First Solo

“I’ll always remember my first solo”

-463 Sqn navigator Don Southwell in conversation, October 2010

There is a certain mystique about a pilot’s first solo. It is one of those moments that separate them from the common ground-dweller. Quite simply, there are those who have flown solo, and there are those who have not.

I remember my own first solo well. It was 28 November 2002, in a Cessna 152. It didn’t take long – just one circuit, taking off from Runway 16 at Wollongong in NSW. Flying downwind, I distinctly recall the euphoric feeling as I looked at the empty seat to my right, where my instructor had been sitting just a few minutes before, and realised that I was flying the aeroplane – all by myself. I ballooned slightly in the landing flare, but at least it was a reasonably soft touchdown.

World War Two provided many aircrew with the opportunity to join that elite ‘solo’ club. Phil Smith flew alone for the first time on 28 November 1940 (exactly 62 years to the day before I did so myself). He flew a Tiger Moth from No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School, Tamworth, NSW. Despite the achievement, Phil’s letter to his father written later that day is in the same measured, almost formal language as all the rest of his correspondence:

“I still don’t make good landings but they say I am fairly safe. So, this morning I did my first solo flight. Altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time” (A01-132-001)

Don Southwell was originally chosen for pilot training. He was posted to 8 EFTS in Narrandera, NSW, and before he was scrubbed and re-mustered as a navigator, he managed to go solo in the Tiger Moth. His solo flight was not entirely uneventful however. He told me the story when I visited him in October 2010. Don was at one of Narrandera’s four satellite fields, which he described as ‘a paddock with a hut’. Shortly after he took off the wind changed. His instructor came up beside him in another Tiger Moth, gesticulating wildly and pointing to the windsock, but Don couldn’t work out what he was trying to tell him. So he simply landed in the same direction that he had taken off in, in a significant crosswind – and made a ‘pearler of a crosswind landing’. I commented on this because I know from experience how much Tiger Moths do not like crosswinds – Don admitted it had been a ‘bit of a fluke’!

Amusing anecdotes aside, however, some aircrew did see their early solo flying as special. In his memoirs published posthumously in 2009, 467 Sqn mid-upper gunner Brian Fallon described his first solo cross country flight in slightly more descriptive terms:

“On 17 June 1943 I flew my first solo cross-country. It was magic. The thrill of sitting alone in an open cockpit with the wind in your hair floating above the earth is something to be experienced.”

I can only say that the first time I flew a Tiger Moth by myself – in April 2010 – I knew exactly what Brian had been getting at. To look forward and not see the back of the instructor’s head in the front cockpit, to hear the wind through the wires and to feel its force on your face is to experience in a small way something of what it was like for so many aircrew of the Commonwealth air forces of World War Two.

Brian’s writing encapsulates a lot of how much it means for pilots to join a very special club:

“They say that flying is as close to heaven as you can get in this life. I think it is so, for you could not help wondering at God’s greatness as you flew around flirting in and out of the clouds with the earth stretched out below, its cultivated squares looking like a quilt. Up there I had a feeling of detachment from all the petty squabbling in society and could not bring myself to believe that all was not right with the world below.”

If there was one good thing to come out of World War Two, it was the opportunity for so many to experience that joy of flight that Brian writes about.

© 2011 Adam Purcell

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