A pair of solos

In 1910, First Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois became one of the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ first pilots after he was assigned the duty of flying the Army’s one and only airplane, a Wright Model A. But there was a minor problem: He’d never flown an airplane before.

So he did what any thinking man in his era would do. He sat down and penned a letter to the Wright brothers, asking them for some instructions. Orville Wright wrote back with some tips, after which Foulois went out to the plane and figured it out. Thus it was that Lieutenant Foulois learned to fly by correspondence course.

This is not the way we learn to fly anymore.

Instead, a student pilot flies with a flight instructor to learn the ropes. But sooner or later, the fledgling aviator must do what Foulois did: Take to the air by him or herself, and return safely to the earth. We call this flight a First Solo. It’s kinda a big deal in the aviation community.

Our family, as most of you know, has two student pilots—my son Rio and my Plane Friend Lisa—and they are both rapidly closing in on their first solos. It’s not a competition, at least not to them. They’re mutually supportive; neither of them is as competitive as I am. Still, I’d often wonder as I lay my head down on the pillow at night after a long day: Which one will solo first?

Over the last few months, at different times, I placed different bets. For a while it looked like Lisa would solo waaaaaaay before Rio. But then she hit a training plateau and I despaired that she would ever solo. Right after that, Rio hit a rough patch health-wise, mixed with ill weather, and missed a bunch of lessons.

And so it went. Back and forth. Back and forth.

But as 2018 drew to a close, their mutual flight instructor was telling me that they were both “very close.” They both took their pre-solo exams and both passed with flying colors. I don’t remember a pre-solo exam. I think that must be something new. Well, I guess that given the fact that my solo was well over three decades ago, I can’t be using a word like “new” to describe anything that happened in the interim, but you know what I mean. Actually, having two student pilots in my life has led me to learn no end of things that I’d either forgotten or that have changed without my noticing it.

Anyway, Rio was within a flight or two at the most, when a chain of bad weather cancelled several flights in a row. Then Lisa, who teaches at a community college, booked nearly every day of her winter break between semesters to train. This should have put her ahead of weekly-flying Rio, but she must have forgotten to make the proper sacrifice to the winter weather gods, because they fell on her with a vengeance. And it wasn’t just low ceilings, blowing snow, and crappy visibility: One day an ice storm so clogged and blocked the hangar door tracks that, even with a blow torch, the FBO couldn’t reach her plane, Warbler. Then a few days later, they “forgot” to put him in the hangar at night, and he was an Ercoupe popsicle when she showed up to fly the next morning.

Meanwhile, in addition to working on his pilot’s license, Rio has been working on his driver’s license. Here in New Mexico we use a complicated “graduated” licensing system. This required him to take driver’s training once a week for several months, then he got a student license that let him sit left seat in a vehicle with a responsible adult while he logged 50 hours of driving time, including 10 hours of night driving—actually not that different from the requirements for flight training. After this “dual” training requirement was completed, he’d qualify for a provisional license, that would basically let him be driver in command, but limit the number of fellow teens he could carry with him to one (excluding sibs).

Rio could have had his provisional license some time back, but driving doesn’t interest him much, which I confess I find baffling. I couldn’t wait to drive when I was his age, and I loved the freedom and independence of being behind the wheel. Anyway, before the close of the year, Rio had logged the necessary time, but one thing or another got in the way, and I didn’t get him to the Department of Motor Vehicles until after the first of the year. It was surprisingly painless until the next stop at State Farm, where I discovered having a teenage son doubled my monthly auto insurance bill.

On this same day, Lisa, who hadn’t been flying in about a week due to the anger of the weather gods I was talking about a moment ago, was off to Santa Fe. It was cloudy, but the ceiling wasn’t too low. The week before her instructor had told her, that if she felt ready, he would endorse her for her first solo after the next flight or two. As she hadn’t flown for a bit, I assumed it would be the next day, but when I looked at the forecast, I guessed that the next day would be unflyable. I worried her solo would be pushed back. But speaking of solos, I suddenly realized that Rio, despite being a licensed driver for nearly 20 hours, had never soloed a car.

So I sent him out for a pack of cigarettes.

Well, not really, of course. I don’t smoke cigarettes any more, nor will stores sell them to minors—but the proverbial cig run was just what he needed. I handed him the keys and dispatched him up the road to Romeroville, about 15 miles up the highway from our house, with instructions to go and buy whatever struck his fancy, then I busied myself around the house and pretended not to worry for the next hour.

He returned, unscathed, with a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos, and reported that he had fully expected to be a nervous wreck, but that in fact, things had gone well and he found himself not only relaxed, but more focused on his driving than ever before. Which got me wondering why a first solo isn’t part of driver’s training early on. Surely, the confidence gained, and the focus on individual responsibility early in driver’s training would be beneficial. I mean, it’s crazy, we give driver’s licenses to people who’ve never even once driven a vehicle by themselves!

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Speaking of when to solo, back in the early days of aviation, solos happened very quickly in pilot training; after only a few hours. In my day, not quite so quickly. Looking at my logbook I had about 25 hours, and as I recall that was on the long side at the time. I must have been a poor student. But nowadays, it’s not uncommon for students to have nearly enough hours to legally get their licenses before the solo. Partly there’s more to learn. Flying and the flying environment have become more complex over the decades, but largely it’s the regs and how the regs are interrupted. Frankly, I think pilots advanced more quickly in the old days with earlier solos, but I digress.

Anyway, in the middle of being proud of Rio, and talking to him about his solo drive, my phone made the teletype clattering that signaled a message from Lisa. It read: Need a stiff drink. Can you help?

Crap. She must have had a bad day. They must’a pushed her solo back. Or worse. Naturally I replied she should head straight over, and I got out a fifth place setting for dinner. When she showed up her shoulders were slumped and her face was long. I opened the door and she pushed past me saying, “I need to see Rio.”

She gave him a big hug, and told him, “I’m sorry, Rio… I soloed first!” Then she laughed and she tickled him.

Yep. Lisa had taken to the air by herself and returned safely to the earth. Three times. Complete with three other airplanes in the pattern and a landing commuter jet. And like Rio on his drive, she reported no nerves. “I knew I could do it,” she said, “and I did.” Simple as that.

Was Rio the least bit bothered that she beat him into the air? No, he’s just not that kind of kid. He was just happy for her.

But in truth, she really didn’t solo first. They both soloed on the same day, at pretty much the same time.

Lisa in an airplane. Rio in a jeep.

 

How to fly a plane in ten words

Mornings are not Lisa’s finest hour. At least that’s what I reminded myself as I looked at my watch a third time. I took another sip of the nasty Hampden coffee and distracted myself by studying the winds. Predicted to be kittens two days ago, they had grown up to be fierce tigers, roaring down the wide Rio Grande Valley from the north at 20 miles per hour.

It was going to be a slow flight.

Finally my Plane Friend arrived in the hotel lobby to join me for the free continental breakfast. In body, at least, if not in spirit. “Cof..fee… Cof..fee…” she intoned, zombie-like, eyes only half open.

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Wonderful Mugs

I laughed at her. “Your brain isn’t even firing on half its cylinders this morning.” Then to tease her, “Do you even remember how to fly?”

Her eyes snapped open and without missing a beat she said, “Point the plane down the runway, go fast, pull back.”

A better description of flying, at least of taking off, has never been uttered.

 

Text (1) if you are alive; text (2) if you are dead

I open my logbook. A moth flies out. Well, at least someoneis flying.

Actually, thanks to my buddy Lisa losing her mind and buying an airplane, I’ve been in the air almost every week—except for those three weeks when Warbler was broken down. But flying with Lisa nowadays isn’t reallyflying. Her skill level has crossed that magic plateau every pilot-in-training experiences: One hour it looks hopeless, the next hour it all comes together, and she’s been flying like an ol’ pro ever since.

So my flying with Lisa isn’t so much flying, as riding in an airplane enjoying the view. But, still, it’s not a bad way to spend a morning. And the way the FAA regs are written, I still get to log the time. But what I’m lacking is some logging of flight in my soul, and there’s only one plane to do that in: Tessie.

But it’s been a bad year for poor Tess. We had that five-month engine rebuild debacle; then the prop repitch, re-repitch, re-re-repitch; then the weird oil leaks; then the leaky header tank; then the radio problems; then the stuck controls; then the broken exhaust; then the wing gas tank rebuild; then the problems with the elevator adjustment; and… Did I leave anything out? Probably. I try not to think about these things too much, and the aviation maintenance suicide prevention hot line at the NFFAis really getting tired of my calls.

After coming out of a six-week-long annual in June, Tess immediately began to overheat. Badly. There was much back and forth about possible causes, and in the end, I made the decision to let a different maintenance team take a crack at the issue. Mere days out of her annual I delivered Tess to a field on the Eastern Plains of New Mexico and then waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Of course, I’m not very good at waiting. And it’s not like I just sat idlily by. I called and emailed. And always there was an excuse for the delay. And always a promise of a new date. Finally, at the two month point the Eastern Planes guys admitted they had not even startedthe promised work.

I blew a gasket, got in a car (with wife and child in tow to bring the car back home), and went to go pick up the damned airplane. When I got there and tried to start Tess, she had no oil pressure. They pulled the top plugs and the oil filter and had me swing the prop with the mags off, using the starter. This should have pumped oil. It didn’t. It looked like the oil pump, hidden deep down inside the engine case, had died.

It was less than sixty hours old.

I’m sure you can imagine my state of mind.

As a last-ditch effort, they plugged the breather tube and applied compressed air to the oil system and we tried again. We struck oil. It was a gusher. They decided it was something called an “air lock” somewhere in the oil system, or maybe some debris. I don’t know about that, but afterward my mystery overheating disappeared.

I flew Tess home without incident. Then I flew her hard the next day, just trying to overheat her. She was as good as new. The old Tessie was back, and both she and I were thirsty for adventure.

We didn’t have long to wait.

Because that very same afternoon—as I sat in the back seat of Deb’s Jeep as the nuclear family drove to Albuquerque to fetch Grandma Jean, who was flying home commercially after a visit to sister number two and family in Colorado—I was checking my email. There was a ton of chatter on the Sport Air Racing League discussion board about the upcoming weekend’s race. I guess I must have been grumbling out loud about missing out on the action because Deb turned her head and said: “Go.”

I grumbled there wasn’t time. I’d have to leave in 12 hours.

“Go,” said Debbie.

I’d have to do laundry, and pack, and flight plan, and…

“Go, already,” said Debbie.

So I did. After crazy-fast late-night prep, Lisa and I are now south of Santa Fe with five hundred miles to go, enjoying a smooth early morning ride, and watching the temperature gauges like hawks, when I get a text on my Apple watch.

It says: “Are you dead?”

Well, that wasn’t quite what it said. It really said: “Leidos Flt Svc Advisory–N3967H–TRACK LOST@241252–If not in distress–Contact Flt Svcs.”

Which is pretty much the same thing as, “Are you dead?”

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But it’s not the type of text you expect to get in an airplane. At least I didn’t expect it, nor had I ever seen anything like it before. Now, for quick background on this first-time-for-me text, you need to know that after writing an article on flight plans, I got inspired and started using the modern and super-easy flight plan filing system where everything is done by computer and smart phone, a methodology which ideally suits my antisocial personality (and least when it comes to talking to authority). And a totally new-for-me option is to link my flight plan and my Spot GPS tracker. If the tracker stops tracking—i.e. moving—then rescue efforts are started right away, rather than waiting until after you’re overdue and presumed missing en route.

Apparently, our tracker had stopped tracking.

We dug the tracker out of the back, and sure enough, it had lost the signal. We re-booted it. No joy. The batteries were too low. To flight service we were flying along just fine one minute, and the next we had vanished. Needless to say, we needed to check in and let them know notto launch search and rescue.

But I’ve gotten so used to dealing with flight service via text message, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to contact them using something as old fashioned as a radio. I mean, seriously, I can open and close my flight plans by texting single letters and numbers to them. Why on earth couldn’t they have just texted: TRACK LOST, text (1) if you are OK, text (2) if you need help?

But that wasn’t an option. In my mind’s eye I could see the slide in my Rusty Pilots PowerPoint presentation that shows the universal frequency for flight service. But my mind’s eye apparently needs bifocals; as I couldn’t focus on the long—for me—unused frequency.

“You have the plane,” I told Lisa.

She quickly grabbed the controls, “I have the plane.”

I whipped out my phone (thankfully we were near civilization and I had three bars). I used Google to look up the frequency for Flight Service:122.2. You’d think I could remember a number like that) and proceeded to make my usual fool of myself on the radio. “Uh… hello? Flight service, are you there? Yes, we’re fine. Umm.. thanks for asking. How are you? Oh, right, I’m the pane you’re worried about. I got your text. We’re not dead. It’s just the battery that went dead. Don’t call out the guard or anything. Err…Thanks again. Uh… have a nice day.”

OK, it wasn’t quite that bad, but the exchange felt awkward to me, and less professional than I envision myself. Still, they were happy to know we were still in the air, and wished us a good flight.

And the rest of it was. The plane behaved. The weather behaved. Not only were we alive, but I felt alive again.