“First Solo flight” is the day the flight instructor exits the airplane and tells the student, “take it around three times and come pick me up.” It is a milestone in a student’s aviation training. It is the day that all the hard work, study, and preparation culminate in you, the student, taking off and landing the aircraft safely, all by yourself. It is an anxiety producing experience for both student and instructor.
Before the student can make this flight, he or she not only has to complete hours of practical flight and ground training, pass a pre-solo written exam, but she/he must also pass an FAA medical exam. I scheduled my examination at the office of our local FAA Medical Examiner and arrived on time, ready to get past this hurdle in my training. I was in very good health for a 15 year old young man, so I had no worries that something would come up in the exam, which would preclude me from further training.
The doctor checked my vision, and explained that I had 20/10 uncorrected vision. He explained, “that means that what most people can see clearly at 10 feet, Eric you can see clearly from 20 feet.” I had “super vision” I thought to myself. “The rest of the exam should be a breeze,” I thought. The doctor then pulled from a drawer a little brown book that he opened up and said, “What number do you see?” “What number are you talking about doc,” I replied. He kept turning pages, and I only saw a few of the numbers on the pages of colored dots. It was then that the doctor told me, “Eric, you have defective color vision so, I am going to have to put a restriction on your medical certificate; no night flying.”
“What exactly does that mean doctor,” I asked. “Well, you can apply for a SODA (Statement of Demonstrated Ability) and get a waiver to fly at night, but right now, you will struggle to distinguish the colors of the lights at the airport, used to differentiate runway from taxiway lights and other signals.” This news was devastating for this young 15 year old, who had dreams of flying fighter jets after college and ROTC.
I left the doctor’s office with my new Student Pilot Certificate/Third Class Medical Certificate, but with a memo on it that said, “Defective Color Vision, Restricted – No night flying.” I told my father, “I am quitting flying, Dad. My dream is busted because I cannot fly at night. The military will not take me as a pilot. I’m done.” So, I quit flying for a few weeks. I was depressed and discouraged, until my father (after one of his training flights) brought me a handwritten letter from my instructor, Evelyn. That letter and the words of encouragement enclosed changed my life. Eventually, it was the encouragement of one person that eventually, brought me back to my passion of flying again. I will share more about Evelyn’s encouraging letter and my eventual “First Solo Flight” at the age of 16, in my next blog post. Stay tuned.