Posts Tagged 'First Solo'

Happy First Solo Day!

On 28 November 1940 – exactly seventy-two years ago today – Phil Smith flew solo for the first time. Like many (if not all) Australian pilots under the Empire Air Training Scheme, it was in a little yellow Tiger Moth, serial A17-58, at No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School, Tamworth, NSW. Phil didn’t seem too excited about it when he wrote to his parents later that day (A01-132-001), reporting simply that “[…] altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time.”

But there is no doubt that the first solo is a significant milestone for any pilot. Witness the following small collection of thoughts and memories from various pilots, taken from the excellent Australians at War Film Archive:

Barry Finch, eventually of 3 Squadron, quoted his instructor:

“Well you might want to kill yourself but I’m precious and I’m getting out. That’s all I can say. Be careful. I’m going to let you go off on your own.” The bloody thing leapt into the air like a young buck, it was incredible what a difference it made without his weight in the front, and to actually find myself going up into the air without any head in front of me, it was unbelievable. And I thought, “Well, I’m here, all I’ve got to do is to get down again.”[After landing] I went over to where he was and he said, “That’s alright, I’m coming with you next time. I reckon you’re safe […] Unforgettable!” (C06-072-013)

John Boland, 61 Squadron:

“So when I had 5 hours instruction up, I got in the aircraft and did a circuit and the instructor got out of the front seat, took the pilot stick out and said, “Righto, take it around again” and I got the shock of my life. I got that big a shock, that when I come around to land, I was that nervous, the instructor had confidence that I could land it, and as I come in to touch down the tail hit the ground first and it bounced.” (C06-073-005)

Colin Morton, 450 Squadron:

“Scared bloody hell out of me. […] I flew an aeroplane before I drove a motor car. It’s – the impact was enormous and I loved it” (C06-081-003)

Alf Read, 463 Squadron:

“I can still remember it because it’s marked with a tree, which you see as you drive past the old airport at Narromine. My instructor said, “Just a minute and I’ll get out, and I’ll sit under this tree while you take your first solo,” and I can assure you it was a wonderful feeling just to be able to take that plane off and bring it back in one piece. And it’s a little incident in your life that you never forget.” (C06-086-006)

Noel Sanders, 463 Squadron:

“I went solo at about nine hours, I think it was. It should have been seven, but they took me up for a check, and by the time I finished the check and got back, the wind had strengthened up so strong that they wouldn’t let a learner pilot go out. So he said, “Well, you’ll have to do it tomorrow.” Tomorrow came and it was still blustery and rough and nobody flew that day. And the following day he said, “You’ve got to have another check.” So I had another check, then he said, “Right, off you go. Just do one circuit and down again and that’s your baptism on your own.” (C06-090-011)

Lionel Rackley, 630 Squadron

“Eventually I went solo, on the 1st of April, 1942. […] Every instructor said it, “Now, okay Rackley. Be careful, because we’re very short of aeroplanes. We don’t care if you get back or not, because we can always replace you. But we’re short of aeroplanes.” So you go around, and I came in and I stood too close to the field, and I had to go around again. And of course the second time I got in. You know then, okay, “I’ve done it. I’m going to get through this course now. I’m not going to get scrubbed. The worst of it is over.” […] And I remember sending a telegram to my mother. I’ve still got the telegram in my album there: ‘Went solo today’”. (C06-075-004)

As it turns out, today is also the tenth anniversary of my own first solo. It was in a Cessna 152, registered VH-WFI, from runway 16 at Wollongong, south of Sydney. After an hour or so of flying circuits, my instructor got out and I proceeded to fly one by myself. It was a slightly wobbly but passable exercise and I logged a princely 0.1 hours solo time in the process.

Some years later, by this time a fully qualified private pilot, I would also experience solo flight in a Tiger Moth, in my own small way experiencing something of what these young men had been doing seven decades ago. And while that flight remains one of the most memorable ones in my logbook, I still remember the tremendous sense of achievement that followed my first solo.

© 2012 Adam Purcell

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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