First Solo



I’d had 11 hours of flying lessons with my instructor.  Four weekends.

One day my instructor and I practiced some landings, and then she got out of the airplane.  I was then supposed to fly three takeoffs and landings, alone.

It’s called the First Solo.








They say you never forget your first solo.  Well, I was 45 years old.  I’ve forgotten many things about that day.  Pictures help me remember.  There is a video somewhere, 8mm film transferred to VHS.  Probably all faded by now.

There is also a diary.



My most vivid memory is climbing after takeoff, glancing right, and seeing the empty seat beside me.  No instructor.  She’d left her headset on the seat.

I remember thinking, If I can’t land this thing, nobody else will.  I was alone.



I remember the wind was strong.  The school’s chief instructor pilot, Capt. Jhick, ex-Air Force, tough as nails, flew my pre-solo check at noon, the worst time.  Bad thermals, bad approaches, bad landings, bad everything.

He criticized my entire flight.  Poor speed control, tentative on flight controls, bad runway line up, poor altitude control.  I probably parked the damn airplane crooked.

In the end, though, he said I was safe enough.  Released for solo.


Safe enough?




I’d forgotten the beauty queens. 

There were local beauty contestants visiting the airfield that day.  And the media. 

Clearly, Carlo is very interested in airplanes


Geez.  My first solo crash would be covered live.



I’d forgotten also that Meynard was there, practicing aerobatics for the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.  He later became my instrument and aerobatic instructor.  But I barely knew him in 2003.

Meynard was told that is was the Big Day!  First Solo!

Meynard congratulated my son Carlo, standing beside me, 16 years old.  His first solo!  At 16!  His Dad even came to watch! 

Uh, no, Carlo said.  It was Dad who was going to solo.  Meynard turned to me incredulously, tickled to death.


“You??  You are the one soloing?!”

I found out later he learned to fly at my age, too.

Meynard, Julio, Gino, Tonet, Carlo





4pm.  It was time!  My instructor Ina and I took off in the 1978-vintage Cessna 152.  RP-C1051.

In 1978, when it was brand new, that exact same airplane suffered my cousin Rico’s first solo.  He is now an Airbus Captain with United.

My cousin Rico, center, in 1978, same airplane


In 2003 the airplane was already 25 years old.  I was 45 years old.  The instructor pilot was younger than the student and the airplane.  Ina is now an Airbus Captain at Philippine Airlines.

Ina and Tonet, Omni Aviation, a week after my solo, February 2003


I felt ready!  Ina was convinced I was ready!  I don’t know what the airplane thought. 


Ina flew with me on a final check flight, three takeoffs and landings.  She told me to think of my favorite food, positive thoughts.  Like Peter Pan.

On the ground, Ina told me to stop the airplane on the grass.  She got out of the airplane.  Hair blowing wildly in the propeller blast, she shouted at me to do three takeoffs and landings.  If I got into trouble, I should land at Clark’s runway, big enough for B-52 bombers. 


Instructor pilot Ina gets out of the airplane

I'm on my own!


I remember being very alert.  Almost giddy.


“Clark Tower, 1051 holding short Zero-Two Omni, ready for departure.”

“1051, is this is your first solo, sir?”

“Roger that.”  I cringe even now, remembering that.  “Roger that” is so cheesy Hollywood.  The correct response is “Affirm”.


"Is this your first solo, sir?"


“1051, you are cleared for takeoff.”


To complete the crazy day, there were US Marine CH-47 twin-rotor helicopters and C-130 Hercules 4-engine military transports everywhere, the annual Balikatan joint military exercises.

C-130s practicing assault landings  on Clark runway

  USMC CH-47 Sea Knight


The tower warned, “Jackal flight, use caution, Cessna student pilot on first solo.”

Imagine that.  He warned the C-130 military pilots about me! 

Then there were American voices on the radio.


“Good luck!”

“Beers on you later!”


Then I took off, looked to my right, and saw the empty seat beside me.  I thought of my Dad.

My first landing was dream-like, as good as it gets. 

solo first flare


I taxied back and waved to my sons, the instructors, the beauty queens, the media. 

solo last taxi back


Big cocky mistake.

The second landing was a man-made earthquake.  The entire airframe reverberated from the impact.  This is what started global warming.



Another bounce.

BOOM!!  The earth shook. The gods quailed.  Birds fled south.

And a third impact.


On the video tape, you can hear my sons.


Gino:  “Oh.”

Julio:  “Oh.”

Carlo:  “Oh, what the heck, anything you can walk away from, right?”


The third landing was, mercifully, like stepping off a sidewalk. 


solo parking


I parked.  I remember Gino was the first to congratulate me.  I remember the traditional dunking.  Pinning on the wings.  The car ride home in wet pants.

Gino congratulates me!

Carlo joins in on tradition

 Ina pins on my wings



On CNN that night, the news was about the tragic disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia over Texas, returning to land from earth orbit.  I was aghast.

I hate to trivialize an aeronautical tragedy.  But I couldn’t help but reflect that I had just done what very few human beings have done – to launch myself off the planet Earth, and return safely with my destiny entirely in my own hands.

In that sense, I had done what the Shuttle Columbia did not, sadly, that day.


There was nothing on the news about the beauty queens.


February 1, 2003.  Eight years ago.





Posted from Bangkok, February 1, 2011.

Link:  A pilot scared of heights?!



“I Hope You Make It Home”


People from 12 countries read the post about Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler on Christmas Eve.  Mostly Europe, the US, of course, but also Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.  I was a bit startled by that.  There are very few World War II veterans left with us, and their stories are going with them.  Over 30,000 men died in B-17 Flying Fortresses in World War II.  There were 28,000 German pilots who flew in the Luftwaffe in World War II.  Less than 1,200 survived.  I’m glad there is still some interest in that conflict, and ‘the Greatest Generation” who fought with honour in it.





My friend Rick read the article Jagdflieger – Fighter Pilot, which I wrote here on Christmas Eve.  He then posted a video link on my Facebook page.  The video shows Brown and Stigler at one of the reunions of 379th Bomb Group of the US Army Air Corps. 

I thought I would share it here.  Rick always shares great stuff with me, and I’ve learned never to pass up on his Facebook links.

Here’s a nostalgic video of Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler.  The ball turret gunner, Sam Blackford, is also in the video – his segment is especially poignant.


Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler, formerly adversaries in the air, join an

A word about my friend Rick — Rick’s Dad was an F-86 fighter pilot in the Philippine Air Force, and was also a published poet and author.  Doesn’t get better than that.  Rick and I have never actually met, an anomaly we will fix sooner or later.  Maybe one day Rick will write here or elsewhere about his Dad.


Posted from Manila, December 27, 2013


Jagdflieger–Fighter Pilot


It happened 5 days before Christmas, 70 years ago.  German Oberleutnant Franz Stigler in a Messerschmitt Bf-109 stalked Lieutenant Charlie Brown’s American B-17 bomber.  Stigler, a fighter pilot with 22 kills, had every reason to hit the trigger button – his beloved brother, also a pilot, was shot down and killed in the Battle of Britain.  The B-17 had just bombed Bremen, Germany.  With one more kill Stigler would get the coveted Knight’s Cross. 




But as he closed to within 20 meters of the strangely silent tail guns of the American bomber, he saw the gunner slumped over his guns, his blood dripping down the barrels and streaming through the air.  The B-17 bomber was a flying wreck, engines dead or dying, tail shredded, huge holes blown through the wings and fuselage by anti-aircraft guns and other German fighters.  Through a tear in the fuselage, Stigler saw crewmen trying to save a man whose leg had been blown off. 

Stigler remembered the warning of his Jagdgeschwader 27 commander, Gustav Rödel.  “You are fighter pilots first, last, always.  If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute, I’ll shoot you myself." 


Stigler escorted the enemy bomber past the German coast, saluted the American pilot, and dove away. 




He never found out if the American airplane made it back to England.

Then, in 1990, he got a phone call.








Every pilot with a sense of history knows the story.  Stigler had never wanted to fly in combat, but felt compelled to defend his country.  His brother had joined the Luftwaffe against their parents’ wishes.




Brown survived the war and served in the US Foreign Service, in Laos and Vietnam.  After retirement, he spoke at a veteran’s event and was reminded of the German pilot. 

Brown spent four years searching.  Finally he put an ad in a publication for Luftwaffe veterans, seeking the man who spared his life. 

Months later, Brown got a letter:  "Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to the B-17, did she make it or not?" 

It was from Franz Stigler.


Brown called Stigler, who had moved to Vancouver.  Stigler confirmed details from that encounter over the North Sea that only he could know.


Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown found a deep, spiritual friendship.  One year, Brown organized an emotional reunion of the survivors of his 10-man B-17 crew and their extended families – children, grandchildren, relatives – people who were born and now lived only because Stigler did not shoot down the B-17. 


Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown died within months of each other, in 2008.  Stigler was 92; Brown was 87. 


Stigler’s commanding officer again:  “You follow the rules of war for you — not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”






Merry Christmas to all our readers here in Flying in Crosswinds.  Both Carlo and I have been extremely busy.  We were not personally affected by the typhoon that devastated part of the Philippines.  Our country needs cheering up.





Carlo and I are both on Christmas leave from our jobs.  Today we flew together for an hour.  And we prepared the airplane – it seems to have volunteered for a logistics role tonight… .




Maligayang Pasko!   



Posted from Manila, December 24, 2013




Other links and references:



About Time


It’s been intense at work.  Constant travel, permanent jet lag.  Asia, Europe, trans-Pacific.  Again and again.

Zero blog writing.

My friend Harvey asked me to post here a couple of Facebook stories I wrote after seeing the movie ‘About Time’ during a layover in Bangkok.  A ‘romantic comedy’, it was a perfect little gem, delightfully set in Cornwall and London, boxed in a poignant soundtrack … with a heart-warming twist at the end of its necklace.





What if we could go back in time?  But only within our lifetime, so we “Can’t kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy”, ruefully observes the Dad in the movie.  Which day would I re-live?


The dawn my son Carlo was born?  No ultrasound previews back then.  The nurse came out of Delivery and mouthed the word, “Boy”, thumbs up for healthy.  I danced an insane jig in the deserted corridor.



Or the day my 16-year old David saw the Eiffel Tower in Paris?  He stood there, staring.  “Never thought I’d see this in my lifetime, Dad.  Thanks for taking me here.”



Or the day I passed by their home, after not having seen Julio for a year.  There was a toddler in the garden, lugging a can bigger than him, watering the plants.  I had to look twice.  My son, Julio.



But then, what if we couldn’t go back anymore?  Except for one last time?  Which day would I choose?


My Dad worked in an oil refinery in Rosario, Cavite, a three-hour commute each way, every day.  Sometimes, after arriving home at 8 or 9pm, he sneaked me out to watch a movie in Quiapo, downtown. 

One time it was a war movie.  A B-17 pilot flew a one-way mission without his crew, to find an enemy fleet.  I can’t find it anymore, even after incessant Googling.

One typhoon weekend, Dad and I watched massive breakers smash against the seawall at Dewey Boulevard.  Boys love this stuff.  Then a gigantic end-of-the-world wave leaped high over the seawall.  BOOM!

In a coffee shop across the boulevard, he ordered a 7-UP and used up all their paper napkins to wipe me half-dry.  “Don’t tell Mommy!”

Another movie date was The Godfather.  Late for the last showing, we got in after Dad gave the guard a few pesos.  Dad slept the whole time, exhausted.  Afterwards, at a Chinese restaurant, we ordered chopsuey rice.  They were closing, past midnight.  They had to re-open the kitchen.  It took forever.  I was embarrassed.  Today I realize it was his dinner. 

When I woke up the next day for school, he had already left on his commute to work.



A few years later he was gone.

Moms and Dads don’t get enough thanks.  It would be nice to go back, ask him belated questions about work, fatherhood, coping.  Laugh about the grandchildren he never saw.


About Time’s real romance turns out to be the love between the grown-up son and his cool Dad, a literary academic who retired early to spend more time with his family.  The audience that laughed for two hours unabashedly cried at the end.  I couldn’t see much on the train ride home, myself.  The movie delivers.


The carefully selected soundtrack features Paul Buchanan, Ben Folds, Nick Cave, Ben Coleman, others.

I want to live forever,
And watch you dancing in the air


This is director Richard Curtis’ (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love, Actually) final film.  It nudges us to appreciate the things in life that truly matter more than time. 

There’s gold in them hills.
So don’t lose faith
Give the day a chance to start


After all, at midnight, each day ends, gone.  The only time travel in this world are the stories and pictures we leave behind, told again and again.


About Time



Posted from Singapore, October 26, 2013




The Dam Busters

May 17, 1943, seventy years ago today.  British Lancasters, iconic airplanes of World War II, bombed Germany’s Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams.

On May 17, in 1955, 12 years to the day after the raid, the famous movie premiered.

There is a Lancaster model airplane among my DVDs. When I watch The Dam Busters, I bring the airplane with me to the couch.



Few stories about World War II are as fabled as the ‘Dam Buster’ raid.  The Ruhr dams of Germany were tempting targets.  They supplied water and power to the industrial heartland of a country at war.  Britain’s Royal Air Force was determined to attack them.

To hurdle anti-torpedo nets that protected the dams, Barnes Wallis, who designed airplanes and other useful gadgets for the RAF, invented the bouncing bomb.  It looked like a drum.  A motorized drive put a back spin on it.  The bomb was designed to skip over the anti-torpedo nets, smack into the dam, sink against the dam wall and detonate 30 feet down.



To skip the bomb properly, the pilots had to fly exactly 60 feet above the lake, at exactly 220 miles per hour.  They released the bomb exactly 425 yards from the dam wall.  At night.  Under intense anti-aircraft fire.

Today, few pilots can fly 4-engine airplanes that precisely without an autopilot.

The German gunners could see them clearly — each Lancaster had two spot lights ingeniously affixed so that from a height of exactly 60 feet the spots aligned on the water below.  More precise than using altimeters.

Eight of 19 aircraft failed to return.  Shot down over the target, downed en route or on the way home.  They flew below treetop height most of the way, and at least one Lancaster crashed after running into Dutch power lines.

Squadron Commander Guy Gibson led the raid, which earned him the Victoria Cross.  He was 24 years old.  He was shot down and killed 16 months later.

Two dams were breached and 1,600 people on the ground lost their lives, including hundreds of prisoners-of-war used as forced labourers.  The Germans repaired the dams within the year.  Today the reservoirs are quiet recreation sites, and few of the people who live, sail or hike there know about the raid.



The 70th anniversary of the Dam Busters raid is spawning articles, model airplanes and documentaries.




I bought these magazines at a bookstore in Köln Hauptbahnhof, in Germany.  The model airplane came from a Bangkok hobby shop.





In the 1955 movie The Dam Busters, Richard Todd starred as Guy Gibson.  A former theatre actor, Todd was a paratrooper in World War II and jumped into Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944 on the ‘Pegasus Bridge’ mission.  Later, he played the role of his D-Day commanding officer in another famous movie, ‘The Longest Day’.

Michael Redgrave did a delightful performance as Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bouncing bomb.

A young Robert Shaw played a supporting role.

Of course for aviation enthusiasts the stars are the airplanes.  They used five Avro Lancasters in the movie.  One actually came from 617 Squadron.




In 1955 there were no computer graphics.  The airplanes were actually flown at hair-raising ultra-low altitudes.  There is an absolutely gorgeous scene, shot in low light from a hilltop, of a Lancaster skimming a lake and then climbing just above the slope of the hill toward the camera.

Right after the shooting was over, all the Lancasters were sold to British Aluminum and melted down to scrap.




Many scenes were later copied in Memphis Belle and other WWII movies.  Engine starts, chocks being pulled off the wheels, airplanes taxying out.

But the real gem is this:  George Lucas ‘borrowed’ entire lines of dialogue from the film.  Star Wars fans will spot them right away.

“How many guns do you think there are, Trevor?”

“I’d say there’s about ten guns, some in the field and some in the towers.”


“My goodness. It’s… It’s big, isn’t it? Can we really break THAT?”

“Let me know when you’re in position, I’ll draw the flak for you!”

“Down a bit, steady, 225, steady, 230, 225, steady, steady, … bomb gone!”

The scenes of Hopgood’s Lanc going down, the action switching back to Harris, Cochrane and Wallis waiting back at the base for reports… .  The only thing Lucas didn’t do was make Princess Leia look like Michael Redgrave.
You can enjoy the dialogue and the attack scene here.


Use the Force, Guy… !


Today most pilots don’t know the difference between a Lancaster and a Diet Coke.  These pretenders should throw their wings into a lake.  I bet they can’t even make them skip.


Posted from Manila, May 17, 2013

70th Anniversary of the Dam Busters raid











Interesting links:


Of the 133 flight crew who flew on the raid, only 80 survived that night.  Today, only 3 are still alive – one in the UK, one in New Zealand, one in Canada.



Someone finally did it.  The soundtrack of Star Wars’ attack on the Death Star, overlaid on The Dam Busters!  George Lucas was a big fan of the 1955 movie.

Long ago, in a reservoir far, far away… .


René, a Private Pilot, flew a Piper Cherokee over the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams a few weeks ago.  Here are interesting photos of his aerial tour.



Christopher Toh, a Singapore writer, wrote a blog on Christmas Eve, 2009, on George Lucas’ liberal shoplifting of entire lines of dialogue from The Dam Busters into Star Wars.



Eric Coates’ “Dam Busters March” from the movie has become a British icon – even played at football matches in the UK.



And then the infamous Carlin Black Label TV commercial, with the German sentry goalkeeper on the dam.

Upkeep goalkeep

Dead Stick


The Pipistrel Virus, a light sport aircraft designed in Slovenia, won NASA’s Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency (CAFE) Foundation’s title as the most efficient aircraft in the world.  The rigorously exacting competition focused on noise, cruise speed, and fuel burn. 

Using space-age instrumentation, NASA’s CAFE Foundation proved that the Virus had the shortest takeoff distance, the highest climb rate, the steepest climb angle, the highest top speed and the lowest fuel burn.  It also was tied for the quietest cabin noise.




I myself could barely hear the engine.  Then Neil made it quieter by turning the engine off.  In mid-air.  But I’m getting ahead of my story.  




When I first visited Pattaya Airpark, Neil let me fly the Pipistrel Virus, the flagship of his fleet.  We soared over Pattaya’s beaches, and I couldn’t tell which entranced me more – the spectacular view outside, or the data on the instruments inside.






In the last photo above, we are in level flight in a steep 45-degree bank, at just 40 knots.  Every powered airplane I’ve flown would fall from the sky with that loading, at that frugal an airspeed.  The lightest whisper of airflow over this wing’s sensuous surface kept us aloft. 

The Pipistrel Virus has a glide ratio of over 17:1. For every 200 feet it descends, it glides well over 1.5 miles.  A hefty three miles from Pattaya Airpark, Neil turned the engine off.  Theory was about to become practice.




In the photo above, the propeller is frozen.  We still need to fly over the runway, at left, fly right downwind and base, and land from the opposite direction.

We flew over the airfield.  At mid-downwind, we were at 547 feet MSL, descending 500 feet per minute at 65 knots.  Two-mile pattern, a minute per mile … I did the math furiously in my head.





The “0” and the stationary propeller said it all.  Zero RPM.  The engine was off.




On base leg, we were at 255 feet, 57 knots.  In the movie Always, Pete (Richard Dreyfuss) flew a similarly impaired A-26 to an airfield surrounded by pine trees, dead stick.  I knew the dialogue by heart.


Pete:  [right engine out of fuel and dead] Tanker 57 to tanker base.  I’ve got a small inconvenience here.
Tower:  Talk to me Pete.
Pete:  I may have overestimated my fuel just a tad, but I can see the base from here and my right engine is fine, so I don’t think there’s going to be any…
[left engine also runs out of fuel and whines to a stop]
Pete:  … problem.
Tower:  Pete, what do you need?  What do you need?
Pete:  [both engines now dead] Glider practice.
Tower:  [rings the crash alarm and announces over the PA] We’ve got a situation here.  We’ve got a flier coming in dead stick.
Pete:  This is good.  I was rusty on panic.  OK, no problem, I’ve got the airport in sight, … .


As we turned onto final approach, the vertical speed, incredibly, was zero.  In a 30-degree bank, we were in level flight, maintaining altitude, with no power.






It was a solid performance by a master aviator thoroughly familiar with the airplane’s capabilities.  Neil often landed the Virus dead-stick.  He knew exactly how it behaved without power.

I loved every minute of that flight.


I will so miss flying with Neil.





Written on CX879, San Francisco to Hong Kong

Posted from Singapore, February 14, 2013.



Pattaya Airpark


I first met Neil almost exactly three years ago, at the 2010 Wings Over Asia Aviators’ Gathering in Singapore.  I’ve written about Wings Over Asia – the premiere social network for private pilots and aircraft owners, based in Singapore.




Sentosa, Singapore, February 2010  


The 2010 Wings Over Asia event started with dinner at One Degree 15 Marina in Sentosa, serendipitously close to the Singapore apartment I would move to three years later.  The next day, the group flew in several aircraft to Pulau Tioman, off the coast of Malaysia.  The photo shows Neil, and the surrounding high terrain that makes Tioman an exhilarating approach!      




I gave a multi-media presentation at the Asia Aviators’ Gathering gala dinner that night at Keppel Bay Marina.  Neil and his wife Amparo, who is from Colombia, were there.  Neil was a leading general aviation advocate in Thailand.  He owned Pattaya Airpark, with a 570-meter macadam runway just off Jomtien Beach in Pattaya.




At the dinner in Singapore, Neil invited me to fly with him in Thailand.  In the five years I had lived in Bangkok, I had never flown in Thailand. 

As usual, work got in the way.  In August, 2010, I finally visited Pattaya Airpark.



Pattaya, Thailand, August 2010  


Pattaya Airpark is Neil’s baby — a residential park with an airport.  Aircraft owners would build homes for themselves and hangars for their airplanes.  The airpark is two hours drive from Bangkok and just minutes away from some of the best restaurants and beaches in Thailand.  It is also a short hop from major airports like Suwarnabhumi International and U-Tapao air base, and general aviation and ultralight airfields in Chonburi and Hua Hin.  The Cambodian border is less than an hour’s flying time away.







Neil and Amparo had a charming little home on a hill southeast of the runway, where Amparo served the best Columbian coffee west of Bogota!  Outside was a huge ‘Yaang-na’ tree.  The ‘helicopter seeds’ of the Yaang-na tree have graceful rotary wings that fly the seeds far and wide – nature’s way of creating space and light in forests.


(1) Nawaporn Sawaetawong's Videos-025




Last month I moved to Singapore, where I first met Neil three years ago.  I still have one of those seeds from Neil’s airfield.  I thought it was so cool that his airfield’s trees were seeded in flight and rooted in aviation.  Literally.       


Posted from San Francisco, February 9, 2013




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