"Pull it over on the grass," my instructor ordered, following a series of practice landings. His name was Dave. We sat for a moment, facing the setting sun. I had enough hours. The click of his seatbelt told me it was time.
Dave opened his door and stepped out of the little craft onto the ground. He leaned back into the doorway and searched my eyes. "Can you do it?" His gray hair was tousled by the prop wash.
"I think so."
"What do you mean, you think so!" Dave started to climb back into the plane.
"Figure of speech," I said.
Dave nodded. He closed the door and gestured with his hand in a circle. I took a deep breath and commenced to taxi back to the runway. I caught a glimpse of Dave. He was walking away, head bowed, hands deep in the pockets of his leather jacket.
The tower announced official sunset and signed off for the night, enough daylight left for one trip around the pattern. With the left rudder-pedal and brake, I wheeled the plane in a circle on the apron, scanning the sky. Then I aimed the nose down the runway.
"Bring the power up smoothly," Dave would be saying. The propeller disk vanishes as the engine complies, bellowing. The controls stiffen with the relative wind. Suddenly the plane leaves the ground -- sooner than expected. Only one soul on board.
What was it Dave told me? "Take-offs are optional, landings are mandatory."
This is my first solo, a rite of passage -- initiation into a singular realm of life, the ultimate in self-reliance.
"Watch out," Dave had told me. "That Cessna 140 will really float." He was right. Plenty of runway, though.
Give me a million flying hours and I'll never do a better landing. Ching-ching. Three-pointer.
Dave climbed back into the plane and shook my hand. We taxied in and tied the plane down. Neither of us spoke. In keeping with tradition, Dave tore off a piece of my shirttail and tacked it on the wall of the clubhouse. Someone later stencilled my name and the date of my first solo, April 12, 1957.
The next day, I took the plane up for the most dangerous
flight in my life.
As a 23-year-old man with a pregnant wife and one child, as a licensed driver with an accident-free record, as a project engineer with a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, as a university lecturer with a preference for classical music, and, most relevantly, as a scholar-pilot with a well-informed, introspective alertness for all symptoms of the second-solo syndrome -- I picked up the key to Niner-Niner Delta and strode out to the flight line.
The dipstick showed abundance of oil in the crankcase. I dipped my finger in gas tanks and squinted at threads showing on all the aileron bolts. I caressed the treadless tires and chuckled at what Dave had called "navigational bugs" on the windscreen.
"It'll fly," I said for my own benefit. After starting the engine, I asked for a radio check, "Short count, please," standard procedure for the old, low-freq receiver with its 'coffee grinder' for tuning.
"(Crackle). . . three, two, one. How do you read?" It was weak and scratchy, but "loud and clear" is all I had ever heard anybody say. "Loud and clear," I said.
Run-up complete, ready for take-off. Where shall I go this afternoon? The correct answer, as a some part of my brain must have known, would have been "Stay in the pattern and practice take-offs and landings."
"Cleared for take-off," rasped the radio.
After hauling the Cessna 140 into the air, I banked into a climbing turn. I may have actually uttered the word "whoopee" as the plane left the ground.
Stay in the pattern, I reminded myself, and then departed the pattern.
A light plane is real flying. Airliners are not. In a light plane, you are doing the flying not somebody else. Statistics do not apply. You just know that as long as you have the controls in your own grasp, you will come out all right. You can rely on yourself, can't you.
There's Redondo Union High School where I graduated. And the esplanade where I used to surf after college. Is this bitchin' or what! I banked low over the coves of Palos Verdes where I learned to snorkel.
On I flew to the Marine Stadium in Long Beach, where I descended to 500 feet and raced with the speedboats, whipping steep turns over the grandstand. Illegal as hell.
There was the attempted landing on the Forrestal, which was -- hah! -- conveniently docked in San Pedro. Watch this, guys. I set up a perfect glide toward the deck in the reverse direction. I did not actually touch down, but I don't know what stopped me either.
Try to imagine my mortification as I think back.
An oil tanker was steaming along toward El Porto -- hey, a perfect opportunity to practice turns-on-a-point, I thought. I flew along beside the vessel and pointed my left wing at its smokestack. As the plane circled around the stern, I had to steepen the angle of bank just like the book says. Deck hands went about their work, ignoring me.
Fascinated by the scene below, a phantasmagorical turn table, I pulled my circles tighter and gradually edged the plane into a skidding climb. The airspeed bled off to insignificance, and I sat there grinning with the propeller flailing at the sky, engine in full rev. Suddenly, the wings trembled and the nose dropped. The ocean lay dead ahead, whirling once, twice.
My instructor had taught me that to get out of a spin, you chop the power and relax the controls, so, of course, I left the throttle wide open and yanked the yoke back with both hands. The ship passed by the windscreen, bigger now. Oops, Dave, you were right. I shoved a rudder pedal and inadvertently stopped the rotation, broke the stall, and levelled off without getting the wheels wet. One sailor waved his hat then resumed his swabbing.
At no time was I scared. Now, that's irregular.
Over Alondra Park, I called Hawthorne Tower for landing instructions. I could not actually make out the words, but I was sure they would still be using Runway 25 and that the crackling on the radio included instructions to call turning downwind. I did that. More crackling, probably cleared to land. Some whoopee music, please. On final, I decided to come in hot.
In a 'tail dragger,' if you don't smooch the wheels onto the pavement just right, the plane will happily pitch up and start flying again. 'Bounce' is a misnomer. On my second solo, all I knew about 'wheel landings' I had read in Stick and Rudder. The bounce took me and the Cessna a hundred feet into the air and threw away half the runway. So much for that idea. Better power back and glide. Hello: The end of the runway is just ahead.
At last, the pucker factor.
Full power and struggling to climb off the end of the runway, I gaped at street signs close enough to read and a church steeple just beyond the spinner. I closed my eyes, of course, otherwise I surely would not have made it.
Downwind again, crackling on the radio again, landing again. After touchdown, I coasted off the runway onto the grass near the wooden legs of the old control tower. With the engine idling and with the tower's antenna radiating full strength into mine, I could hear the controller's words distinctly now.
"This may come as a surprise to you, Niner-Niner Delta, but I told you to go around and you acknowledged."
The chief pilot and the club secretary were waiting for me at the tie-down. I was 45 minutes late returning the plane. Another pilot had been waiting for Niner-Niner Delta but gave up. I apologized and explained that I had not worn my watch.
"Never," said the secretary, an ample woman with an attitude, "never fly an airplane without a time piece on board!"
The chief pilot shook his head solemnly. His name was probably Chuck. "What were you doing?" he asked me.
How much does Chuck already know? I wondered to myself. Had he heard from authorities at Marine Stadium? Did the Navy call?
"You almost stubbed that steeple!" he exclaimed.
"Oh that," I said. "Tried a wheel landing, but -- "
"Wheel landings are not a good idea when there's no wind."
"It was my second solo, and -- "
"Hell," interrupted the chief pilot, punching me in the shoulder. "If that's all you did on your second solo! Let me tell you about some really crazy stunts -- mine." We strolled toward the clubhouse. "It was back in '48 at Pensacola, as I was training for..."
That day, a 23-year-old man with a pregnant wife, one child and a subscription to the Wall Street Journal decided to do all his flying on airliners. Well, maybe.