“Happy 16th Birthday, are you ok” my mother asked me as I walked into the kitchen that morning. This was going to be an important day in my flying career. “Are you ready for your first solo flight,” Mother asked. “I guess, but I am scared to death,” I exclaimed. “You’ll do fine, Eric,” she stated offering me some encouragement. This day could be the day of my first solo, because the FAA requires that before a student makes their first solo flight, they must have reached the age of 16 years old. It just so happened that we were going to the airport that day for one of my flight lessons. I looked outside at the weather, and the low clouds and light rain showers seemed to make the possibility of a solo flight impractical. Nonetheless, we loaded up the car and drove to the Morristown Airport located 30 miles away for yet another flight lesson. As we drove, the clouds seem to break apart and a little glint of sunlight began to shine through. I held out hope that I could, at least practice some “touch and go” landings with Evelyn that day.
We arrived at the airport and Evelyn (my instructor) beamed and said, “Hi Eric, Happy birthday!” I smiled back. Evelyn was more than just my flight instructor, she was my mentor, friend, flight instructor, and encourager, and she saw so much more in me, than I could ever see in myself. Just one month before this day, I discovered during my FAA medical exam that I have an eye condition that affects my ability to perceive certain colors. I have a red/green color deficiency, and because of that condition, I thought my dream of a flying career was all but lost. Evelyn did not give up on me though. As soon as she learned I was giving up, she sent me a lengthy letter filled with encouraging words, as well as a challenge that reframed how I would face discouragement the rest of my life.
Evelyn wrote, “sometimes life gives us lemons, and we can either become bitter and resentful, or we can make lemonade.” She continued, “Eric, you cannot change the fact God made you with this condition of color blindness, but you can change how you deal with it.” She encouraged me to not give up on my dream, to come back and finish my training, and she promised that she would help me. Evelyn could have just said, “well another student has quit before completion” but she did not give up on me. Evelyn even arranged my appointment with the FAA to take the “Light Gun Test” that would remove the night restriction from my Student Pilot Certificate (which I passed).
So, here I was at the airport on my 16th birthday, on a drizzly day about to pre-flight the airplane anticipating the possibility of making my first solo flight. Evelyn, walked up to that little Cessna 152 (tail number N5447B) and said, “Are you ready?” I said, “Yes ma’am!” “Alrighty Eric, let’s practice some takeoffs and landings in the pattern today,” she instructed. After the first takeoff, Evelyn commanded, “Give me a normal landing Eric.” I lined up on final, and my sight picture was perfect, speed was spot on. We crossed the threshold, round out, and there it was, “squeak, squeak.” I performed a perfect main gear landing, with a gentle touchdown of the nose wheel. “Nice one Eric,” she exclaimed, “Let’s do that again.” Around the pattern again, and I repeated the last landing perfectly. “One more,” she stated. So, we went around again and I had three perfect landings in a row. “Eric, let’s taxi back to the run-up area,” Evelyn instructed.
I knew what was coming. This was it. She is getting out and I am going to fly this bird alone. “Eric, you are a good and safe pilot, and today on your 16th birthday, you are going to solo,” she smiled and beamed. “Give me three touch and go landings, then come back to the ramp,” she smiled with confidence. The anxiety began to swell in my stomach, but I knew I could do this, because Evelyn had confidence in me. My training immediately kicked in, and I began to verbally call out the checks and crosschecks Evelyn had taught me.
Soon, after that first takeoff, I realized the airplane climbed so much better without the additional 125 lb. Evelyn in the right seat. “Wow,” I thought, this bird can fly. Soon, I turned to the downwind leg and made my first pattern call, “Morristown Traffic, Cessna 5447B, downwind, runway 23.” I was abeam the landing point on the downwind, and I pulled the throttle to 1500 rpms, put in one notch of flaps, cleared the final for traffic, and at the 45 degree point, I made my base leg turn. “Morristown Traffic, Cessna 5447B, base, runway 23,” I called on the radio. “Speed is good, second notch of flaps, clear final again, turn final,” I called out. I was now on final for my first solo landing. I was nervous, but I fell back on my training, and as I crossed the threshold I noticed I was a little high. I pulled the throttle to idle, and began my flare, and it was fine.
I settled to the runway as I pulled back on the yoke, and the landing was firm, but safe. I retracted the flaps, pushed in the carburetor heat and I gave it full throttle, as the little craft leapt off the runway. Two landings later, and a taxi to the ramp, I was greeted by my parents and a smiling cheering flight instructor, who had a pair of scissors in her hand. What are those for I thought, then I remembered, she is going to cut my shirttail off and hang it on the wall symbolizing the ritual of my first solo flight. My parents were snapping pictures of Evelyn doing just that. I was beaming and proud as I followed the path of so many aviators before, who made their first flights in the airplane all alone, flying “by the seat of their pants.”
Evelyn was also a Lieutenant Colonel in Civil Air Patrol/U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, and I was a Cadet 2nd Lieutenant. As a part of the ritual of the day, I had the privilege of having my flight instructor pin solo wings on my uniform. After the shirttail cutting ritual, I ran inside, quickly changed into my uniform and Evelyn finished the celebration with the wing pinning. I could not believe that at the age of 16, before I even had my driver’s license, I had officially become a solo pilot.
It was such a boost for a young man, that struggled with self-confidence, and for the most part was shy and unassuming, to do something that only a small percentage of the population had ever accomplished. My life changed that day, and it was because one wonderful child of God saw more in me, than I ever could see in myself. That really is the gift we teachers and coaches can give to others. When we can look beyond the outer shell, and see deeply inside the heart of others, and through our encouragement and yes, our challenging words we help someone see their own potential. Encouraging and coaching surely is the gift we teachers share, or at least that has been my joy and passion as an aviation professional and yes, now as a priest.
In my next few blog posts, I hope to share with you stories of the flight lessons the led up to my private pilot check ride in 1984. Beyond that I hope to share with you a little more about my return to aviation in 1997, my professional flight training in 2000, and the joy I have had as both a full-time and now part-time Certified Flight Instructor. Stay tuned!