I guess the story starts off on the day before going solo. Gene De Marco kindly invited me to come along for a photo flight (at this point I thought in the back of the 180). I was pretty excited about this as you can imagine, I’d never had another aircraft sitting off the wing next to me (apart from John Bargh whizzing by us in the Air Tractor a few years back in an air race).
Boy was I wrong! I arrived at Hanger 14 around 0700, quickly adorned a leather flying jacket and Tim Sullivan’s gloves (he was quite right when he said I’d need them because of the cold), and was chucked into the back of the Bristol Fighter to play gunner. Boy oh boy was I trying to contain myself from grinning ear to ear. So with Gene piloting the aircraft, and myself clearing the tail of any German baddies, we took off and headed out toward Gladstone.
I must say it was a bit different looking backward on a take-off roll. A few short moments later I spot Tim Sullivan (with a huge grin on his face I might add) in the Fokker DVII on our tail, close enough to reach out and touch. And then the 180 pops up slightly above and to the left of us, with world renowned aviation photographer Philip Makanna hanging out the side.
It seems I had now well and truly experienced formation flying at its best. At the end of each photo run Gene would put us into a tight turn to get back into position as quickly as possible, which was a bit scary when you’re kneeling up in an open cockpit aircraft (lucky I was being ‘pushed in’ rather than ‘pulled out’). Finally after all our fun we came back and landed on 28 (rather smoothly compared to a few of my landings), taxied over to Hanger 14 and shutdown. By this point I could no longer withhold my smile!
The next day I turned up at Ace Aviation, the Cub on the tarmac outside waiting for me to pre-flight, which I did, filled out my fuel sheet etc, and let Kerry know I was ready to go. We hopped in the plane and taxied to runway 10, then to 06 (they had put the fence up for the airshow, thus the taxi route was a little different). Lined up and away we went for a few circuits.
After about the 3rd landing we began to backtrack, and I heard Kerry fiddling around in the back (I later worked out she was taking the stick out). We pulled off the runway, and I carried out my pre-takeoff checks – and after “Controls” Kerry hands me the maintenance book, which read “Stick Out”, awaiting my signature. It was about then that I clicked… “Oh, I’m going solo!!!” So everything was in order, Kerry had hopped out, and told me to account for having less weight in the back for the take-off roll and climb out. Doors closed, harnesses and hatches secure, “Masterton Traffic, Bravo Kilo Victa lining up and rolling 06 right, remaining in the circuit”, powered up to move onto the runway, and stopped when I was sure I was down the centre-line and the tail wheel was straight.
I took a deep breath, and I went for it. I advanced the throttle to full power and let the stick neutralize as soon as I had directional control. The tail came up a lot quicker than I was expecting, and I pitched forward a little to get the level attitude, then neutral again as soon as I felt the pressure go. I was airborne by about the 10-28 cross vector, and climbing away. The Cub felt like a totally different aircraft! I was climbing out at around 70kt, with the nose pointed at the sky, which is a little different than its usual flat climb out when dual.
I extended my climb out to around 700-800ft AGL, knowing that I was too close to the field to turn crosswind just yet. It was about at this point that I had a welcome brief moment of relaxation waiting for the extra distance; I managed to look to my left to see my house, and realized I was truly flying by myself! Flying above my house was something I’d always dreamed of doing, having lived next to Hood Aerodrome for about 14 years.
I finally had the distance I needed to turn onto the crosswind leg, so I did my lookout, all clear, and turned right. After another right hand turn onto the downwind leg, I leveled off at about 1400ft and did my call “Masterton Traffic, Bravo Kilo Victa is Downwind 06 right, full stop”, I then got my checks out of the way early. “Undercarraige: Fixed, Pitch: Fixed, Primer: Locked, Fuel: Contents and… Changing to the Fullest Tank, Harness Hatches: Secure and Brake Pressure”. All set! By this time I was in the middle of the downwind leg for 06, and had good spacing, so I admired the view. People were setting up fences, stands, tents, aircraft and all sorts. I pretended it was airshow day and I was flying my display (albeit an extremely far away and plain one). I snapped back to reality and realized it was time to start my descent (carb-heat and power back) and turn onto my base leg.
One of my problems while doing the initial circuit training was ‘cutting the corner’ on my base leg, so I took extra care and imagined my circular path to line up on the runway, which I think I flew pretty well. Turns out I’d turned too early this morning as well, which meant I was far too high on finals, so I acted quickly, bringing the power right back and entering a left sideslip (which is perfect for letting air in through the window on the left side of the Cub – it was a hot morning). After a few moments of rapid descent I was back at an appropriate height. I carried out my finals checks “Carbheat: Off, Undercarraige: Fixed, Pitch: Fixed, Windsock: Down the runway, Runway clear and picked a decision point. I hit a bit of sink coming over the river, a touch of power fixed that, and entered into my flare. I continued on to the hold-off attitude, almost. Kerry advised me over the radio “Back”, so I brought the stick all the way back, and greased the landing on. Phew! I’d done it! Flown solo!!!
After my left turn I backtracked along 06, and vacated at the southern end of it, to follow the path I had come out along, just to make sure I didn’t bump into anything with the airshow being set up. Kerry thought I was going to take off again! (I must admit, the thought had crossed my mind). I finally made it past the corner of the fence along runway 10, and taxied past the Corsair and Kittyhawk, I smiled to myself, thinking “I’ll be flying those next!”
Once I made it back to Ace Aviation I looked out to my left and saw my whole family with big grins and thumbs up. It seems Kerry had sent my Dad a text to let them know I was going solo. They must’ve known before I did! I carried out the aircraft shutdown and exited the plane. My Dad being the keen photographer he is, and Kerry wanting a photo too, got me to pose in front of the Cub, except the fake smile you usually wear for photos wasn’t fake this time! Dad then joked around “I heard it was tradition after first solos to clean the plane”. Kerry liked this idea very much, especially as it needed to be all shiny for the airshow. So after a debrief, I set to work, scrubbing all the grease, dirt, and bugs from all over the plane. But even that didn’t wear the smile off from my face.
A friend had told me that it was the proper tradition to have a bucket of water tipped over your head in all your clothes. I had no-one around to do the honours, so I did the next best thing – as soon as I got home I rushed off to the pool, with all my clothes on and drenched myself.
It had been an interesting and exciting two days for me. I had crossed a few things off my “To do before I die list”, flying in a genuine vintage WWI aircraft, experiencing formation flight, going for my first solo, and being a display pilot (it was all set-up for the airshow, I call that close enough!).
I also started a new tradition (yes – all you new pilots about to go solo will now have to clean the plane afterwards!)
All in all, a pretty cool couple of days, and it’s true what they say, I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first solo.