FIRST TIME OUT ALONE
“Oh please God, I’m lost,” I whimpered.
As I write this, I’m a student pilot again. Remembering, my palms go cold and slippery with sweat.
It was solo time again – this time to fly away from home. I hoped.
Puffed up with bravado, I pleaded with my instructor to let me loose to go someplace else, all by myself, please, to leave the monotonous pattern of “circuits and bumps,” and range away from home base. “Another field, please? A change of scene? How about Lawrence? I’ve been there often and know it well.”
“Circuits and bumps” is the tongue in cheek expression for take-offs and landings, going around, and around, and around, the landing traffic pattern rectangle. Ah, the Circuit. The takeoff and climb-out followed by turning left to parallel the runway, going back to land on it. Throttle back on final, drift and trim for an elegant touchdown (the bump). Roll out, add power, scooting down the runway to do it all over again. Around and around, up and down. Practice makes perfect. All those left turns. Took ages before I could tolerate a right-hand pattern.
After a while, I sincerely wanted to go over to the neighboring airfield and practice there for a bit.
“Oh come on, Dodge, let me go,” I whined to my baggy-eyed instructor. “I’ll be absolutely fine. You know I will. I’ve landed there lots with you in the cockpit.”
Unable to find a good reason to say no, he signed my logbook. Super-hyped, off I went, aircraft keys in hand. I was ready to lift off without a plane.
But there was just one interesting little thing. He had not checked the visibility.
Smug with my new freedom, I carefully did my preflight, listened to the ATIS Bravo (Automatic Terminal Information Service alpha-beta’d rather than numbered) contacted ground control and taxied out. I paid no mind to the visibility advisory. Ceiling 5,000, visibility three miles. So? That was VFR – but marginal. No problem. I, hotshot student pilot, was going flying!!!
Hanscom Tower: “Three Seven Two Two Juliette cleared for takeoff runway One One.”
The air, turned out, was pure murk. As up and away I climbed, the bright green land below dimmed to appallingly indistinct. Slant range visibility from the plane was low, three miles at most. So? Hey – I knew the way. Big deal. On I puttered, confidently turning to my outbound heading.
But now seven miles from home, looking back, Hanscom had vanished into the grayness. No big wide runways in sight. Where was I? Where was I? I didn’t recognize a thing. Front, back, sideways – nothing. I clutched at the yoke. Peering through thick summertime pollution, sunlight blocked by overcast, all roads and hills looked the same. Where were familiar landmarks?
Looking at my outbound compass heading, I turned to fly the reciprocal to just go home. Unnerved, I decided that had to be what to do. And so, demoralized, I started limping back. But…where was my airport? No airport! Desperately I strained to see my way. Was I headed in the right direction? I trundled along, muttering. Praying.
“Please God, help me. I’m lost,” I whimpered. (There are no atheists in the cockpit.) Seven miles from home – and lost? So much for the hotshot pilot.
Completely rattled, I realized I couldn’t just pull over to the side and stop to figure things out. The plane had to continue flying…or it would stall and crash. Oh foolish woman, stupid student. How dumb I was.
Intently I peered through the gloom for another aircraft that might show me the way. A plane I could follow – and avoid hitting. Oh look! Up ahead were a few in a line passing in front of me… and wouldn’t you know, they were on the downwind to the runway I had only just left.
I was saved. Just in case the ATIS had changed, I listened for it. Yep, still Bravo. In a confident deep voice I keyed my mike: “Hanscom Tower, November three-seven- two-two Juliette five miles east, Bravo, landing Hanscom.”
“Roger Three-Seven-Two-Two Juliette, join downwind traffic runway One-One.”
Oh. He had me on radar. I imagined I could hear the smirk in his voice, as the student pilot limped back home. I fell into line, warm relief replacing cold fright, and touched down smoothly.
“See?” grinned I to myself – “You’re pretty good after all.”
Inside again at the flight school, they looked blankly at me. “Back so soon?”
“Yeah, the visibility was lousy,” said I. “Another day.” They nodded.
No smirks. They knew what it could be like.
Dodge sniffed and ignored me.