“I will tell you. But then you must meet me at Old Warden. Alone.”
“Sure, I will drive.”
“No, fly. On your own.”
This wasn’t an assignation. This was a challenge. One pilot to another.
Tough love. That’s what friends are for, isn’t it? My fellow flyer, another John, was trying to encourage me to go solo again. Sure, I had done all my required hours alone in my aircraft. In fact, after that, on one perfect spring day, I had gone for a flight along Stansted’s zone on my own. I have the awful selfie to prove it. (I know, I know – my sister has already told me off!)
After that, it was a matter of replacing an instructor I knew would keep me out of trouble, with a passenger that I felt comfortable having beside me. Sharing an aircraft has meant that James and I built up many hours together. Initially I would be the passenger while we flew into an unknown airfield, watching and learning the approach and join, and then I would fly home. After a while, I would be the one flying into the new airfield, and James would fly us home. It has worked fantastically well for me, and I would recommend it to anyone sharing an aircraft. Buddy up with someone more advanced than yourself. It meant I could build up my confidence and go further afield than I would have if I had been the only pilot in command. For any given leg of a journey, though, there was always only one P1. No fuzzy lines of command allowed.
From there I progressed to flying with other pilots who couldn’t manage my sporty Skyranger Swift.
But what I never did was go up alone. “That’s crazy,” said Ed. “If you aren’t relying on someone else’s help, then you could just as well be alone.” Well, no. Two pairs of eyes work better than one, and it is quite simply more companionable with a fellow traveller.
Many of my friends thought nothing of it. They would fly with or without someone in the right-hand seat. Just as many pilots told me they never went up on their own. Why would they?
I do remember once trying to school myself to jump in and fly alone. It was one of those perfect days, no one else around for company, but I simply couldn’t.
The day of the challenge, I found a million excuses, all valid, for not flying alone. I hadn’t slept very well. That was never a good start to flying. “I’m not doing it,” I told a girl-friend. “Another day,” she soothed me, “you will know when it’s right.” I didn’t need to justify it to anyone else, because I hadn’t told anyone of my plans. “It’s smooth as silk up there,” said Neil when he landed. It did look good. If not now, then when? I didn’t want to give myself a problem to solve. This had to be a challenge I aced. I took a deep breath and called Old Warden for PPR and texted John with my eta as I checked out the aeroplane.
My memory of flying alone was how quickly the aircraft leapt into the air and how much right rudder I needed to balance out the lack of passenger. James had never wanted me to get used to actually flying with a weight, which some folk at the airfield did when they were alone in the cockpit. “You won’t even notice it,” he promised. I didn’t really believe him.
There was so little wind, I took off straight from the apron onto 21 and caught my breath as we soared up into the air, turning over the pylons and calling, “Departing for the West.” This was it, I was on my own – and it felt quite good. No wait, it felt fantastic! Like a muscle memory of an old exercise, I sat up straight, all my senses on high alert, and I smiled. “I’ve got this! I know what I am doing. I can. I am fine. I am in control,” was running through my mind as I set course for the cluster of wind turbines that marks the entry into Old Warden’s zone.
The half an hour sped by, enjoying the countryside in its yellow and green April splendour, looking at the patterns on the clouds, alone and loving it. I heard no one in the circuit as I switched frequencies, but a second call elicited “Runway 03 in use”. Phew, with nothing to choose, that was the one I was most familiar with. Rehearsing my radio calls mentally, no one would have detected even the slightest trepidation as they came out. “They sounded great,” John said later.
“Just square off your circuit, give yourself lots of room,” Dan had encouraged me. Now even I was surprised at how perfectly my overhead join was panning out. “Don’t lose your height here!” I muttered to myself as I joined crosswind, with the same shouty voice the instructor had at this point. I turned downwind just as John called overhead, in time, as he later told me, “to see your superb landing.” It could have been the other John or Ed or James or Dan in the early days of flying in: “Keep it flying, a bit more power, don’t get too low until you are over the hedge, right, you are in, now look towards the end of the runway, pull back, gently does it, and you are down,” but it was only the replay in my head.
The radio is the last place for chit-chat at an airfield, but I couldn’t help a delighted chuckle as I called, “India Alpha vacated zero three, with a greaser of a landing!” There was no-one but John to hear, fortunately. The CFI would have torn strips off me, but I didn’t care. I parked up and took the biggest smile ever in probably the only selfie that has worked!
I was on Cloud Nine as we sipped our juice, and I couldn’t stop thanking John for giving me the boot I needed to get up there alone again. He didn’t really have anything to tell me, other than that I should fly alone more often. Will I? I am sure I will sometimes, now that I have broken the block I had about it. Admittedly, the trip home was a lot bumpier than going there, and if I had met that turbulence on the way out, I could well have cried it all off. But I didn’t, and that’s all that counts.