Aloft alone in a tail-dragger

WE'D been shooting landings all summer, Spike and I. Spike was my flying instructor, and I, a 17-year-old with a part-time job, regularly traded most of my paycheck for what he could teach me. It was 1957, and we were flying out of a rural airfield that boasted a single macadam strip. Our machine was a two-seat tandem tail-dragger, an Aeronca Champ, a sturdy creation of yellow canvas over metal, built in the early 1940s. The Champ had a reputation for being forgiving of error. It was annoying, but I was having trouble with flying. How could I find it so hard to do what I felt born to do? Yet, of all things, I couldn't keep the airplane moving in a straight line on the ground. Takeoffs and landings, therefore, had proved difficult to master.

``Engine torque,'' Spike had explained. ``Keep a little right rudder.''

I'd finally got the hang of it by getting rid of my shoes. Now I could respond with stocking'd sensitivity to the flow of air over the rudder. Once I learned to steer the plane during takeoff, the rest fell into place. With Spike hovering over the back-seat controls, I proved able to leave the ground, fly, and return to earth in a reasonably controlled manner.

We were at the moment rolling out after a pretty smooth landing, and slowing to turn onto the taxi strip for another go-around. I was thinking of my future in flying. Just a few more lessons, I calculated, and I'd be ready to solo. I was catching on quickly now. I'd soon be out over the practice area doing stalls and slips and 360s around a point. Then I'd move into cross-country....

In the midst of my reverie, Spike climbed out of the plane. ``Take 'er up,'' he shouted through the propwash. He then latched the cabin door and walked away without a backward glance.

Take 'er up! Alone? Is he crazy? I'm not ready for this. But even as these thoughts stampeded through my head, my hand was easing the throttle forward, and the plane lurched again into motion. I moved down the taxi strip toward the end of the runway.

It was a splendid summer evening, with long velvet shadows fingering a cloth of deepening green. From above, it could be seen that the cloth was also cleft in places with dark streams, and puffy with patches of trees. It was only from above that all this could be appreciated, and above was where I wanted to be. This time I would be there alone.

I set my heels briefly against the brakes, checked for traffic, swung into position for takeoff, and shoved the throttle forward. The Champ groaned for its 10,000th time since 1943, roared to life, rumbled down the broad airstrip, and shook itself free of the ground. Hangars receded slowly beneath the still-rolling tires, as they always had; the sweet odor of spent airplane fuel filtered into the cabin as it always had; the wings waggled and shuddered occasionally as they always had; the horizon grew gradually misty as it always had. The sun was low and fiery, the shadows black, the fields and forests the richest green. I watched cars creep along the road beneath as I always had. But this evening I was alone. I was flying solo.

I made two climbing turns to the left, leveled off at 800 feet, and began the downwind leg of my landing pattern. No signs of Spike below. Probably in the shack bracing for the crash. No traffic. That was especially comforting. Is it possible to crack up on your first solo?

I passed the downwind end of the runway - my intended landing point - and switched on the carburetor heat as I had been taught. Then I cut back the throttle and started to pay very close attention to what was going on. With the power reduced, the plane had begun to settle toward the earth. The wind hummed through the struts, and the engine ticked quietly in the background. A pleasant combination of sounds.

Well beyond the end of the runway now, I eased the plane around 90 degrees to the left, then another 90 into my final approach. With pleasure I noted that the runway was indeed now lined up in front of the airplane.

But the runway wouldn't stay put. It persisted, like an errant compass, in twisting first to the left and then to the right, and I began to worry about my ability to land on such an oscillating stick. To make matters worse, the horizon kept tilting slightly - first one way, then the other. The plane shivered once, lifted, and settled again. What would Spike do? Where was Spike?

Your first solo landing, I had been told, was usually picture-perfect. Mistakes would doubtless be made later, but the first one was always good. Who said that, anyway? We're talking about my first solo now. I don't even know where the runway will be when I land! I pulled back steadily on the stick, feeling, feeling for the approaching ground.

When the plane lost flying speed it was a little higher than it should have been. It was, moreover, skidding slightly to the right, with the horizon tilted also a few degrees to the right. Happily, at least, it was over the macadam. The moment of impact was uncomfortable, but the Champ had been through this before. It forgave, and we rolled out to a gentle stop.

Spike flew with me periodically through the rest of the summer. He never asked me about my first solo, and I never told him about it. I did eventually get out over the practice area on my own for those slips and stalls and 360s. But then, for financial reasons, I had to quit, and I never flew solo again.

I am frequently tempted to pick up where I left off. But I no longer have the reflexes of a 17-year-old, and air traffic is heavier than in 1957. I've since been aboard a biplane that flipped over on landing, and I tend to remember narrow escapes. My life insurance would probably go up. I have a family to think of.

But for me flight remains seductive. The desire grows especially strong on a lazy summer evening. The freedom of it - like the age of 17 - were once mine, and I can't forget. A solo flight would be a piece of cake this time.

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