First Solo

March 1, 2014 § 15 Comments

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A revised version of a piece published in a national flying magazine in 1992

            The thesis was finished and handed in, and I had nothing to do. ‘So what’s it like then?’ I said, kicking a pebble into the long grass.

            ‘Brilliant,’ he replied. ‘But this bit’s making me feel sick.’

            ‘How come?’

            ‘You pull the stick back until the whole thing rattles like an old tin can.’

            ‘Then what?’

            ‘A wing drops and you fall out of the sky.’

            ‘Good game. So why aren’t you dead?’

‘There’s a trick,’ he grinned. ‘Stick forward, full power. Pull back at seventy knots. Easy.’

‘Cool,’ I smiled.

He handed me a card with a photo of a plane on the front. ‘For you,’ he said. ‘A reward for getting the dissertation done.’ It was a trial flying lesson.

I loved aeroplanes. I was the person who rushed outside to see what was making that interesting roar as it flew over the farm. I was the anorak who apologised to lampposts as I watched the Pitts Special practice barrel rolls over the long, straight road leading out of town. But flying them? In those days, it was men who did that.

My instructor, who had a comb over and drove an ambulance five days a week, put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Women,’ he confided, ‘make better pilots than men.’

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘Because they listen, and don’t show off.’

He let me hold the stick while he took off, and showed me how to fiddle with the controls as we flew towards my house. I waved at husband and offspring as we circled the farm, and he talked me through a hands – on landing. I didn’t feel even remotely unwell.

My husband’s generosity had seriously backfired. Flying lessons were expensive. Particularly when both of us were doing it. Surely once would be enough, wouldn’t it? Soon after the event, I was to be found locked in the loo drooling over a book full of wonderful creatures called Stearmans and Mooneys. Within the month, my family had chronic indigestion as I threw yet another supermarket pizza in the oven when I got back late from flying school. I was hooked.

It is a prerequisite for anyone learning to fly to become a total bore – so that is what I did. Pretty soon my husband’s answers to my incessant questions became monosyllabic, and his face took on a victimised expression every time I uttered an innocent remark about flying. It made not one jot of difference to me: passion was passion.

I started noticing this thing called weather – funny I’d never noticed it before – and each morning I gazed heavenwards to assess the possibility of increasing my (okay, our) overdraft. ‘Do you think the cloud base is above circuit height?’ I’d mutter. ‘Look. See that little hole in the clouds. Do you think I could slip through and do some stalling practice?’ If the weather was good, I was on the phone booking a flying slot; if it wasn’t, I’d mooch around all day wishing I lived in the south of France or Florida. It was rather like being in love.

I have a friend who went solo after nine hours – and I hate him. The question was always the same: ‘Have you gone solo yet?’ And so was my answer. But I was having a great time doing orbits in the circuit (where had the runway gone?), and encouraging the little roller skate to bounce like an inebriated kangaroo along the runway. But best of all was watching my instructor’s face as I nearly landed on the nose wheel – again. Did training aircraft have special twit proof suspension, I wondered.

             Life continued, as did the overdraft – and then I got suspicious. Why did my instructor not instruct all the time? Why did he always have the Daily Mail tucked under his arm? I decided he just didn’t like me. The silences grew, and I uncharacteristically ran out of things to say. As my hours slipped away onto page three of my logbook (the shame of it), I finally twigged that either my first solo was imminent (unlikely), or the flying school was mustering the courage to tell me there was no hope.

I decided to stop thinking about being let loose by myself – so I dreamt about it instead. I was on short finals that night when two small children materialised in the cockpit. I think they belonged to me. One threatened an accident if I didn’t produce a potty NOW, the other was contemplating when she would be in need of one of those brown paper bags they give you on airliners. I woke up. I don’t think I landed, so I suppose I must still be up there somewhere…

It was a soggy November morning, three days after I had disgraced myself by doing some wriggly, yet interesting and creative crosswind landings. I sloped off to the airport, only to find my instructor had not arrived. Was this it? Had I finally broken his spirit? I pootled off to do my pre flight checks. When he finally turned up, the roller skate refused to start. This was surely a sign I should go home. But he, ever valiant and resourceful, toyed with the idea of having bits of himself amputated by hand swinging the prop. We were off.

‘No comment,’ said he, as I landed and bounced inelegantly towards the grass verge. Such is life. After three landings, he began breathing heavily. Then he spoke. ‘I have control,’ he said, pressing the radio button. ‘ Air Traffic Control. Permission request for first solo.’

‘Who, me?’ I croaked. ‘I can’t do that.’

He just smiled and tucked the newspaper under his arm. My heart started behaving oddly: I could hear it. A period of prevarication followed, and while I privately dithered, he taxied us to the apron and got out. ‘Good luck,’ was all he said. He didn’t even say goodbye. I didn’t move. I wanted a cigarette. Then I remembered I’d stopped breathing. I was all by myself and it was exactly one o’clock. Rousing myself, I did my internal checks. Twice. Mustn’t forget to put the fuel pump on. What was the Emergency Landing After Take Off procedure? Should I say a prayer or something?

My mind went blank, and, as if by magic, I found myself on the end of the tarmac runway. Pre take off checks done. Deep breath. Full throttle, and the roller skate skipped into the air. I waved at the control tower. They waved back. I climbed to a thousand feet. Flew over the houses outside the perimeter fence. Turning onto the crosswind leg, I looked for other traffic. There was nothing. I giggled. I turned downwind and giggled some more. I’d always wanted to waggle my wings, so I did. Pre landing checks done. Where was that block of flats I had to turn base on?

I turned onto base leg and began my descent. Five hundred feet – time to turn finals. The wind was good: ten knots straight off the runway. Perfect. Or was it? I was too low – a little throttle. I was losing speed – lower the nose. I reported finals. At two hundred feet I skimmed the fence and whizzed past the plane geeks with binoculars stuck to their faces. Fifty feet. Cut the power. Flare. The roller skate plopped delicately onto the tarmac, and I remembered I’d stopped breathing again. I taxied off and flicked a few switches. I tried hard to wipe the grin off my face. I couldn’t.

I don’t remember anything after that until I got home. My husband’s remarks were brief and monosyllabic. ‘Oh,’ was all he could manage. I suppose he was thinking about the letter we’d had from the bank that morning…

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§ 15 Responses to First Solo

  • NEO says:

    YAY! I had (and sometimes still do) that dream. Never got to do it but, it shows up every time I can see out the front of an airplane. And obviously you obeyed the first law; keeping the number of take-offs equal to the number of landings.

  • Rachael Charmley says:

    Hah. My instructor used to say that every landing you walk away from is a good one!

  • Ah, but is this REALLY about flying, Rachael? Great writing, as ever!

  • mikesteeden says:

    As one petrified of flying this was just what I didn’t need after an Arsenal defeat – seriously though, a very fine piece of writing.

  • Rachael Charmley says:

    Thanks, Mike. Sorry about your football defeat…

  • Miranda Stone says:

    Even 20 years ago, your writing already possessed an amazing ability to draw the reader into your world. You know I’m a fan of concise sentences, and I think they work particularly here well, as you’re describing the process of flying solo: “I turned onto base leg and began my descent. Five hundred feet – time to turn finals. The wind was good: ten knots straight off the runway. Perfect. Or was it? I was too low – a little throttle. I was losing speed – lower the nose. I reported finals. At two hundred feet I skimmed the fence and whizzed past the train spotters. Fifty feet. Cut the power. Flare.” This is perfect. And then there’s the humor I’ve come to recognize in your work: “But I was having a great time doing orbits in the circuit (where had the runway gone?), and encouraging the little roller skate to bounce like an inebriated kangaroo along the runway. But best of all was watching my instructor’s face as I nearly landed on the nose wheel – again.” So glad you shared this, Rachael. It was a joy to read.

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      So pleased you enjoyed it. It is an interesting exercise to fish out old pieces. In some ways they are embryos of one’s current writing. Once one has found one’s voice, it’s hard/impossible to change it – bar a tweek here and there! Reminds me of Alvarez’s ‘The Writers Voice’.
      The first three paras are newly written, but the rest I just tightened up.
      I noticed a tendency to ‘wordiness’ (which you mentioned of your earlier writing in a previous post), and more telling than showing! An interesting lesson :-).

  • wildsherkin says:

    What a great piece! Thank you for your recent visits and likes. I’ll be back to read some more. 🙂

  • It’s a good story and you have told it well. You might want to look it over, there are always improvements that can be made. Have you tried to get this one published?

    • Rachael says:

      Thanks, William. It was published by a national flying magazine about ten years ago, which surprised me as it was a little rough around the edges to say the least. First time I ever got paid for writing anything too…

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