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.
I’d forgotten the beauty queens.
There were local beauty contestants visiting the airfield that day. And the media.
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.
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.
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.
I felt ready! Ina was convinced I was ready! I didn’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.
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”.
“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.
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.
“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.
I taxied back and waved to my sons, the instructors, the beauty queens, the media.
Big cocky mistake.
The second landing was a man-made earthquake. The entire airframe reverberated from the impact. This is what started global warming.
BOOM!! The earth shook. The gods quailed. Birds fled south.
And a third impact.
On the video tape, you can hear my sons.
Carlo: “Oh, what the heck, anything you can walk away from, right?”
The third landing was, mercifully, like stepping off a sidewalk.
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.
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 plant 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.