There are many of life’s first experiences that are etched indelibly on our memory. First girl friend, first day at work, first bike ride, first ski run, first fish landed. All of these have a special place that is held in affection –or terror- or wonder. My most enduring memory is my first solo flight.
The aircraft was an Air Cadet Sedburgh T21 glider. A side by side dual control training glider with basic instruments and gentle response to the controls. My instructor saying to me, “David, this aircraft is a lady, don’t be so brutal on the controls, think seduction, not rape”. I’d spent quite a few training flights with the comforting bulk of him sitting alongside. I’d completed the training programme including emergency actions. I knew the airfield circuit procedures, the ideal height to turn on ‘finals’ and had made lots of landings without incident. I could recover from a spin, a stall and a cable break and felt confident and ready to fly alone.
That was until the moment after a short check flight the Chief Flying Instructor said casually, “Well you’re safe enough. You can go off on your own”. At those words fear struck at my heart. Was I really going to fly this contraption of wood, wire and canvas without the knowledge that if I made a mistake the instructor would take over? Too late to back out now. The weight that adjusted the trim for solo flight was attached and the cable to haul me 1000 feet into the air was hooked on. At the other end was a powerful winch on the other side of the airfield awaiting my command.
I heard myself give the orders, ‘Tale up slack’ followed by ‘All Out’. The aircraft was tugged forward until flying speed was reached. Gentle pressure on the ‘stick’ and up came the nose as that nice safe solid grass fell away rapidly and I climbed with increasing steepness higher and higher. 1000 feet above mother earth on the altimeter and time to release that heavy steel cable. Nose down a little and a tug on the yellow knob of the release control and I was floating free.
Momentary panic. What was I doing here – was I mad – how the hell was I going to regain the safety of solid ground again? It was a frighteningly long way down.
Then the weeks of training kicked in. A gentle turn to the right, (settle down, David) and do a 270 degree turn to the left which had me pointed in the proper direction to fly down the boundary of the airfield. We floated along watching the instruments and keeping that essential lookout for other aircraft. The downwind boundary came up and time to turn onto the base leg of the square circuit. How I missed that instructor sitting beside me ready to take over the control!
This part of the flight was critical. Now a turn onto the base leg of the circuit followed by another to line up for ‘finals’. If I allowed the airspeed to drop the aircraft could stall and so close to the ground recovery would be impossible and disaster would ensue. Airspeed too fast and I would finish up halfway down the field. Now the turn on to ‘finals’ to line up with my hoped for landing point – dammit! I’m too high. Quick, use the spoilers to lose height. That’s better, correct height now – good job I remembered the spoiler control.
I could see lots of faces turned skywards watching me. (Everyone watches a first solo). The ground arrived and I heard the comforting sound of the glider’s nose wheel rumbling along the hard grass surface. I was down. I’d done it. Relief and exhilaration flooded in to me in equal parts.
Then the retrieve crew pushing the aircraft back and my instructor saying, “That was OK. (high praise from him) “Now you’ve got to do two more to qualify”. I’ll hook you on straight away”.
In time I flew many other types of glider but nothing compares with that never to be forgotten first flight in that basic flying machine. There aren’t many Sedburgh T21s flying now but I would dearly love to fly one again.