You never know how you’ll react when a loved one solos an airplane. When you’re an instructor, the event becomes even more complicated intellectually and emotionally. Here’s a story for you.
For a while I was Laurel’s instructor, but then I had surgery on my right thumb and was physically incapable of flying (despite what you may think, you really need two hands when you’re teaching, especially in a tailwheel airplane when it starts heading for the weeds). Our good friend, the best pilot on the field, Bob, took over.
Bob got Laurel close to solo, but this spring the winds were consistently above a solo tailwheel student’s skills. Bob doesn’t get to the airport before noon-thirty – just in time for the southwesterly winds to start kicking up at Montgomery. ‘Twas frustrating for both of them – and me.
He had asked me if I wanted a phone call when he was ready to solo her, so that I could come over to the airport and watch. (We live 2 1/2 miles away from Montgomery.) I emphatically replied, “NO.” The last thing I wanted was for her to feel the pressure of not only solo, but also instructor/husband’s watchful eyes.
So … my thumb slowly healed, the cast became a brace, the brace became regular rehab, the surgeon signed me off, and I was ready to resume flying after a five and a half month layoff … but not ready to resume instructing a brand new tailwheel student ready for solo.
Mid-May comes. I’d had a few flights with Bob in the Super Cub, another one or two in the Stearman. I scheduled a flight one day for mid-afternoon, allowing time for Bob and Laurel to finish their earlier training flight. The Skye dog and I arrived at the Stearman Ale House©, dragged the Stearman out onto the ramp, pre-flighted, then grabbed a chair on the “Imaginary Deck™” to watch Laurel and Bob in the Super Cub. The first landing on 28R was fine, as was the second. I lost sight of them as I studied the wind indicators – which were a little frisky outta the southwest, maybe 7-10 kts, 30° off the runway heading.
I searched for the Super Cub on the north downwind but couldn’t find her, then I took another glance at the windsock and – BOINGO – there was the Super Cub, sitting on Golf 1 at Hotel. Instantly I knew what was about to happen.
After a wait, the Super Cub taxied east on Hotel. Just beyond where I sat, it turned onto Bravo and tucked behind the big hangar where the annoying DEA keeps their annoying helicopter. Another wait … then I spy Bob ambling my way. It was, indeed, solo time.
“The winds aren’t bad,” he said. “She can handle them better than most tailwheel pilots I fly with. She’s ready.” I smiled. It was a nervous, little smile.
Laurel taxied the Super Cub up Bravo, east on Hotel, then Alpha, to hold short of 28R. Apparently everyone flying in Southern California that afternoon decided that they had to fly to Montgomery and land at that instant. IFR traffic, VFR traffic, every bloody GA airplane on earth was headed our way. After the 8th arrival (okay, I exaggerated), I see the Super Cub taxi onto the runway and begin its takeoff roll.
She was in the air, as always, in a few hundred feet. She climbed quickly and was nearly pattern altitude before she turned to the crosswind, then the downwind. She looked beautiful. She turned base, a tad high, but that is Bob’s instruction. You can always get down, but you may need that altitude at a critical moment. They’re not his words, but express his thinking.
She was still high on final – and a little close to the runway … again, Bob’s way. But she had the power off and the approach was spot-on. She flared a touch high, but let the airplane settle and – SHAZAM – my wife’s first solo landing was a thing of sheer beauty … and skill … and persistence … and perfection. (Okay, okay … I’m prejudiced. She’s my wife, dammit, and she was kicking ass right in front of my eyes. YOWZA.)
She took off again. Again she climbed quickly, turned crosswind, downwind, base (high) and final (high). Again she nailed the landing. It was surreal. She knew I was there because she knew that I’d made the appointment with Bob. She had seen the Stearman sitting outside the hangar. It had to make her more nervous – but she was kicking solo ass.
I need to interrupt the linear narrative for a moment. Laurel worked for Nordstrom’s for 27 years. On April 20th, Nordstrom’s eliminated her job – a cheesy, thoughtless, brainless, insensitive, moronic email two days prior had alerted her people that their jobs might be in jeopardy.
She had been a loyal employee for nearly three decades. One decade ago, when the Nordstroms (yes, there are still Nordstroms running the company) realized that they were dinosaurs and the asteroid had already hit the retail world, they started treating their employees like cattle. A company that had once been renowned as one of the best places to work in this country, became one more soulless, heartless corporate monolith.
I told her then that she needed to get her resume up to speed and to start getting it out there. She told me that she couldn’t be a good employee if she was bizzy trying to find a new job – hence, she never updated her resume.
They kicked her in the heart. They are despicable. And, if they treat their employees like cattle, I promise their employees will no longer care about treating their customers in the ways their customers were once treated. A pox upon them. So There. Back to our story.
She took off for the third time, straight as a string, climbing rapidly. She turned crosswind and downwind, as each time before, flawlessly.
I turned to Bob. “Thanks for this,” I said. “Her spirits were so low, and her confidence was shaken over the last few weeks. This will make her feel good about herself again.”
He blanched. “I wish you had waited until after her final solo landing to tell me this. Now I’m nervous.” I chuckled. Maybe he was as nervous as me.
Her base and final (high, duh) were just great, the approach perfect. She touched down and slowed, then caught a little gust from that southwesterly breeze. Her upwind wing came up a touch, the airplane turned left, a touch, but she got it straight and stopped and my heart slowly slid out of my mouth and back where it belonged.
She taxied back to the Alehouse, parked the plane, climbed out and shouted, “WOOHOO,” a couple of times. My wife is a very reserved individual. WOOHOO is not part of her act. She was energized and excited and I was the proudest person on seven continents. Even the Skye dog knew it was a huge moment and gave the new solo pilot a kiss.
I’ve tried to analyze my emotions over the month since, and it’s been a struggle. I was apprehensive, fershure, especially when I knew that she had seen the Stearman out of the hangar, saw the dog, and knew that I’d be watching. I feared for her because I was afraid her spirits were so low after the Nordstroms heartless behavior that she might not be able to focus on the immediate task at hand – soloing a tailwheel airplane, with a crosswind, late in life. I was sad that it hadn’t been me who had gotten out of the airplane – but Bob was able to provide a perspective that I probably couldn’t because of our relationship.
But beyond all, it was pride in her achievement. She overcame so much and did so amazingly well to complete her first solo. Bob said that he’d never had a student make the three solo landings as well, and he’s been around for a long, long time.
The instructor in me watched her takeoffs, her pattern work, her approaches and landings with a critical eye, and it was as though I was watching someone with years of experience and skill. She was flawless on her first solo. She kicked ass.
So, Gentle Reader, please rejoice with me in my wife’s accomplishments. At your next social gathering, raise a glass and salute Laurel Ellen Daly, solo tailwheel pilot.