It’s Tuesday March 16, just after 1100, and I can sense it coming. Coasting along downwind at the back end of another positive lesson in the circuit at Bankstown, Dan Martin, one of Schofields Flying Club’s two CFIs, says, “I’ll grab the radio call this time”. He informs the tower this now able student pilot is about to conduct his First Solo.
As I taxi the PA-28 Warrior off the runway and back to the holding point a sense of relief comes over me - it’s now finally happening. At the holding point for Runway 29L Dan casually jumps out of the cockpit and says something to the effect of, “off you go for a circuit on your own”. His exact words barely register with me as my heart is racing and I’m so keen I make mustard seem as enthusiastic as a gasoline-fuelled daredevil forced to play lawn bowls.
As soon as Dan bails the nerves kick into overdrive and I get the jitters the likes of which I haven’t endured since that ill-fated, pre-puberty attempt to kiss a girl for the first time. I calm myself enough to make the radio call and ease past the holding point and onto the centreline once cleared by the tower.
Having recently watched the Aussie bobsledders capitulate at the Vancouver Winter Olympics and being reminded of the movie Cool Runnings, as I open the throttle to full power and scoot off down the runway as the sole occupant of the aircraft my mind settles on those Jamaican bobsledders’ memorable call to arms. Altering it for the occasion, I silently chant to myself, “Feel the rhythm, feel the ride, get on up, it’s First Solo time” as the Warrior hits 65 knots and I pull back on the control column and rotate off the bitumen.
With the nerves still belting me for six, I fly a straight upwind leg using a modicum of right rudder to maintain my heading in the thankfully steady conditions while trimming for the correct attitude. Reaching about 300ft altitude, for reasons I fail to comprehend the fit of nerves that is weighing me down dissipates completely, without any conscious coercion, begging or pleading on my part. I have no idea what exactly sedated me, but this newfound sense of calm I feel is tangible and things immediately become decidedly easier.
On late upwind at 300 feet I flick off the fuel pump and do the rest of the after take-off checks. I’m racing up the rear end of the aircraft in front of me, so I calmly continue my upwind leg until I reach 700 feet altitude to give us both a bit of breathing space. I commence the turn onto crosswind with my eyes in turn shifting between my reference feature and the runway behind me, ensuring by the end of the turn my left wing is parallel to the runway. Taking into account my extended upwind leg, I reach 1000 feet altitude while still turning onto downwind and accordingly level off and complete the turn as a level turn.
Dan had told me that the aircraft will perform differently in climbing, turning and descending without his 70-odd kilograms in the right-hand seat, but as yet I’m not noticing any difference in the PA-28’s performance, perhaps due to my intense concentration on the task at hand.
With spacing between myself and the aircraft in front now a suitable distance and with my heartbeat reduced from a frantic, sweat-inducing palpitation to something slightly more human, I ease into the downwind leg with a smile on my face and a calm in my actions. Feeling so at ease and in my element, I almost start singing The Rolling Stones’ ‘Start Me Up’. But I bite my tongue before I get too carried away as I remember Dan – perched on the ‘scare chair’ next to the run-up bay down on the ground – has a hand-held radio and is likely listening in on the shenanigans.
I pull the throttle back to 2400RPM and point the aircraft at the narrow part of the bay off in the distance near the bridge at Cronulla. Making sure I’m keeping good spacing between myself and the runway, I thumb the transmit button and make the radio call, “Sierra, Foxtrot, Mike, early downwind for a full stop”. A curt, “Sierra, Foxtrot, Mike” fires back at me from the tower.
Getting particularly comfortable on mid-downwind and feeling like it’ll do some good in putting me at ease and relaxing the situation, with the aircraft in the appropriate trim I take both hands off the control column, cross my arms and watch as the aircraft more or less stays on the correct course. This neat little trick is something both Dan and Charles Thompson – Schofields Flying Club’s other CFI – preach as a means of driving home the fact that the aircraft really will fly itself if it is set up correctly. And demonstrating that for myself sure helps ease any remaining tension or over-concentration.
Mid-downwind I start going over the BUMPFISH pre-landing checks. Brakes – still working; Undercarraige – non-existant; Mixture – full rich; Fuel Pump – on; Fuel tank – left, in this case; Instruments – T’s and P’s in the green; Switches – landing lights on; Hatches/Harnesses – good as gold.
Late downwind and with three of the five legs coming and going without any hiccups I realise I’m almost home and hosed. Passing over the M5 Freeway, with the Bankstown Trotting Recreational Club at the 45° positon over my left shoulder and the train track marking the edge of Sydney’s controlled airspace ahead of me I kick into action. Pulling the power back to 1400RPM and flicking on the carby heat, I commence the turn onto base, pulling two stages of flap back to back and holding the nose up to wash off airspeed.
Pointing the nose at ANZ Stadium off in the distance, I hold a half ground/half sky attitude and watch as the airspeed steadies at around 70 knots. Coming up on the trotting track, at 550-odd feet altitude I roll onto final and aim the nose at the centreline like I’ve done so many times before.
As the airspeed and altitude drop and the runway approaches, I glance for the first time at the empty seat next to me and it hits me that I’m flying on my own. At first a tad surreal, it’s an amazing, incredibly liberating feeling knowing that, come what may, it’s all on me. Whatever pear-shaped or par fait consequences ensue – whether the aircraft hits the ground and the shit conversely hits the fan, or if I pull off a blinder and get a pat on the back – it’s all on my shoulders. Strangely, this realisation imbues me with confidence in my own abilities.
Flying at 300 feet on mid-final, I accept that I’m slightly lower than I should be at this point and make the decision not to squeeze in the last stage of flap. I flip off the carby heat, lower the nose and add a little power to keep the airspeed up and the attitude set. Passing over the road that borders Bankstown Airport, I’m almost home and the finish line is in sight. I concentrate on keeping the nose pointing a little to the right of the centreline. The airspeed slips a little too close to 60 knots for comfort and I nudge the throttle up to get it back to the desired 65 knots as I edge closer to the piano keys.
No longer afraid to stomp on the rudder on short final to keep on the centreline as airspeed decreases and the controls get sloppy, I get heavy with the right rudder as a slight burst of crosswind pushes the aircraft to the left. Quickly glancing over to the scare chair, I see Dan watching my form as I narrow in on the landing and reassure myself that I know what I’m doing and am not going to violently spear the aircraft nose-first into the runway. All things steady, as the piano keys pass underneath me I pull the power all the way back to idle and focus my eyes on the end of the runway. As the aircraft gently starts sinking towards the hard stuff I gradually raise the nose accordingly.
As I get a little overzealous with the flare, the pesky Warrior starts to climb momentarily. I curse myself, but before it gets too far away from me and balloons about the place I arrest the situation with a touch of extra power and forward control pressure. As the aircraft sinks towards the ground once more I keep easing back on the controls and breathe a sigh of relief as I feel the rear wheels bump gently onto the runway. I hold the nosewheel off the turf for what seems like an eternity before it eventually touches down. Wow – that sure went by quick.
I taxi back to the run-up bay, where Dan jumps in and enthusiastically shakes my hand and says, “Congratulations on your First Solo – this first of many more to come”. When he asks how it went I reply, “pleasantly uneventful, bit of a dodgy landing though”, but he assures me that he saw nothing wrong with the landing so I rest easy knowing I’ve pulled off First Solo without any hitches.
As we taxi back to the Schofields’ parking lot I get a call from the tower, “Sierra Foxtrot Mike, congratulations on your First Solo!”. Happy as Larry, proud as punch, and merry as Jerry, I give a “Cheers mate” in return, pop the window open and relax and enjoy the moment as Dan taxis the aircraft back to Schofields.
Back in the Schofields’ clubhouse, in quick succession I give my girlfriend and my Mother a phone call and let them know that, not only did I just complete my First Solo, but that I’m also still in one piece and haven’t been arrested or black-listed from my flying school. I swear I hear them both utter an audible sigh of relief, as if they were expecting a more dire result.
And that’s that – I’ve got First Solo in the bag, a smile on my face you couldn’t wipe off if you tried, and a sense of achievement that I’m starting to get my head around it all.
Time out of flight
Backing up a bit, I was literally on the very verge of doing my First Solo back in late November last year. I had gone through the lessons on emergency procedures, simulated engine failure, glide and flapless approaches, and as any budding pilot at that stage in their training could relate, I was chomping at the proverbial for my First Solo to say the least.
Then, without any warning and by no fault of my own, my training was sent on a forced hiatus by events outside of the control of everyone involved. It had been three and a half months since my very first lesson, during which my skills had come on in leaps and bounds. And with the excitement of First Solo within sight just a mere lesson or two away, this couldn’t have come at a worse time.
To cut a long story short, I inevitably remained on the ground for the next three months while searching for a new flying school, all the while itching to get back in the air. My log book has a very bare three-month gap between entries - not ideal, but rolling with the punches in late February I recommenced my training at Bankstown’s Schofields Flying Club.
Schofields’ General Manager Nelson Crawshaw saw fit to tee me up with Chief Flying Instructor Charles Thompson, and as a back-up Dan Martin, the other CFI at the club. Being primarily a Piper-based organisation and knowing my former mount was a PA-28 Cherokee Archer, Charles saddles me up in one of Schofields’ PA-28 Cherokee Warriors.
As could be expected, after such a long break between lessons I was rusty as hell as I set out for my first lesson with Schofields. Embarrassingly so. Fortunately, Charles anticipates this and guides me through some refresher lessons.
First off we head out to the training area to go over the basics. I guess it’s the same with any skills set, but it’s amazing how much basic operational knowledge falls by the wayside when you don’t do something for an extended period. Things as simple as remembering to use rudder with aileron during turns completely slip my mind. To re-drill the importance of this into my head Charles gets me flying round and round and round and round in continuous 180° level turns until I’m one turn away from a dizzy mess.
Having reacquainted myself with the basics, we head back into the circuit where I demonstrate to Charles just how rusty my landings have become. If he had a rolled up newspaper on hand I could very visibly imagine Charles battering me around the ears with it on short final as I manage to aim the nose at everywhere but the runway centreline. He repeatedly reminds me to use my “size 12s” to keep on the centreline. “That’s what they’re there for,” he chides on more than one occasion.
I’m having some trouble setting the right attitude for landing once we cross the threshold and as a result I’m flaring too much and ballooning about the place. To eradicate this, Charles gets me to keep the aircraft at just about idle power and fly as close as I can to the runway (a matter of inches) without letting the wheels touch the ground. It takes a fair slab of dexterity and concentration to hold the aircraft that close to the ground continuously over the length of most of the runway, but I get it eventually and it helps markedly.
While my break in flying eroded my piloting skills, my eventual return to form probably isn’t being aided by the fact that, rather than crack-of-dawn lessons from 0630 as I was used to, I was now flying from 0930 when conditions were naturally more bumpy. As I make Charles aware of this he has a Eureka-like moment and says something to the effect of, “That’s why you’re bouncing around the place!”. But as he explains, and as I wholeheartedly relate, I’m not going to be flying in super calm conditions forever so
I might as well get used to it now.
Three lessons in and my skills are back within the realms of respectability and I sit down to the pre-solo theory exam, a prerequisite before going solo. This is a multiple choice quiz featuring 30 questions with a pass mark of 23 correct answers or better and a time limit of 40 minutes. Truth be told, the only preparation I did beforehand was going over a sample practice test I’d been given a few times and having a look at the Bankstown page in my ERSA. Nonetheless, I cruise through the exam in a brief 20 minutes with a score 25 out of 30.
After knocking over that theory exam I’m ready for my First Solo, however it’s Dan that’ll be nervously watching over my progress as Charles is away today. Dan takes me through the emergency procedure exercises one last time, which is handy because I hadn’t actually been over them in months. It’s a full-on lesson as back to back we cover the lot, including a slightly hair-raising simulated engine failure on upwind, where Dan forcefully pushes the nose down and spears the aircraft towards the lake below us. Before I can stop my lips from voicing the words I find myself asking Dan the admittedly obvious question, “Will the plane sink?”. I blame that one on Captain Sullenberger’s miracle landing on New York’s Hudson River.
One last emergency procedure Dan puts me through is recovery from rudder overuse on the ground at full power. With flaps retracted and power back to full during one particular touch and go, without warning Dan stomps on the left rudder and we careen towards the edge of the runway.
It feels like power sliding in a rally car and I swear I feel the Warrior begin to tip, before Dan recovers the situation by aiming the aircraft back towards the centreline while gently raising the nose to get airborne. It’s a pretty awesome adrenalin rush, and on the next circuit I recover from the same situation without Dan’s assistance. And that’s the last piece of training Dan imparts before sending me on my First Solo.
A week later I’m back out at Schofields for my Second Solo. Having missed my First Solo moment of glory as he was down in Echuca attending the Royal Federation of Aero Clubs of Australia annual conference, Uncle Charles is now back on deck and is impressed by my now passable landing skills.
Jumping out after three circuits, Charles asks me if I want to do one, or two, circuits on my own. Although I have half a mind to ask him if that’s a rhetorical, smart arse-ish question, I give him the benefit of the doubt and figure he’s merely gauging my confidence level given that the conditions are hazy and the wind is gradually starting to pick up. I politely tell him I’ll head out for two and roll out to the holding point for Runway 29L.
Having gone solo without a hitch the week before, my confidence is skyrocketing as I gently ease the Warrior off the turf as the ASI moves past 65 knots. First Solo really swept all the nerves out of my system and my second buzz round the circuit in solo mode is a far more sedate affair. Almost before I even realise, I’m backing off the power to 1400RPM, pulling two stages of flap and turning onto base.
Calmly increasing power as the ASI undesirably drops below 65kts on final and electing not to pull the final stage of flap, I feel in complete control of the situation. Although as I pass through 300 feet and move to turn off the carby heat I realise I’ve forgotten to switch it on before turning onto base. Whoops. Feeling like it’s second nature, as I pass over the piano keys at 65kts I cut the power right back to idle, set the attitude, and concentrate my eyes on the good-looking lass sitting in the tree past the far end of the runway (one of Charles’ more interesting teaching techniques to help maintain the correct attitude on late final).
As the aircraft begins sinking towards the runway I remain patient, gradually raising the nose and waiting, waiting, w-a-i-t-i-n-g, before finally the rear wheels ever so gently touch the runway and the nosewheel does likewise a few seconds and metres of runway later. As Charles congratulates me afterwards with a hearty, “You surely mustn’t have felt anything at all on that first landing”, this is my best landing yet. And it’s all the more meaningful given that I did it without an instructor with me.
But there’s no time for the pinning of Mickey Mouse badges or the awarding of chocolate cookies as I retract the flaps, return to full power and canter down the runway for another skirt around the circuit. This second circuit has me on my toes not long after I depart the runway. At 200 feet altitude and inadvertently racing up the rear end of the slower orange and white C152 in front of me, ATC buzzes and instructs me to take an early turn onto crosswind and overtake the Cessna.
I can’t help but think Uncle Charles is testing me and has asked the tower to throw this curve ball my way, but that sentiment later proves wrong. I return the radio call, “Traffic sighted, turning onto early crosswind, overtaking the Cessna, Sierra Foxtrot Mike”, while rolling into the left-hand climbing turn. This is a new experience for me, but I calmly alter my actions accordingly without any anxious freakouts arising.
Things start looking interesting as due to the early crosswind I’m still climbing to reach the 1000ft mark halfway down downwind, while radioing for a full stop. Hastily going over the pre-landing BUMPFISH checks at warp speed, I quickly pull back the power – remembering to flick on the carby heat this time – and roll onto base. Having handled the early crosswind fine I breathe easy and relax as I roll onto final and line up with the centreline.
With height and airspeed as they should be, I squeeze in the final stage of flap and float down to the piano keys.
Narrowing in on the threshold, with about 50 feet of altitude left to lose a fierce crosswind comes out of nowhere, belting me well to the left of the centreline and forcing my right wing up. My heart skips a beat and I holler a profanity or three as I kick in the right rudder pedal to counter the crosswind and get back on the centreline. ‘Wowsers, where the hell did that come from?’ I mutter to myself as I cross the piano keys, cut the power, flare and land. I stomp on the brakes and take the first exit off the runway, where Charles greets and pats me on the back for, “handling that crosswind”.
Early days yet
Exhilaration and a confidence-boosting sense of accomplishment aside, I’m under no illusion that by going solo I’ve achieved anything more than merely the first milestone of many on a lengthy path towards the eventual acquisition of my Commercial Pilot Licence.
I’m very conscious of keeping things in perspective and not getting ahead of myself.
So far I’ve barely skimmed the surface, and I know it’s going to get a lot more intensive and involved from here on in. I am aware that many more challenges lie ahead and that I’ll need to remain committed to both the theory and practical aspects of my training to surmount those challenges.
Looking to the immediate future, next comes circuit consolidation, where Uncle Charles will patiently bake in the sun on the scare chair as I progressively conduct, two, three and eventually up to half a dozen or so circuits one after the other on my own until it’s all kosher.
At this stage I’m permitted to fly for up to three hours solo, and it’ll eventually get to the point where I can come into Schofields, sign out the aircraft and hit the circuit without Charles having to accompany me out to the airfield. It’s a long slog to reaching the Holy Grail of CPL, but I’ve now earnt the first of many celebratory beers.
The Schofields story
For anyone not already aware, Bankstown-based Schofields Flying Club is the largest flying club in the greater Sydney region. Its proud history dates back well over 30 years, with pilot training being a core of its flying operations throughout. Schofields – or “Schoies”, as members affectionately call the club – has helped countless pilots gain their wings over the years, many of whom have since moved into professional aviation careers, while others are now flying purely for the fun of coming out and having a burl on the weekend.
When I first stepped foot into the Schofields’ clubhouse I was greeted with a friendly, laidback yet professional atmosphere, a comfort which I’ve since concluded is the norm here. The Schofields’ clubhouse is a hive of activity and enthusiasm, with experienced pilots often on hand to offer less experienced students advice when needed and to swap stories.
Schofield’s provides all flight and ground training components for budding pilots to gain either their PPL or CPL. The club’s band of experienced instructors can help equip you with the full range of credentials, from VFR private pilot to Night VFR Rating and Private Instrument Flight Ratings right through to CPL with multi-engine Command Instrument Ratings, Flight Instructor Ratings as well as assistance towards your Air Transport Pilot Licence.
As well as having a pair of top-notch CFIs – both of whom I can vouch for as the best instructors I’ve flown with yet, not that their glowing credentials don’t already speak for themselves – at Schoies students have access to a wide range of instructors willing to guide them towards whatever flying goals they’re chasing. While the Schoies team of 20-odd instructors varies in background, nationality, and gender, professionalism and a friendly nature remains consistent throughout.
Schofields Flying Club members have a bountiful array of aircraft to choose from to either learn to fly in or rent privately. A predominantly Piper-based organisation, the Schoies fleet boasts numerous Pipers of all makes and models, including Warriors, Archers, Arrows and Seminoles. The fleet also includes Cessna 152s and a C182, and access to a Beechcraft Duchess upon request. And the Schoies aircraft I’ve had the pleasure of getting acquainted with all feature modern avionics and are immaculately maintained.
Whether your motivation for learning to fly is long-term career-based or at the opposite end of the spectrum and merely for kicks, Schofields is a fitting place to start if you’re based in Sydney. Pay them a visit and I dare say you’ll understand what I mean.
VIEW MORE PHOTOS OF JUSTIN'S FIRST SOLO, TAKEN BY WILL SPIERS, BELOW...