growing up near the airport in Yellowknife where I’d run to the window as a toddler every time an airplane took off. Going for my first ride in a small plane when I was 10 and getting hooked on aviation. The hours and hours I’d spent playing flight simulator. My wife encouraging me to get my license. It all came flooding in.

I turned and looked down the center line. I thought for a moment I’d take a breath, and make sure I was ready to go but my instincts kicked in. I’d never done that before, why would I do it now? I pushed the throttle in and confirmed full power. I let go of the brakes and I started rolling down the runway. My first thought was “I should never have let go of those brakes”. The aircraft was picking up speed and hit 55kts. Before I knew it I was rising. The plane climbs more quickly without another person in it and I got up to 500ft swiftly and made my first turn. I looked back to make sure I was square to the runway, turned onto the downwind and made my call, I think that was when I realized I hadn’t taken a breath since I took off. I made my radio call and took a few seconds to look around outside and take in the moment. A feeling of excitement overwhelmed me and honestly, I was astonished anyone would allow me to fly a plane by myself. The base leg and final approach came and went without any excitement. I flew over the numbers pulled the power to idle and glided onto the runway.

After I’d taxied back to the hanger and shut down I got out and grabbed my headset and bag. Denis and our dispatcher Jason, came out from beside the hanger and shook my hand. I really couldn’t express the exhilaration and absolute jubilation I felt. The adrenaline was coursing through my body.

“I’ve never felt this way before”
“It doesn’t go away. Congratulations.” Denis smiled and shook my hand.

I turned back to my logbook and made the one entry every pilot makes only once in their flying career.

Exercise 19, First solo, 0.2.

Follow Cam’s journey in becoming a pilot on Instagram @alambchoppy