July 9, 1974
Del Rio International Airport, Del Rio, Texas
NOTE: For the non pilot: You may get more out of this story by first learning some pilot jargon; and, if you like, you can do that by reading the glossary of terms that follows Part 2 of this story.
Can he really want a cup of coffee that badly?
It's 3 in the afternoon, we've been flying only about an hour, it's dadgummed hot here, and he's gotta get some coffee? I thought we'd FLY some more.
Wait a minute. He's walking back.
"Bill, I'm just going to the pilots lounge for a minute to get a cup of coffee. You might as well go fly the pattern three times, and then I'll meet you right back here."
Oh!!!! My first solo! He wants me to go fly withOUT him in the plane!!! Heck yeah!
"Ok, Jim. See ya."
My God! This is it. I'm gonna finally fly this Cessna 150 all by myself! Relax! Relax! Relax! You know how to do this!
My heart must be beatin’ at 10 million RPM. That would be way past "red line" on an airplane engine.
But, here we go.
Both windows already open, I holler out my side, "CLEAR THE PROP!"
Throttle set about 1/8th inch in.
Carb heat "OFF".
Master switch "ON".
Ignition switch past "BOTH" to "START".
The prop starts turning, and after I see a blade pass by the top of the cowling three or four times, the "mighty" hundred-horse engine "thunders" to life!
Throttle up to about one thousand RPM.
I key the mic, "Del Rio Unicom. Cessna one eight zero seven two is taxi to take off."
"Cessna 18072 Del Rio Unicom. Altimeter three one point one niner, winds one two at one five zero. Runway one three is the active. No other traffic reported." comes back the reply from Penny who's sitting safely in the air conditioned office over in the Del Rio Flying Service. She's maybe 100 yards away.
"Cessna 18072" I reply, and I completely ignore everything she said.
I've set the altimeter to 999 feet--which is exactly where we are above the surface of the Gulf of Mexico--and I've just shot eight touch 'n goes. So, I know all about the current weather conditions here at and above Del Rio International Airport. Other than a lot of bumpy air, we have perfect flying weather.
Now it's time to go DO this--Alone.
Jim wanted to solo me at only 3 hours total flight time (which was just last week) but the thermal activity were so bad that day that he decided to wait.
He told me, "Heck, Bill. Why I am tryin to rush you? This ISN'T the Air Force T-41 program. You'll solo soon enough. So, let's just stick together for a while."
Fine by me, I thoroughly enjoy flying--and flying With Jim. He's a wonderful instructor pilot. Always smokes cigarettes while we're defying the laws of gravity.
But now, the moment of truth.
Can I survive three take offs and three landings withOUT Jim?
Anybody can take off, but landing one of these--especially on a hot Del Rio summer afternoon--is another thing altogether!
The wind, what little there is, is almost right down the runway. Maybe a little bit of cross wind component from the right. No problem there.
The thermals, though, are gonna bounce me all over the place on final approach.
I'll just have to DEAL with 'em as I’ve done on each of the eight previous landings.
Ok, a little throttle and release the breaks.
Full right rudder and wheel around to the north. I'll taxi all the way to the north end of our single runway.
Back off the throttle to idle and let 'er taxi! We're rollin toward One Three! Not too fast. It's a short trip.
She said "no other traffic reported," but I have to make double dog sure. I do NOT want to taxi out onto the runway in front of a landing fast mover. So, I keep scanning the sky out toward the lake.
At the end of the taxi way, I stop.
I don't really need a run up, but that IS what's been drilled into me at the beginning of every flight, and it just feels right to do so again. It’ll also help to calm my nerves, and that will help me think more clearly.
I rotate the plane around almost facing straight into the southerly wind, and I lock my feet down hard onto the rudder peddle toe brakes.
Throttle up to fifteen hundred RPM.
It's noisy in here now, and the plane wants to jump past the brakes.
The whole plane yaws left and right a little as prop wash blasts the tail section.
Now, switch the mags from "BOTH" to "LEFT," and I see a slight drop in RPM. "Check"
Back to "BOTH," and the RPMs climb back up to fifteen hundred.
Now mags to "RIGHT," and same thing--a slight drop. "Check."
Mags back to "BOTH", and the RPMs are back up to fifteen hundred. Apparently, both magnetos are working.
Pull the carb heat control all the way out. Another RPM drop, but this time more. "Check," and carb heat pushed back in to the "OFF" position.
Flaps set to 15 degrees--which is the normal take off setting.
I key the mic, "Cessna 18072 is taking the active." No response, and none needed.
Whenever I key the mic here, I'm really talkin to other pilots anyway. And there aren’t supposed to be any other pilots out there since in her first radio transmission, Penny said, "No other reported traffic." And that's exactly what I want.
Back off on the throttle. Full right rudder. Release the left toe brake and bounce my right foot on the other brake to help the little Cessna 150 rotate around toward north--toward the lake--toward our practice area--------Toward anyone else who might be on final approach to MY runway.
As we swing around, I scan the sky--up and down--left and right--out far and in close. Nothin!
Let 'er keep rotating all the way around. There's plenty of room on the taxi way, but if I need to roll onto the dirt a little bit, no problem. That caliche is as hard packed as the asphalt on the runway. Just don't roll over a taxi way light, Billy! Ok. All clear. Let 'er keep on rollin’ and add a little more throttle as we (me and my beautiful red and white high-wing Cessna) roll onto the north end of our 5,000 foot runway.
Left rudder and we start heading toward the center line.
A little more throttle and let her keep on accelerating. Now, line her up right down the center line and hold plenty of down elevator to keep that nose wheel firmly planted on the ground.
Push in to the full throttle setting and quickly check oil pressure and RPMs. Looks good! LET 'er ROLL, Baby! Thirty five. Forty five. Fifty five miles an hour. We are rollin’ quick, man! Now. Start easin’ back on the yoke. She's getting’ light fast!
Up comes the nose, and we're off the pavement in a heartbeat! THIS is different!
Jim said the plane would be a lot lighter and would perform better without his weight in it, and he was RIGHT! We're climbin now like a bat outta hell!
Look at that! A 900 feet per minute ascent on a Hot day! We NEVER get that!
Wow! I’m flying ---- ALONE!
I’M SOLOING! Yesssssss!
Wait! How many landings have I made?
Daddy told me what to do. He said, "Your mind is going to be racing. Just throw out one shoe after each landing, and when you're coming in with no shoes on, that's your last landing."
I get the point. Just fly the aircraft and don’t think so much!
I’m up over the cemetery in no time, still climbing and more than 500 feet above the ground.
I wonder if my mom would be proud of me as I start my turn right over her grave.
Right rudder and right aileron.
Trim, trim, trim.
No wonder I'm having to keep pullin hard on the yoke! I forgot to set the trim tab!
Key the mic, "Cessna 18072 Turning right base." No response. None expected.
Straighten 'er out. We want a nice, crisp, square pattern.
Now I see the smoke ahead. It's comin’ from little fires over in Mexico.
In no time we're ready to turn onto the downwind leg. Almost 700 feet above the ground already. My target is 800 feet above the ground--1,800 on the altimeter.
"Del Rio Unicom, Cessna 18072 turning right downwind runway one three--touch and go."
This time, as I'm finishing my still-climbing right turn, I hear Penny say, "Cessna 18072, winds one zero at one four zero. No other reported traffic."
Wow! Level out!
MORE than level out! Get it back down!
I climbed right THROUGH eighteen hundred without knowin’ it!
Throttle back and push the nose down to quickly lose 50 feet.
There....1,800 feet above sea level which means 800 feet above the runway. Throttle back up just enough to keep 'er level. We're flyin straight, level and slow now. So, relax.
A Cessna 150 isn't that big, but I do need to lean over a little toward the other door to fully see out the right side. At 6' 2", I'm long enough to do it with ease.
There's the runway below. Parallel to my path and about a half mile East of me.
I look for aircraft both on the ground and in the air all around.
No one is moving. Not in the air. Not on the ground.
Keep 'er parallel to the runway. Don't let 'er drift in either direction.
Now--Relax. Fly the aircraft. You've done this dozens of times--eight times already today--and all without any help from Jim.
It's quiet and comfortable on long downwind legs. For about a half minute, I get to just enjoy the view, the natural air conditioning afforded by several hundred feet of altitude, and--
--wait. Something's missing. I don't feel comfortable. The gauges all say that everything is fine. No noise on the radio. No unusual smells. What is it?
There's a smell MISSING!
Jim's cigarette smoke!
Amazing!!! I've been flying with him for two weeks, and already I NEED his smoke to feel right as a new pilot! Ha! What a joke!
I wonder if they'll put a restriction on my license when I get it? "Must fill cockpit with cigarette smoke before every landing." Now THAT's funny!
Heck. Fly the aircraft, Billy. But remember to tell Jim about this.
Watch for the "key" now. We need the right wing tip to point right at the approach end of the runway.
Comin’ up now. There. Make the call.
"Del Rio Unicom, Cessna 18072 turning right base for one three--touch n go."
Throttle back to 15 hundred RPM. Let the nose begin to drop. Carb heat on. Right rudder and right aileron. 90 degree turn toward the final approach path.
Scan the sky--especially to the left for any straight-in traffic.
Check the runway. Looks good.
Pull the throttle back some more. Don't wanna be high and long on this one.
Now. Make the next call.
"Cessna 18072 turning final for one three--touch n go."
Throttle all the way back now and turn right while watchin’ the big “13” painted on the end of the runway. Fly to that point now. This is gonna be a good one.
"Just for you, Jim!" I think, and I wonder if he's even watching.
Very quiet now as I roll out to face straight down the approaching runway.
Altitude looks good.
Bumps!!! Them thermals always knock me around when I fly this time of day. Oh well. Straighten 'er back out. Come on seven two. Do your thang, baby.
Looks good. Descending right toward the numbers.
Maybe a little low now. Add a little throttle for just a few seconds.
Now. That's just right. Get ready to flare.
Ok. Over the big white caliche approach area. Runway starting to look full size.
Over the pavement about 15 feet up. Holdin’ about 60 miles per hour.
Start pulling back gently on the yoke. Dance on the rudder peddles to keep ‘er straight.
Hold 'er off the pavement.
Keep pulling the nose up. up. Up.
We're so close. Where's the stall?
There! A little squeek from the tires. Not perfect, but no bounce. Let the nose wheel drop to the pavement.
NOW! Landing one done! Flaps up. Carb heat off. Back to full throttle. Keep 'er straight with your feet.
Ok! Rollin on DOWN the runway.
I wonder if Jim can see me smilin?
Back in the air and let's do it again!
Now THIS is so fun!!!
Second landing has a little bounce, but as they say, "...any landing you can walk away from..."
So, I think the next one will be the third. Hard to keep track. Daddy was so right!
This downwind leg looks same as all the others. Almost time for celebration.
There it is. Right wing pointed right at the approach end. Make the call.
"Del Rio Unicom. Cessna 18072 turning right base for runway one three FULL STOP."
No more touch and goes. This is it.
Start your turn.
Wow! Wow!!! That's Jim's voice on the radio, and he's talkin’ so fast.
"Cessna 18072, extend your downwind two miles. Extend your downwind two miles--NOW!"
Huh! What’s this? What does he mean? Oh! I get it. Keep flyin’ on out toward the lake for a while. Do NOT turn!
"Roger Del Rio Unicom. Cessna 18072 returning to level flight and extending downwind two miles."
"But why, Jim?'
"Bill. Check your 2 o'clock low!"
I look. Nothin' at first, then OH WOW! There's a white Cessna 182, a plane much like mine but bigger and faster, and he’s screaming in on a totally unconventional and unexpected route about 200 feet above the ground.
So, I key the mike, “Del Rio Unicom, Cessna 18072. Tally-ho!”
Throttle up! Fly on out toward the dam a while.
On the radio. Broken English.
"Del Rio Unicom. Cessna XB five one five one Papa short final to runway one three."
Then Jim, "Cessna 5151 Papa, you have just cut off a first solo on his turn to base. WE DON'T FLY THAT WAY HERE. DO you copy."
Silence. No reply.
Dang! I hate pilots who do that. They fly like they drive. No rules!
If I had made that turn, I'da landed right on top of that guy! I did NOT see him comin’, and since he is flyin’ a high wing airplane with me above him, there was no way he could see me even if he looked – which he didn’t.
Thank, you Jim!
Thank you, Jesus!
Now. Make your turns.
Get 'er on the ground!
Finally, I tell myself, "Nice landings, Billy! Good job!"
Taxi off the runway at the mid field exit.
"Del Rio Unicom. Cessna 18072 is clearing the active."
Penny: "Cessna 18072, Del Rio Unicom. Congratulations, Billy!"
At the ramp. Swing into the same slot where we started.
Full brakes. Lock the parking brake. Throttle up a little. Mixture control full lean till she sputters to a stop. Ignition off. Master switch off. Gyros spinning down. Door wide open.
Jim meets me at the ramp to help me tie down the plane. But first,
He grabs my hand and tells me, "Congratulations, Bill! Great job.”
I was on top the gas truck when I spotted that guy! You handled it well. No problem."
Wow! He WAS watchin!
Grab the clip board and your log book. Time for the paper work. I wonder if they'll cut off my shirt tail? And will somebody take my picture like they did for Sterling a few weeks ago?
Walking next to Jim I see our reflection in the big glass windows of Del Rio Flying Service.
I've never seen me smile this big!
I WILL be a pilot!
Thanks for this gift, Daddy!
- Present Day -
Instead of going inside to get a cup of coffee when he turned me loose for my first solo, my instructor instead went straight to the flying service’s large fuel truck, climbed on top of it for the best possible view of my flight path --and WATCHED!
His suggestion that he was going in to get a cup of coffee was intended to take the pressure off of me, and it worked. He, however, didn’t relax one bit until I had made my final landing and returned to the parking area.
While he had determined that I was qualified to fly the aircraft alone, he would have preferred that there be NO traffic around when I did it for the first time. As an international port-of-entry airport, we routinely received aircraft that flew in from neighboring Mexico. Of course, Mexican pilots are supposed to be just as well trained as any others, but clearly, that is not always the case.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Jim’s vigilance that day saved the lives of two pilots. And I say that because I’m sure that I would have descended right into the other aircraft had Jim not redirected my path at the last minute.
Once he saw the incoming aircraft cutting under and in front of me, he jumped down and ran inside our flight service offices to grab the microphone so that he could communicate directly with me.
I am, to say the least, very thankful for Jim’s professional “paranoia” that day. Without that, I wouldn’t be finishing this story today.
- Glossary of Terms / Pilot Jargon -
Carb Heat: You don’t wanna be flyin’ along and hear your engine just quit on ya, do you? Well, when you start to descend with a low power setting, you better pull that Carb Heat handle out. That’ll send some hot air into the carburetor, and that will, of course, keep carburetor ice from forming. Even on a hot day, you better remember Carb Heat whenever you pull back on the throttle! Don’t be like me. I learnt this the hard way and almost hadda land on a highway bridge that had 200 feet of water under it! Carburetor ICE on a hot day! NOT cool!
Master Switch: After reading this, you might wish you had one of these on your car. If you did, you could avoid killing your battery some day when you’ve accidentally left your radio or lights on. You see, the master switch on your airplane completely disconnects your battery from your electrical system. Your radios, lights, and yes, even your lighted mirror (Just kidding. Sorry ladies. There ain’t one!) will go out, but if your engine is already runnin’, it’ll keep ON runnin’. It doesn’t need the battery to run. But guess what! You can’t START the engine without the Master Switch bein’ turned on first. So, that’s where you begin when you wanna go flying. Master Switch: ON. CHECK!
Magnetos, Both, Left, and Right: Your airplane uses somethin’ much more reliable than a generator or alternator to make electrical power. It has not one, but two magnetos so that if one fails, you can still keep on flyin’! The magnetos are called “Left” and “Right” for simplicity sake, but you just need to know that each magneto is connected to a separate set of spark plugs in the engine’s cylinders. Yep! That’s right. Each cylinder in your little airplane engine has TWO spark plugs. If both sets fire in all your cylinders, you’ll have maximum power available (a good thing). If, however, one set fails in flight, you’ll just fly a little slower, but you’ll still get on home. I’ve never seen a magneto failure, but if the engine keeps on running and I don’t see a slight RPM drop when I switch the ignition switch from Both to Left or to Right, that’ll mean a magneto has failed, and I’ll shut ‘er down right then and there and call a mechanic. Without both magnetos, Billy doesn’t leave the ground, and you shouldn’t either!
Unicom: Del Rio International Airport is a small airport with no control tower. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to pick up the mic and talk into it. Quite the contrary. However, instead of askin’ permission to do stuff, you’ll just make announcements so that other pilots will be warned of what you intend to do. During the day, there’s usually someone on the ground who answers Unicom calls, but all she can do is give out information like the barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, etc. She usually doesn’t tell you what to do. Fortunately, though, my instructor DID tell me what to do at the end of my first solo flight! That’s exactly why I’m still here to tell ya all of this.
Full Right Rudder: In this story, you’re flyin’ a Cessna 150, and that means that you have a nose wheel rather than a tail wheel. All you really need to know then is that the rudder AND the tail wheel are both controlled by your rudder peddles. In other words, you’re steering the plane on the ground with your feet and not with the yoke. Quit turnin’ the yoke when you wanna taxi right or left, Silly! It doesn’t work that way.
Yoke: That funny lookin’ steering wheel thingy in front of you is called the “Yoke”. It isn’t yellow, and it doesn’t come from an egg, but it WILL help you fly the airplane. Not only does it rotate left and right (a little like your car’s steering wheel), but it also can be pulled and pushed in and out of the instrument panel. To bank the plane (i.e., to make one wing drop and the other rise) just rotate the yoke in the direction you want it to bank. That’s how you control the ailerons out on the wing. If you rotate the yoke clockwise (or to the right), the right wing will wanna drop, and that’ll help you make a right turn. Also, if you wanna climb, pull back on the yoke. That’s how you control the elevator. To dive, push the yoke in. Simple, right?
Runway 13: Don’t pronounce it “thirteen” ok? It’s “one three”! And that means it’s pointin’ toward the Southeast on a compass heading of about 130 degrees. The opposite end of the runway has a big white “31” painted on it, and that means IT faces in the opposite direction. It’s pointin’ into the Northwest on a compass heading of about 310 degrees. Rule of thumb: In the summer, take off and land on 13. In the winter, use 31. You’ll always want to take off and land INTO the wind and that’s how it usually blows in Del Rio, Texas.
Trim, Trim, Trim: If you wanna be constantly strugglin’ to keep the plane flyin’ level (or whatever direction you want it to fly), just furgit to adjust the trim tab. That’s that little wing thingy on the back end of your elevator. It makes the elevator either wanna push up or push down depending on where you set the trim tab. Use that vertical wheel lookin’ thingy below the center of your instrument panel to fix your push/pull problem. Just rotate the wheel up or down until you’ve made the yoke behave. Try it. You’ll like it! Makes flyin’ SO much easier!
Tally-Ho: When a pilot is directed to look for another aircraft or object, he can either say, “Tally-Ho” – meaning, “I see it.”, or he can say, “No joy.” – meaning, “I haven’t found it yet.” Obviously, “Tally-ho” is preferred, but if the other aircraft or object can’t been found, it’s important to relay that information too!
William Richard Meredith