360 DEGREES

Golf Alpha Tango Echo Zulu, cleared to land runway two-seven, winds calm, QFE 1013.

Golf Alpha Tango Echo Zulu, cleared to land two-seven, one-zero-one-three.

Norwich flying school was situated right at the beginning of runway zero-niner, and on a good day, when there was no traffic and we were landing on runway two-seven, we’d be cleared to taxi all the way down, exiting the runway at the end – passing holding point echo – until we arrived back at the school’s hangar.

This is exactly what happened on this day in 1997, with me having had eight hours of flight instruction.

Having pulled up at the hangar, I grabbed the checklist, preparing to shut her down. My instructor opened the only door on the Piper Warrior PA-28 and climbed out on to the wing.

‘Stuart, you’re ready. One circuit, go.’

He closed the door. It was now just me, and my gal.

With the active runway being two-seven on this particular day, and, sitting at the top of zero-niner, I had to taxi around the entire airport.

Upon reaching holding point alpha, I tapped the toe brakes and came to a stop.

Golf Alpha Tango Echo Zulu, ready for departure for circuits.

Golf Alpha Tango Echo Zulu, line up runway two-seven and wait.

Golf Alpha Tango Echo Zulu, line up two-seven, wait.

I released the brakes and applied a little throttle. Me and my gal edged forward.

Half way between alpha and two-seven, I glanced to starboard, checking for unscheduled traffic, or scheduled traffic, in case the air traffic controller had buggered things up. There was none.

I was lined up, with a long stretch of runway before me.

Golf Alpha Tango Echo Zulu, cleared for take-off runway two-seven, left turn, QFE 1013.

Having repeated my clearance back, I eased the throttle forward, applying maximum power.

Ts and ps: I checked the instrument panel, ensuring the engine temperature and pressure needles were within the correct parameters. Check.

I applied a little right rudder to compensate for torque.

Sixty knots, check.

I pulled back, and through the rudder pedals I felt the nose wheel dancing.

I was airborne. For the first time, it was just me and the machine in which I was sat. No instructor.

1,000 feet, check. Heading two-seven-zero, check.

I eased the yoke forward to level out, pulled back the throttle, and whizzed the trim wheel forward a few turns. For a split second, I released the yoke from my white knuckles. Me and my gal stayed straight and level, we were trimmed.

Left hand down: I needed to turn to heading one-eight-zero. Check. Straight and level, check.

Time for a FREDA check: fuel, balanced; radio, set; engine – 10 seconds of carburetor heat, said engine making a constant noise, ts and ps good, check; direction indicator married with the compass, check; Altitude 1,000 feet. Check. All good.

Another left turn took us to heading zero-niner-zero. Me and my gal were now downwind, flying parallel to the runway of Norwich International Airport.

Take off is busy. The first and second turns are busy. Downwind is the one time when you have a few seconds of breathing space.

It was then when I realised where I was, along with the gravity of the situation.

Stuart, screw this up, and you’re brown bread.

With the runway behind me at eight o clock, it was time for another turn to the left onto base leg.

There would only be one more turn, the crucial one; the turn onto approach.

Wanting to be configured in good time, I pulled the lever and let down the flaps, while at the same time, reducing the throttle and pushing forward on the yoke.

Flaps, check. Trimmed, check. Airspeed 75 knots, check.

I turned my gal back to our original heading, two-seven-zero.

Golf Alpha Tango Echo Zulu on final to land.

Golf Alpha Tango Echo Zulu, cleared to land runway two-seven, winds calm, QFE 1013.

Golf Alpha Tango Echo Zulu, cleared to land two-seven, one-zero-one-three.

The PAPIs looked good, two red and two white. If you see more white than red, you’re too high. If you see more red than white, you’re too low. If you see green, you’re flying through the grass, and are fucked.

I came over the numbers and closed the throttle. Holding off, ground effect taking place, having approached a little fast, I briefly floated.

My airspeed bled away. I eased back on the yoke to flare. The stall warning buzzer sounded, and then, clunk. I was down.

Golf Alpha Tango Echo Zulu arrived five-three. Continue two-seven, exit holding point echo, confirm cleared….

Golf Alpha Tango Echo Zulu, exit echo, wilco.

And then he said the two words which made me aware of what I’d just done; the two words which made me aware that I’d just flown an aeroplane alone; the very two words which made me aware that I had not, in any way whatsoever, cocked things up:

…and congratulations.

Me and the yoke shared a little fist bump.

I later learned that on that day I’d broken the record at Norwich Flying School – established for 30 years at the time – for flying solo with the least amount of hours with an instructor.

I was on such a high, I was shaking. I immediately called Mum to share with her the experiences of my afternoon. She picked up the phone, made some sort of grunt, and I immediately knew she was smashed out of her mind. She couldn’t talk, and she had no understanding that her son was trying to tell her he’d just flown an aircraft solo for the first time. My high turned into a deep low, and my shaking continued, but for very different reasons.

 

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