Pushing Past the Fear: First Solo
Although I’ve never had an issue with flying or even heights, I found myself terrified of the plane. I was deeply afraid of being in control … or specifically of losing control of the aircraft and plunging to my death. Fortunately, my instructor and my partner were both very patient and their support was unwavering. Eventually, however, I had to make it through my first solo flight, alone.
“Seriously,” Oliver said for the 15th time. “You’ll be fine. I wouldn’t tell you to go out there alone if I didn’t think you could do it.
I stood on the tarmac, staring hatefully at the plane. I didn’t like it, it didn’t like me. The night before I had checked my log book to see if I could argue my way out of this based on inexperience. I had logged 25 hours in the plane, with 60 take-offs and landings. Everyone else had long since done their first solo: taking the plane once around the circuit and then landing again. They’d been out alone with the plane plenty of times, even flying out over the coast and back. Everyone but me.
“What if I get lost?”
“In the circuit?” Oliver rolled his eyes.
“What if I miss a turn or something and then end up in Malaga airspace and they send over the police helicopters and shoot at me with long range rifles to get me out of the way?”
“Get in the plane, Sylvia.” He held up his hand to forestall any further arguments. “You’ll be fine. I promise you. I’ll be on the radio so you can talk to me if you need to.”
I pulled myself into the cockpit and sat in the left seat, staring at the instruments. Then, for the first time, I leant over the right seat and checked the door was latched shut. I was going up alone.
I knew it was time. The instructors were only going to be in Spain for another week. Cliff had given up on asking me when I was going to do my solo, instead he took it up directly with Oliver. I heard them whispering my name, glancing in my direction and talking about confidence. Oliver wouldn’t send me up if he didn’t think I was competent, I knew that. I’d been flying this plane every day and I knew how the circuit worked. Just yesterday, I’d told Cliff how Oliver was leaning over, watching a helicopter fly past while I was downwind. I smacked Oliver’s thigh, complaining he was supposed to be watching over me! But instead he told me the make of the helicopter and how he would love to fly it. He knew I had control of the aircraft. He knew I could do it.
It was only me holding myself back now.
I got out my checklist and started the engine. Just one circuit. Just one and then I could go home and hide under the duvet. I taxied out, did the longest power checks I could possibly justify, and then pulled onto the runway and stopped. I could barely hear the engine over the pounding of the blood in my head.
Axarquia is a quiet little airfield, it doesn’t see much traffic. But still, I knew that the one place I could not stop was here, blocking the runway. I keyed the mike. “Rolling,” I whispered. I clenched the controls, knuckles white with effort. I took a deep breath and started talking to myself. For reasons that I will never understand, my personal pep-talk came out in badly metered rhyme.
“OK, Sylvia, do it. Full power, do it now, watch that airspeed, you know how. One-two-three-four, you been flying all week, what’s a little bit more? 500 feet, that’s what he says, then a gentle turn like you do best.”
I went into the turn, taking deep breaths. I could feel the panic welling in my throat. I was in control of a fucking plane in the fucking air with no one there to stop me from crashing it into the side of a mountain. Like the one looming up right in front of me. I went back to my odd chanting. “1,000 feet, make that turn, feel the beat, feel the burn. You’re downwind now, need a radio call, you remember how, you remember it all.” I swallowed hard. It was time for my downwind call. “Golf Papa Echo, downwind for runway zero nine to land.”
I let go of the button as the cold realisation struck me that I’d been pressing it all along. I’d broadcasted every word of my impromptu doggerel to the crowded instruction room, where they stood huddled around the radio in case I made a call for help.
My embarrassment was cut off by the fact that I was still heading downwind and hadn’t done my next set of checks. I didn’t care what I had to do to get through this, I honestly didn’t. Still, I wiggled my finger to ensure that I wasn’t still broadcasting to the field radio.
The downwind checks were encapsulated in an mnemonic called BUMPFFICH which worked almost as well as my nerve-easing chant. Brakes, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop, Fuel, Flaps, Instruments, Carb-heat, Hatches and Harnesses. I made the adjustments to the plane as needed. I took another deep breath. I had plenty of time, I knew exactly where I was, everything was fine. More than fine, everything was perfect.
I turned the plane again and began my descent. This was the tricky bit: I needed to descend into the valley without reacting to the olive-tree covered hills which seemed so desperately close. I turned again onto final, the runway straight in front of me.
That’s when it struck me. I was flying. I wasn’t just along for the ride. I wasn’t going through the motions as someone told me what to. I was alone in this plane, reliant on no one but myself and I was flying it. And dammit, I was flying it well.
I pressed the lever for a final level of flaps and called in. “Golf Papa Echo, final to land, zero nine.”
I was calm and confident. I’d done the circuit, this was a good approach and I was ready to land the plane. I felt focused and centred. Hold it up up up right over the trees, watch that airspeed, look at the numbers and then let the plane sink down towards the ground and hooooold it steady. My arms shook with concentration. I felt the rear wheels touch first and then gently, the nose wheel sunk onto the tarmac. I pressed my feet hard on the pedals to stop the plane. I’d done it.
“What was that supposed to be, rap?” It was Lee, the other instructor, who had run out to the apron to be the first to speak to me. lauging even as he hugged me. Oliver waited by the tower, clapping his hands in applause as I climbed out of the cockpit which a huge smile on my face.
“Best circuit I’ve ever seen you do,” he said. He patted me on the shoulder. “Seriously, that was great. Really awesome. Come inside for a break, have a glass of water. Then I want to see you do that six more times.”
Read the whole story in my ebook: You Fly Like a Woman