Fly Girl in Training: On flying completely solo for the first time

Unlike supervised solos (my very first was at Yolo County Airport in July)
around the pattern where an instructor watches from the ground,
unsupervised solos allow student pilots to fly all alone to and from specific
destinations. This enables students to practice basic flight planning,
maneuvering and navigation. Yours truly can fly to four local airports
sans instructor.

With the late afternoon sun at my back, I calmly taxied to the run-up area to complete my pre-flight check list. I double (and then triple) inspected my instruments, interior, mini-flight plan, frequencies and charts. And with a deep, confident breath, called the tower. Within minutes, I was heading West, climbing to 1,500 feet, off to practice maneuvers and landings, all by myself. The flight flowed pleasantly and I mostly had the sky to myself what with it being a Monday afternoon. In an hour, I was home again, pushing the airplane back into the hangar, posting the inevitable “I’m flying alone!” selfie to Facebook and calling Mr. T to gush.

How I wish this was the description of my very first unsupervised solo flight…

I barely slept the night before.

I was cleared for local area soloing two weekends previously (the same day I landed on a grass strip!) but left town to be with my best friend as she had her first child. After getting back to flying after a two-week break, I wanted to be sure of myself and my abilities to completely manage the high performance Cessna 182 and its constant speed prop before going out on my own. So I flew with T for an extra long session a few days before to knock the rust off and make absolutely sure I was ready.

I drove to the airport confident, but with butterflies, as if I was going to be making a big speech or something. My heart thudded in my chest during the pre-flight inspection (and didn’t quit until an hour after the flight ended). My easy take-off and climb (during which I had a giddy, OH MY GAWD, I’M REALLY DOING IT! moment) were punctuated by surges of adrenaline and the realization that I was well and truly alone, completely in charge of an aircraft plowing along at 130 miles an hour. Mostly though, I buzzed with excitement. Until I couldn’t find the damn airport.

Looking for Yolo County Airport on my first unsupervised solo flight.
It’s amazing how airports “hide” from you.

Yolo County Airport is nestled in farmland and although there are a number of visual markers available, I just couldn’t connect the dots, partly due to the hazy sky but mostly due to nerves. With the help of the GPS and prayer (seriously), I eventually saw the airport and lined up for the convenient runway–16.

In the pattern, I called out my positions–downwind and base. As I turned to final, I listened as three other pilots entered the pattern, all deciding to heck with me, they were going to use the opposite runway 34.

Flustered, I botched my approach.

Feeling the hot rush of embarrassment, I executed a go-around with a clipped comment to the other pilots indicating that I would circle to the west and line up for runway 34, along with them. As I did so, embarrassment turned to stunning anger as I heard one of the voices, a fellow woman pilot, say with a laugh that I must not know what I’m doing (despite the winds being calm, they insisted the non-existent breeze favored the runway I was not using). They continued to chatter on the frequency and I admit, I considered turning back to Sacramento and saying to hell with them it.

Instead, I took a number of deep breaths, gave myself you’re-a-good-pilot-and-gosh-darn-it-people-like-you affirmations, calmed down and got back into the pattern.

My first landing was full-stop, followed by four more, as one by one, the traffic departed and I got the airport to myself for awhile. After landing number five, I started to head back towards Sacramento until I listened to the ATIS report and realized in the 90 minutes I was gone, winds had come up from the East and the runway in use was one I had never landed on alone.

Rather than try and study the runway in-flight (it still takes me awhile to figure out how to get on the 45, okay?), I turned back to Yolo. When I eventually found it again (ahem), I landed, studied my chart to be exactly sure how to enter the traffic pattern properly, and headed back.

I don’t remember the final landing at Sacramento. I just recall taxiing off the active runway, cracking the window and squealing with triumph. Regardless of the internal emotional roller coaster, my first independent flight was safe, informative, and even a little bit–okay a lot–of fun.


Flying back towards Sacramento after my third unsupervised solo. You might wonder about my second solo but it was
just flying patterns around my home airport and involved no navigation.

Fast forward to Monday of this week and back to the first paragraph of this post. My third solo? Uneventful. Easier. THRILLING.

I’m still getting used to this flying alone business but I can’t believe how much of a night and day experience my first and third unsupervised solo flights were, especially since they were so similar. My father-in-law was there both times, coincidentally. I spent an excessive amount of minutes checking every crevice and crack of the plane before getting in, and an even longer time making sure I knew exactly where I was going and what frequencies to dial in to the radio when I got close. Both flights took me to Yolo County Airport (which I eventually found) where I practiced patterns and made decent landings. And both flights concluded safely with a triumphant student pilot filling in the little-used Pilot-in-Command column in her logbook.

But the third adventure just felt so much better, which I suppose is the point of practice!

It’s utterly surreal to know that I can just pull out an airplane and fly it. By myself! But after Monday’s outing to Yolo, which was way more exciting than nerve wracking, I’m thrilled that my solo work is getting progressively more comfortable. Here’s hoping the trend continues even with the time changing here in a couple weeks!


Other Fly Girl in Training posts:

Check out all of my aviation related posts, including a few thousand airplane pictures, here.

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