It was a very long time coming. 22 months, 86 aerotow launches and 30 winch launches according to my log book. In my case there seems to be some truth in the old saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Indeed, there were quite a few occasions, notably when weaving around uncontrollably at the end of the aerotow rope for the umpteenth time, that I did seriously wonder if I was ever going to “get it”!
The met office had forecast freezing conditions, snow and general mayhem for Wednesday 30th January 2019, but apart from a couple of small icy patches on the back roads my journey from Southsea to Parham was uneventful. It was certainly cold on the airfield though; the water supply to the clubhouse portacabin was frozen, my woollen gloves stuck to the metal shutters as I tried to open them, and one of the padlocks on the equipment store security posts needed the warmth of my hand to unfreeze it enough to unlock it.
On the other hand, it was dry, the sun was hauling its way up into a blue and crystal-clear sky, and the windsock was hanging lifelessly vertical. It looked like an eminently flyable day with the added bonus that the wind would probably not be trying to cut all of us unfortunates at the launch point in half.
After a bit of a hiatus we unpacked the hangar, completed the DI’s, briefed, and positioned the aircraft for launch on 04. I was second to launch in K21 HLP with Richard Beecham as my instructor. The previous launch had had an issue with canopy misting both inside and out, but the sun now actually had a bit of warmth in it which was alleviating this problem, and leaving “canopy closed and locked” to the end of the checklist also helped.
After Richard’s “you have control” and a reasonable take-off we climbed behind the tug into unbelievably calm air, a clear azure sky and virtually unlimited visibility. It was stunning! We released at 2,000 ft and I prepared to hear what Richard had in store for me. However, having established that I knew where the airfield was and that there was no likelihood of finding any lift, he seemed content to sit there and enjoy the scenery. I wasn’t inclined to provoke any exercises of a more taxing nature, so I stooged carefully around the area concentrating on flying well, and trying not to be distracted too much by the view. Eventually gravity had its way and I did my usual running commentary through my approach checks, descent to high key, downwind, base, final and landing.
After we’d stopped Richard asked how I felt the flight had gone? I put my view that the take-off and aerotow was fine, my general flying had been good, that the circuit had been reasonably well set up and executed and that my landing was pretty good. Richard broadly agreed and then, in his words being “super critical”, pointed out that my first 45° turn from the downwind leg was nothing like 45°, and my second 45° turn and subsequent turn onto finals were more like a general meander into position. He also advised me to keep the base leg closer in to the runway threshold, even in light wind conditions. Somewhat chastened I stowed my parachute on the front seat and, as the ‘gator was towing us back to the launch point, I made a mental note to impart more precision to the latter stages of the circuit if I got the chance of another flight later in the day.
Back at the launch point Richard got out my log book, presumably to add some words of wisdom and after a bit of perusal turned to me and said “OK Tim, its all yours”. To say that I wasn’t expecting that is a major understatement, but I think I managed to suppress my surprise and maintained an air of confidence just in case he changed his mind. As I secured the rear cockpit, I reflected that in fact it was just about a perfect day for a first solo; very light wind, little turbulence, excellent visibility and, although the previous flight had not been perfect, it had been good in most respects and definitely safe, and I had felt on top of the flying at all times. So, now or never!
Shortly afterwards I was strapped into HLP and running through the usual checks. The tuggie came over to me and told me that he would position me at 2,000 ft to the south of the airfield and heading towards it; a nice touch this since I’d at least know where I started from. Just minutes later I was hooked on and watching the tow cable starting to snake along the ground in front of me. A thought briefly occurred to me that I could pull the release get out and walk away, but then I asked myself what would have been the point of all that time and effort to date? So, concentrate on what I’m doing. Moments later the aircraft started to move.
Reflections on a First Solo Day