Remember the day you solo’ed? I do. It will be a day I’ll never forget. March 11,1983, for me.
It was a nice day in Newton, Kansas. I drove out to the airport, which lies a few miles east of the Newton Airport, KEWK. It was another windy Kansas day but it was early, around 8:00 a.m. I had done the ground school on my own, as I was just finishing medical school and didn’t have the time or money to take a ground school course at a flight school. I elected to buy a Gleim book and go through it carefully and study out of another book, the name of which I cannot recall. I was rich on being ready to learn to fly, but poor on the finances to do so.
I had identified the Newton airport as a place to learn, given that it was only 12 miles from our farm and Hesston College had a flight school there, and they would let outsiders, so to speak, take flying lessons from their staff. Hesston College was a Mennonite junior college, and the aviation program was aimed at training pilots who would later become missionaries. I was assigned to a tall, skinny young man named George Hofsommer. George wanted to be a missionary someday and he had his CFI. Always wore a big 10 gallon cowboy hat, wore cowboy boots which made him even taller. He was a calm fellow, a slow talker and had a winning smile.
We had flown 8 hours of duel and it was amazing how different the ground looked from 3000 feet. Shoot, I knew that area really well from the vantage point of a Chevy pickup truck, but it was easy to become disoriented when I became airborne. George, of course, knew exactly where we were and it was really nice having a relatively mellow person sitting in the right seat. We didn’t have headsets, and it was a Cessna 150 in which we flew. The Cessna 172s looked pretty darned big to me, and I couldn’t imagine flying one of those big beasts.
The session started out with the usual preflight briefing and the preflight inspection of the 150, with George watching me do the inspection. We hopped in, fastened our seatbelts, started the engine and before I knew it we were airborne, doing couple of landings with taxi-backs, pretty much staying in the pattern. After 3 or 4 of these George said he needed to “take a leak” and I taxied the aircraft to the Hesston College building and prepared to shut down the engine. “No, leave it running, Randy, I’ll be just a minute,” as he opened the door and let his 6’4” frame out of the cockpit.
Before he shut the door he shouted “Randy, take the aircraft out and do 3 takeoffs and landings, just like you just did.” “I’ll wait here and when you are back taxi back here and we’ll talk.” Well, his words didn’t really sink in till he closed the door. I knew a solo was in the near future, but I wasn’t so sure that I was ready. My heart began to race a bit, I became pretty danged thirsty and I opened the throttle to taxi to the end of the runway.
I remember calling out a traffic advisory, did the mandatory 360 degree turn, took runway 36 and lined up with the center line. Full power. Gentle liftoff, climbed to pattern altitude, called out my position, completed the prescribed takeoff and landings without incident. I remember thinking how strange it was to be in that little cockpit without George over there, and I recall that the world looked a whole lot different without him there. It was actually a pretty calm feeling.
I landed, taxied to the ramp and there was George, leaning up against another aircraft, smiling as I shut down the engine. I remember just sitting there for a few moments, letting what just happened to me sink in a bit. I was glad that George gave me that time to “debrief”.
I remember thinking about how different it felt to be in the airplane from that point forward. I certainly had a different perspective of things when I was solo in and airplane, but also a different perspective of my flight instructor. Kind of a strange, but necessary transition.
George came over and asked me if I would be able to go home and bring back a tee shirt, and I said I surely could. I was back to the airport in 30 minutes and he continued the age old tradition of taking a scissors and cut the back of my tee shirt, making room for the wings I had just sprouted. He then asked me to draw something on the front of the shirt, put that day’s date, March 11, 1983, on the shirt and George signed it.
That will be a day I will never forget.