Solo

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I

I turned the plane onto final so that the runway was directly in front of us. We were aligned near perfect with the centerline. I stabilized the descent and watched the runway moving up toward us. I was so concentrated and cool headed that the thrill of it was almost lost. We crossed over the numbers about 20 feet up, I pulled back a little — then flared — and the tires touched down just as the stall horn sounded.

Working like a robot set to hyper-speed, I raised flaps, turned off carb heat, and hit the gas while at the same time keeping the plane on the runway centerline.

The engine roared, we accelerated, I pulled back on the yoke — and we were airborne once more.

Barb said “If you can do that again I’m going to get out of the plane and watch you do it by yourself.”

I flew the pattern and did it again.

“Pull off the runway onto the apron,” she said. “Then shut it down.”

I did, then she opened her door and climbed out.

“I want you to go fly the pattern, do two touch and gos, and then do a full stop.”

“Okay.”

She shut the door, and for the first time in my life I was alone in an aircraft cockpit. No instructor. Just me and my scant aeronautical knowledge and meager piloting skills, a daunting array of instruments and controls, and, in the deepest recesses of my brain, the prospect of everlasting peace.

II

There was no wind at Lockhart. I had entered the left-hand pattern heading south, as per textbook, at 1000 feet AGL on a forty-five degree angle midway down the runway. I saw the black strip out my window. When you’re flying along at 3500 feet with nothing but fields, occasional homes, livestock and cars below, you seem to be just crawling along. You want to hurry things up. Now that I had to land the plane we were moving much faster and things were coming to head. I wanted things to move slower, but everything was speeding up. Still, I had my instructor in the right seat, just in case.

But now I was alone. I was encouraged by an incident-free takeoff. Then, in the pattern on the downwind I mentally did the GUMPS: Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Propeller, Seat Belts. Abeam the runway numbers I recited the before-landing Cessna 152A checklist out loud, again verifying: Seat belts secure, mixture rich, carb heat on. I reduced power and got the plane to start descending, and when the airspeed hit 60 knots I lowered flaps to 10 degrees and trimmed the aircraft for about 500 feet per minute descent. The plane stabilized immediately. A moment later I saw I was in the right position to turn 90 degrees to base. I rocked the wings and looked left and right again, in case a rogue aircraft were coming in to land, and made my radio call: “Lockhart traffic Cessna four-niner-five-one-alpha is turning base, runway three six, touch and go.”

I executed the turn so that the plane was now flying perpendicular to the direction of the runway. My eyes swept across the instrument panel. My hand, by itself, lowed the flaps to 20 degrees. There were no hiccups, no bumps in the air, no frantic adjusting of the throttle, pitch, or direction. The plane was exactly where it needed to be. I saw the runway sliding into position for landing, and again called on the radio: “Lockhart traffic Cessna four-niner-five-one-alpha is turning final, runway three six, touch and go.”

III

It was picture perfect, I saw the big white parallel stripes, the number 36, the stretch of tarmac angled out in front slowly approaching. It looked just like an illustration in the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook. But this was no illustration. My nerves were solid steel. Everything was exactly as it was supposed to be. I was not thinking “Oh my God, I am alone and am about to land an airplane all by myself!” I did not think “Crap, my instructor is watching me!” I did not think “Shit, I’m going to die!!!”

Before this amazing moment, I had landed an airplane 47 times and had flown a total of 13.5 hours — instructor included.

I passed the threshold about 20 feet up at around 55 knots, and I began a gentle flare. Fifty knots … forty five knots … five feet to go … 40 knots … hovering just over the runway. And on cue the stall horn sounded just as the main gear touched down. I adjusted the flaps, killed the carb heat, hit the gas, and did it two more times.

After my third landing I taxied over to where my instructor was waiting. She had a big smile on her face. I probably did too. I shutdown the aircraft and she walked over and opened the door.

“Congratulations.” she said. “Now get out. I have to cut the back of your shirt off!”