First Solo

Confession: I don’t remember my first solo—even though every pilot is supposed to. The date is immortalized in my logbook, April the 23, 1982. As is the plane, N6633R, a Beach Sundowner, and the name of the instructor who trusted me no to kill myself: John F. Miller.

But the actual flight, which every pilot will tell you was such a powerful experience that they will never forget it, is a blank.

About all I can remember about that day is worrying about my shirt.

You see, there’s a tradition in aviation that your shirt is torn off your back after your first solo. Well, there useto be that tradition. With lady pilots on the rise, its been modified to a more civilized cutting off of your shirt tails instead. It basically symbolizes getting though by the skin of your teeth.

Anyway, my only memory of April 23rdwas Miller telling me to pull to the side of the runway. Then, engine still running he opened the door and stepped out onto the wing. “What are you doing?” I asked him.

“Three times around the patch,” he told me, “you’re on your own.”

I was wearing my brand new—and far too expensive for my budget—tan Arrow pilot shirt, that I had just bought mail order through Sporty’s Pilot shop. I knew if I soloed, Miller would destroy the shirt. “No way,” I shouted over the idling engine, “this is a brand new shirt. Get back in the plane.”

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I don’t remember how long we argued, with him crouched on the wing and me stubbornly refusing to solo, but eventually he promised to leave my  @#%!&$  shirt alone if I’d just get the hell up in the air and solo the plane.

I could bring another shirt the next day for the ritual.

And so I did. Solo. And bring another shirt the next day. An ugly bright kelly green T-shirt I hated. Years later, when I paid a visit it, along with dozens and dozens of others was still on the wall of the flight school.

I remember all of that. But the flight? My first time in the air by myself? The flight indelibly printed on the minds of all aviators?

It’s a complete blank.

 

Death by a thousand pinpricks

It must be a misprint. Or maybe I’m reading it wrong. I take my glasses off, rub my eyes, put my glasses back on, and look at the PDF on the tiny screen of my iPhone again. Using my fingers, I zoom in on the bottom line of the invoice from my mechanic.

Yes.

There really are two numbers to the left of the comma. The six week-long annual inspection has resulted in a mind numbing, stomach churningly large bill. More the type of number that you’d expect for an engine rebuild, than for a simple annual. And about five times more than I had expected.

How the @#&% did it cost that much?

I scan through the two itemized pages. It’s a mix of self-inflicted injuries (things I decided to do that didn’t strictly needed to be done), things that had to be done (and could no longer be put off), and new discoveries (that had to be fixed to remain airworthy).

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None of them, really, were wildly expensive in and of themselves. No. Wait. That’s not true. Everything about airplane maintenance could correctly be called “wildly expensive.” So it would be more accurate to say that none of these things, by themselves, were more expensive than I’d expect them to be. It’s just that there were a boatload of them.

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The (expected) biggie was the rebuilding of the pilot side fuel tank. I more or less knew what that would cost, having done the tank on the other side last year. What I’d forgotten about, however, was the cost of removing it, sending it out, getting it sent back, painting it, and re-installing it. But at least now, with both wing tanks rebuilt and the header tank replaced, my fuel system problems are a thing of the past, and unlikely to need to be addressed ever again, at least in my lifetime.

The (unexpected) biggie was the discovery of a worn down area on the engine mount that was so thin that a fabric-testing probe could be poked through it. Also unexpected was an increase in both the base cost of the annual itself and in the shop rate charged by my wrench turners.

In the self-inflicted, but more expensive that I thought it would be department, was the removal of the new digital engine monitor and its replacement with conventional gauges. I’ve had nothing but trouble with the stupid thing in the limited flying I’ve done between maintenance headaches since we put it in, and finally the manufacturer graciously offered to refund my money, an offer I jumped on. I figured the refund would more than cover the cost of the conventional instruments to replace it, and it did. But I hadn’t understood that the instruments didn’t include the needed leads and probes to make them work, gadgets which ended up doubling the cost of each dial. Nor had I understood just how damn long it would take my crew to remove the digital system, apparently a full seven hours at 95 smackeroos per hour; or how long it would take to hook up the replacements, apparently eight full hours at 95 smackeroos per hour. (I’d never known why dollars are sometimes called smackeroos until right now: Sometimes money can just smack you across the face!)

Another self-inflicted injury was my attitude towards my attitude indictor. A few years back we put in a digital one, but it reflects all manner of light in our greenhouse of an airplane, and can’t be read more than half the time. As I was pulling out the digital engine monitor anyway, which in addition to a host of other problems, also suffered from the glare issue, I decided to get all the computerized glass panel crap out of the plane and go back to the humble “steam gauges” that I’ve known and loved for years. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t a total hissy fit, and I haven’tcompletely lost my mind, I’m still navigating by GPS on my iPad…) I was delighted that I was able to sell the glass attitude indicator for a good price, but still, its traditional replacement wasn’t cheap, and again, there were fees for pulling the old one out and putting the new one in the same hole.

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But, really, most of the bill was little things. Four spark plug gaskets for $4.50, re-timing of the right mag at $23.75…

$47.50 to patch yet another crack in the nose bowl…

$15.00 for an air filter…

And on it went…

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It was death by a thousand pinpricks. But except for the actual writing of the check, at least it’s all over now.

Well, until next year.