Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Going Solo.

Finally I get to share a title with Roald Dahl!

In the previous aviation post I mentioned that I was pregnant since the start of my flight training. I had an easy pregnancy and flying with the bump was really nothing different than flying without it. Except the minor privileges, of course... You know, when you park an aerie at the Avgas filling station and there is a queue, you switch off and you wait your turn. To move closer to the pump when it is your turn you have to push/pull your aerie closer, you don't 'drive' it closer like a car. Now normally you would ask your attendant or another pilot nearby to help you, but if you are pregnant, the helpers appear out of thin air, three at a time! Also, if you want to check your fuel levels you have to clamber onto the one wing strut, balance yourself while opening the fuel caps and dip your stick. Since this is quit difficult to execute with a big belly in front of you, the first time I got to check my fuel levels was after I could see my toes again, baby fully baked and born.

Balancing on the wing strut while dipping the fuel stick to check fuel levels.

So after a whole lot of flying exercises, including some emergency procedures like landing the aircraft after an engine failure (more on that in a while) and a whole lot of touch-and-goes to practice take-offs and landings, we were nearing the day that Mr instructor would kick this bird out of the nest to fly by herself. 

Now I did mention that part of the reason why I went ahead with my PPL training after finding out I was pregnant was that I knew time was of the essence. I only went flying or for theory classes while Zee was napping mid-day, and only while the Hubs (who travel a lot) was home, and in Swakop we also have the weather factor of fog, in which we can't take off or land. So that left me with very few available flying hours. But between my incredible Hubs, dear nanny and very supportive instructor (and a large window of good weather) I finally got to cram in a good few consecutive hours of flying to get me up to speed for going solo. 

Now to get your PPL in Namibia you need minimum of 45 hours of flying of which 25 hours should be dual flying and 15 hours solo. Full time students who are able to fly often, can go solo after about 10 hours (or less) of flying (in the olden days, some students went solo after three to five hours of dual flying - how, I ask you, they lived to tell the tale, I don't know!). For people like me, who only flew about 5 hours a month, it took a little longer. After not flying for a while you have to get the feeling back again, especially for the landing. Imagine when you first started driving a car, that coordination to get the feel right between the gas and clutch, not to let the car die when you pull off in first gear... now add the factor that you can't just turn off the plane and walk away once you are in the air. You have to get it right. Every time. So until your instructor is happy that you will get it right and return his aerie in a serviceable condition, he will not send you solo.

So finally after about 25 flying hours in 7 months, the day arrived. It was a beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon. My favourite day at the Swakop airfield. I often took Zee (and now both boys) to the airfield over weekends to see weekend fly-ins arrive and the scenic flights to come and go for Sossusvlei. Lots of traffic, lots of activities, and usually a number of parachutes as well. I tried to book a training flight for 2 pm but my instructor was already booked for a theory class by one of my female student pilot friends. And then he called me an hour before and said we are good to fly that afternoon. I was still stirring a pot of soup for lunch, I remember, and I just got the heebie-jeebies. It was just weird that he would suddenly reschedule like that. At that time I had been suspecting that solo 'ing was close, but I didn't know exactly when (and really didn't want to push  the subject by asking, because I wasn't feeling all that confident yet). I raced out to the Hubs' office and asked him if he would have free time to look after Zee. He was looking a little nervous, but immediately agreed. He even said that he would bring Zee out to the airfield when he (Z) wakes up. Which I loved.

So just before 2 pm I drove out to the airfield. "She had the need to feel the thunder" by Garth Brooks was playing on the radio (music and smells... they move!) and I was excited like a race horse. And nervous as heck, although nobody still mentioned nothing about flying solo. I did my pre-flights, the instructor jumped in as usual and I had to do a whole lot of talking over the radio and waiting for incoming traffic while we were lined up. Somewhere during all this my instructor told me to calm down, because my nerves were all over the show, and it was obvious.

Finally I got to take off and did a circuit or four. We went over emergency landing procedures, and everything went smooth. The last radio call while you are doing circuits usually includes your intention after touch down (if you are a student). So if I intend to do another circuit I would say I am on final approach, doing a touch-and-go (immediately give full power again and take off) or full stop, meaning that I am done and will be vacating the runway. So after about 4 circuits I was sitting on final approach and called that I would be doing a touch-and-go, and my instructor said 'make that a full stop'. By that time my nerves were all calmed down and the idea of going solo was actually a little out of my mind. I was quite at peace with my flying skills at the moment and ready to do a few more landings, enjoying the afternoon with all the activity around us. And after we touched down he said I can go for a circuit on my own. 

Those words. That feeling. Oh my word. I remember I still asked him 'are you sure?' and he agreed. I can't remember my parents sending me off with the car alone for the first time, but this, THIS moment I will remember for ever. 

We taxied to the apron, and as we approached, the sun from the front, I could see my tall handsome Hubs standing there, extra tall with the small man-child sitting on his shoulders. The Hubs waived a normal 'Hi' waive to me as I dropped my instructor and carried on back to the holding point for runway 24. Turns out the Hubs knew about the plan to send me solo (the friend who's class was canceled called him at the same time as my instructor called me to tell me to come fly - hence his nervous face), but when we came over to the apron he thought it was not going to happen and he relaxed for about 5 seconds. And then HE got the heeby-jeebies!
At the run-up point I was going over my checks, took a few sips of water and ate a few sweets. Mentos. They still are my number 1 go-to sweets in sweaty situations, also while I'm running. I looked over to the empty seat where, by now, I was very much used to seeing my comforting instructor sitting. I leaned back to grab my empty headphone bag and put it on his seat to obscure the emptiness, and then I said what I knew the Hubs would say had he been there: "This is it, Bossie!" After that I turned on to RWY24, checked the wind, corrected the Direction Indicator according to the compass and made sure the landing lights were on. And then I gave full throttle.

Of the actual circuit I don't remember a lot. It went perfectly smooth, like predicted for a first time solo circuit. All conditions should be optimum and your instructor has enough experience to know that there is a very small window of opportunity to send a student solo. It is at a certain point where the student works him or herself up to a peak in performance, confidence and excitement. Once that window is missed, it takes a long time (if ever) to regain all those perfect peaks.  

After I landed the aerie I had the presence of mind to remember that a number of parachutes were dropped during my solo circuit. Their pilot still congratulated me over the air on my solo and I checked with him if all his people were on the ground before I proceeded to taxi over the general drop zone area. He confirmed that they were and then I think I relaxed for about 2 seconds. And a tear of utter elation ran across my cheek. I still get goose bumps thinking of that moment.

It was the 15th of March 2013. I will remember it, because the next day was exactly one month before Vee was due to be born. After going solo I only continued flying for about a week before I called a halt in training in anticipation of our new baby.

With the Hubs and Zee after going solo for the first time. 

With my brave, wise, instructor.
To have the Hubs and Zee there to witness it all was amazing. My husband was, and is still, such an amazingly positive supporter throughout the entire process of getting my PPL and flying regularly. I really am a very very lucky lady to have him by my side.

It  is still arguable, of course, if this was indeed my first solo, or if the first solo only came a few months later after Vee was born and not accompanying me in the cockpit anymore! 


  1. Maar, sil ek nou hier sit en tjank! Heerlike post, Serie, en SO wonderlik dat jy jou drome LEEF en dat jy soveel wonderlike support het om jou te help. #ystermamma! xxxx

  2. Dis lekker om te skryf as mens sulke mooi komentaar kry! Baie dankie Saar, ek waardeer dit! Xxx

  3. Sjoe, Sussa, dis 'n fantastiese belewenis! Ek het ook maar sit en sluk-sluk om die trane weg te keer. Sooo baie dankie dat jy dit met ons deel x