Last week my instructor turned to me, after 40 minutes of practised forced landings after take-off in a 15 knot half-crosswind, and said “You’re ready to go solo”. Because of the weather, I expected him to add “..but we’ll wait until next time when the conditions are more favourable”.
But he didn’t. He got out. And I flew my first solo circuit in the Eurostar.
It wasn’t a moment of fanfare. There were no dancing girls or trumpets. Not because it wasn’t a great moment. It was. Just that it had been 26 years since my first ever solo, so I had been here before emotionally.
I experienced a strange sense of being out of my body and looking down on my life like a movie. As my instructor was giving me my brief, I had a wry smile on my face that he probably interpreted as arrogance, as was transported back to that field in 1985 at RAF Newton in Nottinghamshire.
My instructor then, on the week long Glider Proficiency course with the Air Training Corps, was Flight Leiutenant Babbage. I’m not saying he was fat, but I believe the envelope of our Venture glider (a plucky VW Beetle-engined self-propelled sail plane) was pushed to it’s limits every time he hauled his 50-something voluntary aircrew bulk into it. I remembered how he heaved himself out of the cockpit to take a piss by the wing whilst telling me I may experience some slightly different handling characteristics. I was more interested in how he managed to get his nadger out of his flying suit with such dexterity whilst also remembering the salient points of a brief to a 16-year old who was about to risk life and limb by convincing a large pile of red and white balsa wood powered by a Hitler-inspired engine (did Babbage not see the irony, I wondered?) to depart from it’s Earthly footings then turn Hitler off and glide back down to Earth in a co-oridnated manner at 9.30am on an English Thursday.
I remember the sheer excitement of that moment. It’s an experience nobody ever forgets, and rightly so.
My first solo was made doubly exciting by the fact that the Venture, without the weight of my Master, could now actually FLY. What had previously handled like a barge on a canal and took hundreds of feet to take off now felt more like a sports car. It was off the ground in seconds!
The climb rate was astonishing without Babbage, who was by now no doubt shaking the remaining dribbles of urine from his not-seen-since-1972 nadger.
I remember saying stuff out loud like “whoooo-ah”, “woo-hoo”, “jesus”, “mummy”, but not neccessarily in that order.
I had had something like 3 hours total flying training at that point, and here I was in command of my own ship for the first time.
There were three other moments I remember about going solo then that were the same as last week. A very brief frozen moment in time when you are looking at yourself flying from the outside of the aircraft thinking how cool you are. Then a moment of total terror as you realise there’s nobody there to help you if the engine stops followed by a realisation that you’ve got to land the bloody thing and the instructor is watching you from the ground with his fingers crossed.
Hold off, hold off. Don’t you dare fucking balloon. Touchdown. Brilliant.
I don’t remember of we used radio back in ’85, but last week my instructor came through and said “Well done. that’s a 9 out of 10” to which I replied “I think you’ll find it was a 10 out of 10” and then a hastily added “That was a joke, I didn’t really..”
It’s very hard to pull off humour on the radio. As I’m sure Terry Wogan would testify.
So, large gratitude is given to all those instructors over the years that have seen fit to send me solo, recommend me for training, passed me on a test or just been such bloody brilliant pilots and men that I want to name check them on my blog: Flt Lt Babbage, Harris (sorry I can’t remember your first name, but I’ll never forget what you said to me after I got lost and delayed 7 Heathrow-bound passenger jets after blagging my way out with a fake practise-PAN), David Hoy, Flt Lt. Paul Barber (I miss you, Sir), Flt Lt Hewitt (ex Red Arrows), Dave Greenwood (I was so sorry to hear they’d taken your medical off you), and John Bradbury.
Thank you one and all.
Here is a picture of me next to another great Slingsby, the T67 Firefly, at Denham in 1986.
This was the one and only time my Dad saw me fly solo before he died, which was actually the best solo of my life.