The year was 1986, a hot June day in northern California. A few months ago my friend Mike, who was nearing the end of his private pilot training, had talked me into learning to fly. He thought it would be a great idea if I earned a pilot’s license as well. I wasn’t so sure, but what the hell, I thought. It might be fun.
Every Sunday, I made my way down to Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose for another nerve-wracking lesson with my flight instructor. At the start, I was all nerves from takeoff to landing, but I was also determined not to flunk out and disappoint Mike. Over the last few weeks, though, this had slowly changed into a resolve not to disappoint me.
The man who had the unfortunate task of instructing me was Thomas “Tom” Lynch. Tom was ex-military, Navy if I remember correctly. You could tell it in his bearing – he carried himself like an officer, even when relaxed. He wore a mustache that was waxed into submission, with a curl at either side of his mouth. Each curl terminated into a fine point, and every hair was in place with just the right amount of precision.
Tom always spoke in controlled, carefully modulated, no-nonsense tones. It was how, I imagined, God Himself might speak. I can still hear him today, with his peculiar cadence: “We teach these things … because you don’t want to drive … your airplane into the ground. Do you understand? Good. Let’s go!”
My training was proceeding slowly. Each time we went up in one of the flight school’s dear old Cessna 152 two-seater airplanes, I was absolutely certain it would be the last time. Not because I was going to quit training – oh no, sooner or later something would happen. Then, Tom and I would be just a couple of greasy spots somewhere out in the fields south of the airport. So, due to my irrational fears, my pilot education was taking a bit longer than the average aviation student. But we persevered, Tom and I. He had enough patience and I had enough courage, I hoped.
On this day in June, we were stuck on pattern practice. Around and around we went – take off, fly the airport’s established traffic pattern, land, taxi around, and do it again. Boring, but necessary. It’s the aviation student’s equivalent of practicing scales on the piano, though with more serious consequences if you hit a wrong note in the air. Aviation is an unforgiving mistress.
Now, I was far enough along in my training that I thought my first solo flight couldn’t be too far off. In just a few weeks, I reasoned, we’d be going around the pattern, and Tom would suddenly tell me to stop and let him out so I could take the airplane around by myself. At least, Mike said that’s how it would go, and he agreed that I had probably three or four weeks’ worth of training to go before soloing.
As we taxied along the ramp, preparing for yet another go around the pattern, Tom looked up and pointed at the left-hand side window.
“D’you see that bench over there,” he asked.
“That one there … by the hangar.” Tom pointed again.
“Oh, yes, I have it now,” I chirped.
Tom’s voice took on that slow, precise tone. “Now, I want you to taxi over there.”
Oh, gods. I knew what he was going to say next. It can’t be. It’s not time!
“I want you to stop … at the bench … and I’m going to get out. You take the airplane on around … and after you land and you’re taxiing back … look over at me. Now, if I wave you on … take it around again. If I wave you back here, then pick me up. D’you understand?” I nodded my head.
Still staring straight ahead, I brought the Cessna to a stop just adjacent the bench. Tom opened the passenger-side door and started to climb out. He turned to give me one more piece of wisdom.
“Now … just be careful and use your training. I’ll be watching you … and just take it on around,” Tom said.
I’d gone suddenly numb. One side of my brain still insisted I wasn’t ready yet; the other was ready to go and get the job done. Wide-eyed and unbelieving, all I could do was look at Tom and nod my head again. I think I might have mumbled something to the extent of, “okay.”
Tom shut the door, walked behind the airplane, and sat down on the bench. I watched him go, and once he was seated, he waved me on. I gave the airplane some power and it started taxiing forward. At this airport, just before you reached the run-up area, there was a right-turn bend in the ramp and over to the left side was a fenced-off area where people sometimes gathered to watch the airplanes.
One person was standing there. It was my friend Mike! How the hell did he know I’d be soloing today? As I passed him, my facial muscles suddenly began working again and I broke out in a huge smile, pointing wildly at the now empty right seat. Mike grinned and waved, gave me a thumbs-up, and I turned to prepare the airplane for take-off.
Back to business. The airplane checked out fine and was ready to go. When the control tower radioed clearance to take off, I gave the airplane full throttle, and it began to race down the runway. Reaching takeoff speed, a slight pull back on the control wheel made the airplane climb upward into the air. It doesn’t take as much effort, I noticed, when there’s only one person in the airplane. There’s only one person in the airplane ...
About 200 feet or so above the ground, it hits me. There’s only one way - one way – this bird is getting back on the ground. I have to put it there. My mind snapped hard into focus. I felt my old anxieties way at the back of my mind, waiting to seize control. Just then, my training kicked in, as Tom said it would. I became calm. I had a job to do, and I would do it.
I imagined Tom sitting there in the right seat, as I reached 500 feet above ground and began my right turn to the base leg of the traffic pattern. Relaxing just a bit more, I reached standard pattern altitude and backed off the engine power just a bit. Another gentle right turn, to the downwind leg of the pattern. I allowed myself to look from side-to-side and scan the horizon for other airplanes. Keep your head on a swivel, Tom used to say.
Spotting the landing end of the runway down below and off to my right, I started setting up for landing. Why does it seem so easy? What am I not doing? What am I forgetting? I listened, in my head, for Tom’s voice and heard nothing, which is what I wanted to hear. Usually, Tom spoke only when you did something wrong.
The airplane and I were in a gentle descent and it was now time to turn right again, on to final approach. It’s a difficult maneuver; one has to simultaneously turn and maintain the correct rate of descent. Just then, the radio crackled and I heard the blessed clearance to land. I was less calm than I was a few minutes ago, but still in command.
I saw the runway below waiting to receive me. At either side of the near end of the runway are positioned glide slope lights, and their apparent colors serve as a guide. They tell you if you’re too high, too low, or just right. Completing the turn, I straightened out the airplane and looked down at the lights. They were red over white – correct for landing, and just what I needed to see. I did the last-minute chores in preparation to land, scanning gauges and checking the control settings. I tightened my grip on the control wheel. Here goes, I thought to myself.
As I came in over the edge of the runway for the “moment of truth”, I eased back on the engine power as I’d been taught. When the airplane began to settle, I tugged back on the control wheel. Tug, tug, tug, and keep it flying until the last moment. I pulled the power back as far as I dared. The airplane dropped a bit more and then BOOMP!
I’d done it! I was back on the ground, a bit rougher than I’d have liked, but not bad for my first solo landing. And everything, including me, seemed still to be in one piece.
Pulling the power back to idle, I received clearance to turn off the runway and taxi back. As I passed the bench where Tom was sitting, I expected to be called back. Instead, he waved me on. I waved back and kept going, ready for another turn.
I took the airplane around the traffic pattern two more times. As I taxied back after the third time, I picked Tom up at the bench. He had the hint of a smile on his face, but he didn’t say much, other than to chide me to work on my landings. It didn’t matter – I was high, higher than any flying machine could take me. I had soloed the airplane.
We parked the airplane and walked back to the aviation school office. I handed Tom my logbook, and he wrote one line in it: “Soloed C-152”. Short and to the point, and just right. Then, proudly following a fine old aviation tradition, I removed my shirt and handed it to Tom. He cut the back out of it and wrote upon it:
“On a HOT summer day in June 1986, at Reid-Hillview Airport, Joe Reda did solo Cessna 152 N67889. Tom Lynch, CFI”
My shirt was tacked up on the wall, taking its place with the others. I couldn’t have been prouder. I chatted a while with Tom about next week’s lesson, and then left the school to return home.
I was missing the back of my shirt, but I had gained something. I had attempted something outside the ken of most people, and had done it – at a time when I was seriously questioning whether I still had the ability to learn new and difficult things.