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"Instructor hops out: `You're on your own'"

Monday, June 10, 2002

Instructor hops out: `You're on your own'
By Ken Kaye
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel

On a warm afternoon in the late summer of 1970, the rear wheels of my
Beechcraft Musketeer gently kissed Runway 23 at Cuyahoga County Airport
on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio.

It was one heck of a landing, if I do say so myself.

Actually, it was one of many good landings that day as I had been
practicing with a flight instructor by my side.

But after this particular touchdown, the instructor told me to pull off
onto a taxiway, and my heart leaped into my throat.

I knew what was coming.

He nonchalantly cracked open the door and hopped out.

"You're on your own," he said. "Three touch-and-goes. Then go park the

With that, he closed the door to the little single-engine trainer and
walked toward the flight school office, never looking back.

I sat there in the cockpit, the engine puttering at idle, palms clammy.

I had never felt quite as alone in my life.

After about 15 hours of practicing basic maneuvers, including climbs,
cruise, descents, takeoffs and landings, I was about to go up on my
first solo.

As any pilot will tell you, this is perhaps the most precious -- if not
nerve-wracking -- moment in an aviator's career.

He or she is about to be transformed from an average human being into
someone special, someone who has acquired the skills to escape the bonds
of Earth.

Loaded with the resolve of youth, I swallowed my anxiety, taxied to the
end of the runway, called the control tower, obtained permission to take
off and boosted the throttle.

The engine roared, the airspeed quickly gathered and the white dashed
lines of the runway flashed under the nose.

I pulled back on the yoke and up I went.

As the ground floated away, I had a profound thought: It's too late now.
There's no turning back.

I was committed to the sky.

While that at first was a terrifying proposition, I suddenly was filled
with elation. The plane was operating as it always had while the
instructor was there to coach me.

And I was in total control.

As the Beechcraft lumbered upwards, I gazed down on the green
countryside of northeast Ohio, the gentle rolling hills, forests and
grasslands, interspersed with roads, schools and businesses.

But I wasn't really sightseeing. I was concentrating on the next task
and, ultimately, getting my skinny rear end back on the ground in one

After all, there were precise procedures to be followed. I leveled off
at 800 feet and flew a rectangular pattern around the runway. Soon, I
reduced power, put down flaps and descended at a specific airspeed.

With the turn onto final approach, I lined up with the runway, about a
mile ahead. I kept in mind what my instructor had taught me: If you
don't feel comfortable with the approach, give her full throttle, go
around and try it again.

Happily, I was right on the money. 

The runway floated up to greet me as I pulled back on the yoke to "flare
out," or come level over the surface.

The plane sailed over those long white-dashed lines, giving the
impression that I was going much slower than the 75 mph on my airspeed

I brought the nose up a little more, then waited until the rear wheels
bumped down, which they did with a soft thud.

Boy, that felt good.

I immediately poured on the power and took off again. That's why such
landings are called touch-and-goes.

Then I did the same thing all over again a second time.

By the time I lined up for my third landing, I was feeling like an old
pro, part of a very elite fraternity. Charles Lindbergh, move over.

The wheels squeaked down for the final time, and the sun became bigger
and more golden against the western horizon.

As instructed, I parked the plane and tied it down. Inside the flight
school office, between sips of coffee and puffs on a cigarette, my
instructor shook my hand and signed my logbook, indicating I had soloed.

Then I drove home to tell my mom, dad and brothers about my big
adventure, feeling like I had just flown to the moon. 

In the following four years, in addition to going to college, I all but
devoted my life to aviation, earning my commercial, instrument and
multi-engine ratings.

Eventually, I become the flight instructor, hopping out of small
trainers, leaving wide-eyed students alone in the cockpit, nonchalantly
telling them to make three landings, then meet me inside.

But nothing was quite as satisfying or glorious as completing that first

Next week, I'll tell you what's involved in learning how to fly.


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