Tuesday, June 12, 2012

First Solo

* This post is a little bit lengthier than many of my other ones.  One of the reasons why I began this blog was to be able to communicate to our friends and supporters what is happening here, what they are a part of.  In this case there were a lot of words that came gushing out and into my computer.  I hope you enjoy it, and also remember that you are a part of every flight that we do here.  Thanks for your prayers.

Through the curtains of our bedroom I can see the morning light getting brighter by the minute.  Every morning dawns here at pretty much the same time (06:45), but this morning is different.  I feel my excitement level rise and the blood surge through my veins, bringing wakefulness and with every passing moment, clarity of thought to my mind.  Today is my first solo.  In the career of any aviator there are momentous days that will never be forgotten.  One of the biggest ones is the first "FIRST SOLO".  That day when the flight instructor turns to you, reminds you that the plane will be much lighter without him in it, and then opens the door and steps out, leaving you in total control of that large metal flying machine.  Talk about adrenalin rush.  Wow.  You never forget it.  My first solo today is something that I've been working towards for the last 13 years.  All of my other first solo's have only been stepping stones towards the edge, and now today I will take the plunge.

Long dormant chrysalis release their captives, and I feel the butterfly's begin to flutter in my stomach.  It's been a long time since I have felt those nervous twinges before a flight.  Most of my days begin at the MAF office at 06:30, but today I am scheduled for the "Bunia run", the regularly scheduled flight to Bunia, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  This means that today I only need to be in the office at 11:00 to leave for Kajjansi airfield.  I go out and put on the water for coffee, noticing the quietness of our house.  The kids are still asleep.  They must have been really tired after the weekend, but I appreciate the moments of solitude to sort out my riotous thoughts and still my soul.  I pick up my black leather Bible and read from it's pages.  There is nothing that calms me down like God's words written there for me.  Written thousands of years ago and yet just as applicable to me as they were on the day that they were first written.  It boggles the mind.  I enjoy my coffee and as I finish my first cup the kids stagger out of their beds and into the living room.  They are surprised to see me still at home but happy that I am there to greet them.  The phone rings and I discover that today I will need to leave at 10:00, as the pilot who I am riding with to the airport is needed to do a short test flight on the airplane that he will fly later on.

The time has come.  I head into the bedroom and change into my work clothes.  Fresh navy blue dress pants, and a crisp, white pilots shirt. As I slide my gold captains bars onto my shoulders, the fluttering in my stomach grows a little.  Captain.  Pilot in command.  Up to this point there has always been someone else there.  If something should go wrong, help has been sitting there 10 inches to my right.  Not anymore.  Now it's all on me.  If something should go wrong with the aircraft, I will deal with it.  If the weather is poor, I will need to decide to deviate and try to go around it or to turn around, head home, and try again on another day.  The only safety net that I have now is the years of training and experience that it took for me to get to this place in my career.  That and the procedures and policies that are in place to give us pilots firm ground to stand on when we need it.

I walk to the gate and my wife lets me out.  I give her a kiss and tell her that I love her.  I can see that I'm not the only one who is thinking about this day differently.  Hopefully she won't worry.  I don't think that she will.  It's just a special day, that's all.  The drive to the airfield takes about 35 minutes.  When we arrive I collect my things out of the vehicle and walk to my office.  My office has 2 doors, and windows that face every direction, and two wings.  There are 6 seats in it, most of which can easily be removed if needed, and 2 control columns with 2 sets of rudder pedals on the floor at the front.  Since we are there early for the test flight, I have time to spare and I take my time as I go through my pre-flight routine.  I pull out the checklist to confirm that every check has been done and every item looked after.  On days like this it is easy to let emotion and excitement intrude into my routine, and that can result in items being forgotten or missed.  A mark of a good aviator is good use of a checklist, and I remind myself of that fact as I pull out mine and go through it.

Passengers are arriving and being checked in at the terminal building.  My plane is ready.  My passengers are ready.  Everything is ready.  I think.  Well, ready or not here I come.  I straighten up my shoulders and head up to the terminal building to collect my passengers.  I have 2 passengers who will be flying to Bunia with me from Kajjansi, and 1 more who I will pick up at Entebbe airport.  We must fly out of Entebbe airport because this is an international flight, and immigration needs to be taken care of.  I walk my passengers down to my little plane, and they get a little apprehensive at the smallness of their ride this afternoon.  It's a common reaction, and I do my best to reassure them that it will be fine, it's safe, and I will try to make the ride as smooth as my abilities allow me to.  When they are all buckled in, briefed (yes, the exits are here and here, and the airsick bags are in the seat pocket in front of you) and everything is in place, I climb in.  More checklists.

Now the moment is here, and the throaty roar of my engine shatters the silence surrounding us.  With still more checks completed, I taxi my small craft out onto the runway and into position.  I've done this thousands of times before, but this time it somehow feels more special as I smoothly advance the throttle and feel the power in the engine make it's way through the propeller and pull me forward at ever increasing speed.  "Power check" I mutter to myself as my vision flicks across the gauges.  "Speed check, good".  Then the little voice in the back of my mind says "Rotate" and I smoothly pull back on the yoke, allowing my airplane to fulfill it's purpose, lifting us off of the dirt and grass of the runway and soaring into the air.  My eyes flit from gauge to gauge, my hands moving different knobs and controls, making sure that everything is properly set and functioning correctly.  Radio calls to Entebbe go smoothly, and 11 minutes after takeoff, I settle my aircraft onto runway 17 at Entebbe International Airport.  I can't remember breathing for the last eleven minutes, but surely I must have, because we made it here and I'm not dead.  I smile and force myself to concentrate on the task at hand.  The day has only begun.

Almost an hour later, immigration has been taken care of and the passengers are walking back out to our planes.  Today there are two aircraft headed westward into Congo because of the amount of passengers and cargo.  This is a tremendous relief for me, as the other pilot is fluent in French and is experienced in dealing with the issues of Bunia.  He is flying the Cessna 208 Caravan, and is faster than I am, so will arrive before me.  Briefings and checklists completed, I just manage to get my taxi request in before my colleague, and I take off a couple of minutes in front of him.  This time I am taking off of a long, smooth international runway and the butterfly's have finally been defeated.  With naught but a few small mistakes on the radio, I climb out and turn the pointy end westward.  The early afternoon clouds are beginning to grow, and at 10,500 feet I am only just able to zig this way and zag that way to remain out of the clouds.  The cool air that accompanies the higher altitudes blows through my air vent, cooling my heated face and body.  I am refreshed. 

The next obstacle today is Lake Albert.  It lays directly in my path to Bunia, and even at 10,500 feet I cannot remain in gliding distance to land the whole way across it.  This is not only a law that I must obey, but also good sense as I am in a single engine aircraft.  Sometimes it feels as though all we do is to think about what might go wrong on our flights, but it is hard to find experienced pilots who have not made that thought process a part of every flight.  With gliding distance in mind I change my heading 5 degrees to the south.  This will add about 2 minutes to my flight, but will keep me within gliding range of land the whole way across the lake.  As I expected, there are some massive build ups of cloud on the eastern shore of the lake, but what I didn't expect was the visibility that I found myself in once I picked my way through the clouds.  Usually the ground and horizon give me a pretty good idea of visibility, but over the lake that is all gone.  The blue water fades into the haze that is all around me, and as I peer into it I can only guess at the visibility.  I guess that it is from 5-10 miles in front of me and perhaps 10-15 behind.  This is well within my limitations, but as I make my way across the lake the feeling of alone-ness and lack of any defining features in any direction is somewhat surreal.  After several minutes, the cliffs on the western edge of the lake appear over the front of my cowling and I breathe a little easier.  Once I clear those ridges, it's a fairly brisk descent to get down to Bunia.  I'm glad that none of my passengers are fighting a cold, as the rate at which I am forced to descend would be uncomfortable for them if they were.  About 10 miles out I spot Bunia, and 3 or 4 miles later on I spot the runway.  A reasonable approach and a landing at nearly maximum landing weight, and I find myself parking my airplane on the apron in Bunia.  We are here.

Because of my "newbie" status, I have more restrictions than the other pilots in the program.  One of those is my last landing time.  This is the time that I must be on the ground somewhere for the night.  If I don't make it back home by then, it means an overnight somewhere.  Because the other pilot is here with me in Bunia and has taken care of almost everything already, I am able to quickly load up my new passengers and brief them.  This is my first passenger briefing that I have ever given using mostly sign language (my own, not any real sign language).  Neither of my passengers speak English. I do my best and they seem to understand the important things.  Takeoff and climb-out are uneventful.  With less weight in the back my little plane seems to want to leap into the air, and I like the feeling.  Things are normal and well as I approached the east edge of Lake Albert on the flight home.  Those clouds that I had to pick my way through on the way to Bunia have now grown into a huge thunderstorm.  A quick discussion on the radio with our flight follower lets us know that the weather is clear to the south if we feel the need to divert.  I feel that descending would help me to avoid much of the weather, and I ease the airplane down to 7,500 feet.  I am pleased and a little proud of myself when I see that this was the right call.  I am just beneath the clouds and the visibility is much better down here.  Then I see what is in front of me.

The edge of the storm cell.  The picture doesn't do it justice.
In front and extending left as far as I can see is a enormous dark blue mass.  Extending out in front at the bottom of it is the "foot" of the cloud.  Everything about it is warning me to stay away.  I am presently several miles away from it, and cruising in smooth air.  I decide to maintain this distance from the cloud and skirt the edge of it until I am past it.  It is a huge relief to know that at any time if things begin to deteriorate to where I feel uneasy at all, I can make haste to the south and find clear skies.  I glance back at my passengers and find that they are both sleeping.  Part of me is glad and the other part of me wishes that they could see this display of power laid out in front of us.  I didn't note the distance, but a guess would have the distance that we flew alongside the storm to be about 40 miles.  Because everything was going well at this point I pulled out my camera and took a couple of pictures.  Stunning.

Once we left the cell behind us, things became much more routine.  Again, the radio work into Entebbe went well, and I quickly dropped my passengers there and headed out for the short flight back to Kajjansi.  This time I didn't have any passengers.  This is my first flight in the 206 with no-one and nothing else in it but me.  Take-off was a "blink and you'll miss it" event in the lightened aircraft.  The short flight home went smoothly, complete with a simulated engine failure and practice forced approach to the runway.  I figured that since there was no one else in the plane with me I should take advantage and  get a little practice in.  I nailed my approach, although the landing wasn't perfectly smooth.  I'm just not used to flying with such little weight any more.  The only thing remaining is one last call to our flight follower.  "Fox-Fox, Sierra-Yankee is on the ground, Kajjansi."  "Sierra-Yankee, on the ground Kajjansi.  Congratulations on your solo."  I smile to myself and push down on my transmit button one more time, "Thanks.  It was good."  The smile on my face lasted for a long time.


  1. LOVE reading your blog Dallas! Thank you for taking the time to writes these posts. It is great to hear what is going on and I just love the details you give. It really makes us feel a part of what you are doing!:)

  2. Sweet post.
    Favourite line: "Well, ready or not, here I come." A cheezy line used masterfully.
    Nice call on the weather...and good shot of the base of the clouds...but what we all really want is a shot of you with a goofy smile and your two passengers snoring in the back. Haha. Did I mention that I'm living vicariously through you. Keep the good stuff coming. If you need some help with French...I'll be your translator any day. Does the HF reach up to Chad? :)