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Learning to fly a plane: The first solo flight (part 1 of 3)

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains By Dan Sobczak
May 2021

Editor's note: this article first appeared in America's Flyways magazine in October 2005. This content does not constitute flight instruction. Consult a certified flight instructor in your area for proper flight instruction.



I have always had an interest in aviation and enjoyed going to the airport whenever family vacations arose.

I would sit in the terminal and watch the big commercial jetliners come and go. Over time, I was able to rattle off each jet's make and model, spotting workhorses like the Boeing 727, the Lockheed L-1011, and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10.

As the years passed and my interest in aviation grew, I was not satisfied with simply watching airplanes from a distance; I wanted to sit in the pilot's seat. I decided that I wanted to learn to fly someday.

For fifteen years, my dream of flying an airplane remained a dream. Then I read two books, one by former NASA astronaut Gene Cernan, The Last Man on the Moon. The other book was Deke! An Autobiography, by Donald "Deke" Slayton, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts.

I was inspired to experience what they had: the magic of aviation, the freedom of flight, the thrill of controlling an aircraft. The passion was growing. I wanted to learn to fly. I needed to learn to fly.


Solid foundation of ground school study


I was willing to put in the time and effort required of a student pilot. I purchased the latest version of a home computer flight simulator. I spoke with the manager of a flight school and was a little discouraged after discovering the costs involved in getting a pilot's license.

No matter though -- I just needed to start saving money, and I could easily get a loan if I needed additional funds to help pay for the lessons. I was more determined than ever. The passion was becoming irresistible. I wanted to learn to fly.

Rod Machado's Private Pilot Handbook makes learning to fly fun, and is a great resource to build a solid foundation of aviation knowledge.

Rod Machado's Private Pilot Handbook makes learning to fly fun, and is a great resource to build a solid foundation of aviation knowledge.


I began my own personal studies. Among others, I learned from aviation humorist and flight instructor extraordinaire Rod Machado and his Private Pilot Handbook. When I had absorbed all that I could from books, I enrolled in a private pilot ground school course.


First flying lesson


My first flight lesson came a few months later. I chose Falcon Executive Aviation out of Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona, just a few miles from where I grew up. I had watched airplanes come and go from Falcon's two runways all through my childhood. At last, I would be flying one of those airplanes.

Orange trees at the approach end of Runway 4R and departure end of Runway 22L at Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Dan Sobczak.

Orange trees at the approach end of Runway 4R and departure end of Runway 22L at Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Dan Sobczak.


It was a sunny, warm April afternoon when I met my instructor John. After an initial briefing on the first lesson's objectives, we headed out to a Cessna 172 tied down on the ramp outside.

John explained the importance of performing a thorough pre-flight as we went over each item on the checklist. We strapped ourselves in and finished the checklist. I turned the key and N738XD came to life, her dials and gauges not as foreign as they once were.

I was overwhelmed as the Cessna climbed away from Falcon Field. My eyes were glued to the instruments. We began working on basic attitude control and the four fundamentals of flight that affect all airplanes: lift, weight, thrust, and drag.

Earlier in our pre-flight briefing, John had illustrated these forces with a toy airplane. During our flight, John could tell I was fixated on the instruments, and he insisted I keep my head up and eyes out, not only to look for traffic, but also to acquire a mental picture of the aircraft attitude in various phases of flight.

Before I knew it, the hour was up and we returned to Falcon Field for landing and debriefing. I wanted to go again right then. I was hooked!

An Allegro 2000 Light Sport Airplane in 2005 at Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Dan Sobczak.

Sunset at Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Dan Sobczak.


Over the next month, I progressed rapidly. Radio communications, slow flight, stalls, steep turns, and ground reference maneuvers came easily. With each new maneuver John introduced, I was growing more confident. I could do this. I was learning to fly!


Learning to land: The touch-and-go, or the smash-and-go?


Then the time came to learn to land the airplane.

By lesson five, it was clear I could not land an airplane if my life depended on it. I was becoming a master of the smash-and-go.

No matter how much effort I put forth, I just could not get it. I flared too high or too low. I would land with the nose left of the centerline. Sometimes I would use too much rudder on rollout, nearly running us off the runway.

After a few more lessons, and many ugly landing attempts, John was at a loss. I could not explain it either. I understood the procedures and could rattle them off from memory.

John suggested I fly with another instructor, hoping that a different point of view might help solve my problem. I flew with another instructor for a lesson and suffered through the same landing issues as before. I just had no feel for the airplane when landing; it was as simple as that.

I was nearing the scheduled solo flight. There is no way I am ever going to solo, I thought after another round of "creative" arrivals.


Getting a feel for landings: Short and soft field practice


John decided to work on short- and soft-field take-offs and landings. We took 8XD out to a nearby airport, a former military airfield with 10,000' long, 150' wide runways, to work on short and soft field landings. There was no way I could run off of those runways.

Something happened as we practiced short-field techniques. Everything began to click.

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Holding the airplane off the ground just a little longer during the soft-field landings helped me listen to 8XD as we entered ground effect just a few feet above the runway. I began to sense the reaction of the airplane in response to my control inputs; I could feel the ground effect cushion building up under my wings.

I had been forcing the airplane down. I had been muscling the Cessna onto the ground. I began to know when the Cessna wanted to settle onto the runway. With each additional approach and landing, I grew more confident. I began to think that my next lesson might include my first solo flight.


First solo flight


Two days later, early morning: the sun had just risen above the horizon on another hot June morning. John and I took to the air for some pattern work.

After seven successful touch-and-go's, John told me to request a full-stop landing from tower for my next touchdown. After turning off runway 4R at mid-field, he told me to taxi over to the fuel shack and stop to let him out. This is it, I thought.

"Are you ready?" John asked.

"I guess so," I replied, trying to focus my mind and remember all 16 hours of training.

"Take it around, make two touch-and-go's and a full-stop on the third one. Then come back and tie it down."

"Alright, see you in a bit," I replied.

"And watch the take-off," John added. "Remember what we talked about. It'll feel much lighter without me on board."

I was about to fly an aircraft all by myself. I was about to live my dream. All I could think about was my training. Check the flight instruments. Make the correct radio calls. Obtain proper taxi and take-off clearance. Verify engine instruments in the green. Verify airspeed is alive. Maintain the centerline. Rotate at 55 knots. Trim for Vy, best rate of climb.

I smiled proudly as I flew the upwind leg of the traffic pattern. Wow!, I thought. Better not get too cocky. I still had an airplane to fly and three landings to make.

A few minutes later, I was stepping out of the Cessna 172. John captured the moment with his camera: me with a big grin on my face standing next to 8XD.

Moments after my first solo flight in N738XD as a student pilot, at Falcon Field Airport (KFFZ), June 2003.

Moments after my first solo flight in N738XD as a student pilot, at Falcon Field Airport (KFFZ), June 2003.


In keeping with tradition. John cut off my shirt tail. It is a simple piece of white cloth with a cartoon airplane on it, our names, the date and location of my solo flight, but it is one of my most cherished possessions.

A co-worker and pilot friend once told me that learning to fly builds character. The process gives the student a sense of self and develops confidence. I began to realize what my friend was trying to tell me. I was not just learning to fly. I was becoming a pilot.

Before you take off, discover some of the hidden benefits of learning to fly, and how learning to fly could help you beyond aviation.

Stay sharp!
The Flight Chain App team




Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains Dan Sobczak is the founder of www.FlightChainApp.com, a mobile app that helps pilots learn from accident chains by making NTSB reports more convenient and easier to digest. Dan received his private pilot certificate in 2003.


Flight Chain App and its companion blog www.AheadOfThePowerCurve.com are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.


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June 2021:
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May 2021:
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February 2018:
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Flight Chain App and its blog Ahead of the Power Curve are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.