First solo flight in the dark

The Islip Line of the Long Island Railroad pulled me through the steamy August to a rendezvous with Long Island MacArthur Airport and the day every rookie pilot encounters a mixture of dread and excitement. First solitary.

I learned to fly at a major flight school dedicated to training airline pilots. Most of the instructors were young, in their early to mid-twenties, wearing cheap ties and mismatched shirts while accepting abysmal pay in exchange for increased flight time. After 10 hours of stalls, turns and the occasional crash landing, I was hoping to be ready.

That night, I would fly with an instructor whose attitude had, on occasion, annoyed me. Flight instruction consists of long periods of boredom interrupted by brief moments of sheer terror, and tonight my companion in the starboard seat languishes in surly boredom. We circled the circuit three times as he watched in disinterested silence. I was in a different state of mind as I realized more and more that the three landings I had made were okay and I was about to fly with the least experienced pilot I would ever fly with . Me.

The instructor broke the silence.

“Okay. Switch off here.

As night fell, I drove to a spot in front of the control tower. My instructor had decided to drop me into the twilight sky of Long Island.

“Okay! Are you ready?” Despite Herculean efforts, my “you bet!” miserably failed to convey the hoped-for courage. “Okay, keep it in the pattern and watch your speed. If you’re in trouble, I’ll be in the tower, and you can get me on their frequency. Okay?” “Uh. Of course?!”

He slammed the door, and I was alone with the roar of the engine and the roar of the propeller. A beautiful red sunset watched over me as I focused on the flight ahead. It was getting late. The tower told me to roll to the swing zone. Only a fool or a liar will say he wasn’t nervous on his first solo, and neither am I. Electrified with nerves, I felt small streams of sweat dripping from my face onto my shirt and, my hands developing cramps, I pressed them against the dashboard for relief.

I said to myself, “Relax, relax. But wait. I realized then that I didn’t know where the switches were! How would I see the instruments if it was dark?

Before I could answer the question, a voice called out from the cockpit: “Four-Niner Juliet, cleared to take off.” With my voice cracking, I announced, “Four-Niner Juliet rolls.” I taxied the Cessna down the massive runway.

I pushed the throttle stick and the airspeed indicator came on, rising to the magic 65 mark. I gently backed up on the control wheel, and the nose of the plane lifted ahead me, then the vibration of the wheels stopped. The lights of Long Island twinkled like stars as the sun gave a last view of the day.

“Okay,” I reassured myself, “everything looks good.” But my nerves were tense like piano wire. After two right turns, I announced to the tower that I was on the downwind leg for runway 24. An experienced and trained voice simply told me that I was cleared for a touch-and-go as soon as that I was ready.

“You’re kidding!” I thought. A touch-and-go is a landing without stopping and re-launching while still in motion.

By then, twilight had taken its toll on daylight and was not about to wait for a newbie pilot who had no idea where his plane’s lights were.

It might be obvious to the lawyer I am now, one who has seen too many horrors of bad judgment, that it was time to call the tower and ask the instructor what he wanted me to do. I phoned the tower. The verdict is in.

“Four-Niner Juliet, do a touch and go.”

Still able to see the all-important anemometer, I obeyed. As I slowed down, my thoughts turned to putting my skin to the ground in one piece. Descending toward darkening Long Island, I carefully executed the required right turns, the trail ahead of me growing wider and wider. I talked to myself. “Speed ​​65, good. Leave it here.” I pushed down the flap switch, and with an electric groan, the flaps went up, forcing me to push forward on the yoke to maintain that speed.

The track showed its full width in front of me, and I backed up on the yoke. The plane decelerated as the nose of the plane rose. I gritted my teeth as I waited for the touchdown, which seemed like an eternity. A thud, a little bounce, the wheels squealed, and I had made my first landing. But I didn’t have time to congratulate myself.

The plane was still taxiing on the runway and there were chores to do. Go for it. Raise the shutters. Close the fuel heater, readjust, go. I pushed the throttle and took off into an almost black sky. A bar of red light to the west allowed me only dim vision of the instruments as I began the debate over how long I would follow the instructor’s instructions before mutinying. I announced the second downwind leg, and the lackluster response from the tower informed me that the instructor, unaware of my predicament, wanted another touch-and-go. Even though the instruments were barely visible in the growing darkness, I didn’t protest.

Somehow, that second landing was a grease job; the wheels squealed and just kept rolling. But I didn’t savor it. I busied myself with raising the flaps and pushing the throttle for the third and absolutely final landing of the evening. The barely perceptible instruments were trying to hide in the dark. Flying the plane by touchdown, I negotiated the pattern and turned to final approach with one hand on the mic, ready to tell the tower I’d had enough. As I brought the microphone to my lips, I was interrupted.

“Four-nine Juliets!” The voice, suddenly awakened, spits urgently: “Four-Niner Juliet, take a turn now! Runway 24 is no longer clear to land, there is a plane on 24!” It was clearly and painfully true. The lights of an unauthorized plane on the runway stared at me through the windshield. I opened the throttle to full power as I buzzed over the terrain and waved goodbye to the last chance to land with daylight remaining.

At this time, I could only look at the dashboard, but there was nothing. I leaned as far back on the control wheel as I could, slowly moving closer to the instruments. Always nothing. “Okay,” I asked myself, “now what are you going to do?”

The argument ended before it started – on the one hand, there was embarrassment; on the other, there was death. I opted for embarrassment. “Islip tower, uh, that’s Four-Niner Juliet, uh. Could you ask my instructor where the interior light and landing light switches are?” A peal of laughter came through my headset Didn’t see the humor.The controller, doing a poor job of hiding his amusement, told me that the hellish blessed switches were somewhere in the middle of the bottom of the dash.

In complete darkness, I began my search. My hands groped in the darkness of the cockpit. Nothing. I looked up and searched again, more aggressively but not enough to trip anything that would get me into deeper trouble. Again, the location of the switches remained a mystery, and I looked out at the Long Island galaxy of lights which revealed the terrible truth.

I had lost sight of the airport. Below me passed an aurora borealis of streetlights, automobiles, and neon lights, but no trails. All my instincts were telling me the field was on the right, so I took a deep breath, risked a right turn, and after three heartbeats they appeared, a series of blue taxiway lights – I was halfway there.

The controller, stifling his amusement as best he could, announced that the next landing would be Four-Niner Juliet’s last for the evening. He informed me that I was cleared to attempt my third landing, in the dark, without instruments or landing lights. Heart pounding, I head for the track.

The white lights marked the location of the track and allowed me to line up. Everything else was hidden in the dark. Watch out for the speed! How can I? I couldn’t tell if I was 50 feet or 10 feet in the air when I started backing up on the steering wheel. I learned quickly. The plane and I were a little too slow and a little too high. Gravity greeted me with a snap and a squeal of rubber. Transforming me from a newborn pilot to a rodeo cowboy, the plane surged forward, smacking my head, followed by another tire hop and another and another. Then, rolling down the track, I listened to a distant heavy breath that I couldn’t place until I realized it was mine. A grieved instructor offered his congratulations.

Later, in a quiet place where I could reflect on events amid the August humidity with the chill of a bottle of beer, I came to conclusions that would last me the rest of my racing career. I realized that to stay alive I had to know all the ship’s systems and be familiar with how they work. And there would be one, and only one, final arbiter of my actions in the air while I was there alone: ​​me.

Want to read more columns on lessons learned? Check out “Least-Routine Float Landing…Ever” here.