How I learned to stop fretting and love the Chipmunk.
Most people recognise the fact that milestones representing occurrences of significance mark the life of any human being. First day at school would, I suppose, be classed as a fairly significant incident. Ones first sexual encounter would presumably be another. In any event, these milestones are forever etched on the brain and are unlikely to be forgotten.
We aviators have an opportunity for another huge milestone denied to others. That particular milestone is the first time that you fly an airplane with nobody else on board. Ingeniously, this episode is known as “First Solo”. This flight is usually of a very short duration, about seven or eight minutes but to the various participants who are firstly, the new solo pilot, secondly, the flying instructor who authorised the first solo, thirdly, the rest of the airport population, this period of time is perceived from the viewpoint of the participant. The third category can go to hell. They only want to be on the scene if there should be any blood. As far as the instructor is concerned, the flight lasts for about two hours. As far as the pilot is concerned, it lasts only twenty seconds. All three categories breathe a sigh of relief when it is all over and the triumphant pilot taxies back to the aircraft park. It says much for the standard of flying instruction that I truthfully cannot remember a serious incident happening during a first solo. Of course there have been slight mishaps. For instance, one first solo decided to go rather a long way round the circuit and got totally lost. He had to be rescued by gentle messages from air traffic who were able to overcome his rapidly increasing panic and got him to point the airplane in the right direction. To the student’s great credit, he performed an absolutely faultless approach and landing.
I vividly remember my own first solo, although it is by now many thousand flying hours and many years in the past. Aircraft have been a passion with me since as far back as I can remember and I had a fairly good understanding of the principles of flight at eleven years old, gained from the construction of countless flying model aircraft. The theory came to me quite readily and a subsequent exposure to gliding at sixteen years of age gave me experience in the control of the real thing. It was not, therefore entirely due to aptitude that my first solo took place at a very early stage in my instruction. It happened one afternoon when I had just undertaken a very grueling forty minutes at the mercy of Flight Lieutenant Mann who had made me perform a practice forced landing after take-off, a series of stalls and several touch and go approaches (we used to call them ‘circuits and bumps’ in those days). We rolled to a stop outside the line hut and Mann told me to keep the engine running. To my amazement, he climbed out of the aircraft and fastened the straps in the back seat.
“I have to go for a pee,” he said. “Just take it round the circuit once and then come back here and stop. Don’t break anything, lad. I’ll see you here when you get back down.”
The practice is not to allow the student to think for too long. I certainly had no time to become concerned.
“Okay, sir, once around the circuit then back here.” I looked around for obstructions and seeing none, opened the throttle of the Chipmunk and carefully taxied out to the end of the runway. I requested and obtained permission from the Airfield Controller to line up and take off. I realised that I was a little nervous and counselled myself that I had already done this many times with the long suffering Mr. Mann in the back seat. We were lined up with seemingly miles of black runway in front of us.
My brain was telling me that I should not open the throttle. It reasoned that it would be far better to just turn around and say the aircraft was unserviceable than to finish up in the inevitable smoking heap on the ground. Discretion, it told me, was the better part of valour. My body, however, had other ideas. My left hand grasped the throttle lever and smoothly pushed it forward. My feet on the rudder pedals prepared themselves for the “Chipmunk lurch” as power came on. My right hand was feeling for the flying controls to come alive as the airplane bounded happily down the runway. My brain gave up the uneven struggle and agreed that as we were now committed to going flying, we might as well make the most of it.
As we soared into the air, I felt totally elated and could not resist bursting into song. I firmly believe that every student sings loudly on first solo. It’s something to do with being totally out of reach of every other living thing on the planet. There is a feeling of absolute freedom and that nothing else matters. With the trauma of take-off safely over, I sang a filthy song with some really bad words. As we climbed, I sang it loudly over the roar of the engine, putting special emphasis on all of the bad words, simply because nobody could hear me.
Being totally alone for the first time in an aircraft is an experience unlike any other. For the first time, the true magnitude of the element in which I had been a perspiring student started to become apparent. Struggling to come to terms with a machine seemingly determined to defy my every effort to make it fly straight and level, I had failed to notice the true character of the sky. During the next several decades of my career as a pilot, I would discover that this character would always elude complete understanding.
I started my downwind turn. I carefully checked that I was the right distance from the airfield, that the height was correct and that everything about the aircraft was in order. Rather professionally, I considered, I carried out the downwind checks, which ensure the best chance of a safe arrival. Things like making sure there is enough fuel in the tank in use, that the brakes are off, and that the landing gear (or undercarriage as the RAF call it) is in the best position for landing (i.e. not retracted.) It is also considered kindly to look after the engine by making sure that there is no carburettor ice. Better communicate, I thought.
“Tower, four four echo downwind,” I called.
“Four four echo, cleared to final approach, no other traffic.”
“Four four echo, roger.”
I realised with a bit of a shock that whilst I had been on the radio I had allowed myself to gain some two hundred feet and had lost about twenty knots of airspeed. I corrected the deficiencies and determined to concentrate on the basics - aviate, navigate, communicate. in that order. The big test was now looming very close. Could I get this thing back on the ground in one piece. My mentor had told me many times that a good landing can only be made from a good approach and that, if the approach was sloppy, then an equally sloppy landing was inevitable. I determined to get this approach absolutely right. Nearing the end of the downwind leg, everything was looking reasonable. To my astonishment, as I turned base and started to lose height, I could hear my instructor behind me.
“A little on the fast side, laddie, remember, speed is controlled by raising or lowering the nose......watch your height.....still a bit fast.......aim for a descent rate of five hundred feet per minute......that’s better..... start your turn onto finals now... nice gentle bank... reduce power a little more, you’re a bit high....runway nicely under the nose.....that’s a good rate of descent.....keep it there.....check harnesses one more time..... height is fine now ....that’s good positioning...keep it coming.....almost there.....” Then, suddenly, the rear cockpit was empty again and I realised that this time I had to get it right on my own. I would not let Mr. Mann down.
“Four four echo final approach,” I told the tower.
“Four four echo is clear to land. Surface wind is zero eight zero at ten knots”
As the runway threshold slipped under me, I closed the throttle and started to feel for the ground. I gently pulled the stick back to raise the nose for the flare. The Chipmunk settled on the ground on her two main wheels, and the tail wheel only a couple of seconds later. It had been a textbook landing. I don’t think I managed that degree of competence in a Chipmunk landing ever again. In a taildragger (an aircraft with a tail wheel) the landing is never over until the aircraft has come to a complete stop so I maintained a high degree of concentration all the way back to the line. Flt/Lt Mann was waiting for me as I taxied in. He puffed furiously on his pipe and said
“Got it back in one piece, then. Seen worse landings too. Well done laddie.”
“Thank you sir.”
“Now you can start learning to fly. Don’t get the idea that you’re something special just because you’re the first one on the course to solo. You all have a lot to learn.”
“Yes, sir, I know that, but I’ll never have another first solo. That was special.”
Mann gave me a curious look. He knew exactly how I felt.
“True, laddie, very true .”