I Learned About Flying From That: My First Solo and My First Loop
The date was Dec. 23, 1943 — I was 21 years old. I was in the rear cockpit of a Fairchild PT-19 primary trainer with a total dual time to date of 10 hours. My instructor was in the front cockpit. The wide-open grass landing strip of Cimarron Field Primary Flight School in Oklahoma was dead ahead. The instructor waved at me to make a landing. I did everything right and made the prettiest three-point landing I had ever made. The instructor said, “Take off, circle the field and make another landing. If the next landing is as good as this one, tomorrow you’ll make your first solo flight.” Everything went well. The second landing was just like the first. “Meet me in the hangar at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning and we’ll get that first solo flight under your belt,” the instructor said.
The next morning everything was set for that first solo flight. During the night it had snowed, and everything was covered with 3 inches of the white powdery stuff. The ground crew had cleaned the snow off the PT-19, topped off the gas tanks and performed the usual engine warm-up.
The instructor and I got into our respective cockpits. He told me that we would not do the first solo flight at the home field. If something were to go wrong, he did not want me to crash into the parked airplanes, the hangar or the barracks. Instead, a cow pasture approximately 15 miles due west of the main base was used for these first solo flights. It was a mile square patch of perfectly flat land that lacked buildings, trees or anything else to set it apart from the miles of flat land surrounding it. After landing the airplane, the instructor got out and said, “Take off, fly the usual pattern, and make a landing right here and pick me up.”
I took off straight ahead, climbed to 1,000 feet, made a left turn and, 30 seconds later, made another left turn into the downwind leg. But when I looked down to my left to see where I was going to land, I saw nothing but white, white, white. I could not spot my instructor standing down there in the snow. I flew a couple of circles around the area but still saw nothing but white. I climbed another 500 feet while flying circles, hoping to spot my instructor standing down there and looking up at me — but still no luck.
During my next circle I spotted another blue and yellow PT-19, just like the one I was flying, about 500 feet below me. I assumed he was going to land where my instructor was standing, so I got behind him and followed him down. I was happier than you can imagine when I saw my instructor standing there. He just smiled and said he knew the exact problem I was having, and that I had handled it very well. Before he got into the front cockpit, he filled out, signed and dated my first solo flight certificate, gave it to me, and we took off for the home base.
The following two weeks, I flew every day, often with the instructor and very often solo. We were still working on the basics of flying, and my instructor was trying to teach me the finer points of piloting skill. I performed 90-degree, 180-degree and 360-degree turns while trying to hold the assigned altitude, as was stressed. The shallow turns were easy compared to the steep turns, but practice continued until the instructor was satisfied that I had mastered the turn/altitude maneuver. Aerobatics would be introduced in a few more weeks.