September 13, 1999
20.8 hours

    The Rock Tour-T Roulette loser was my Ikon robotic instrument shirt, by Light & Sound Design.  I didn't give up the Batman sweatshirt I was wearing on top of it.  It hadn't been picked in the original game.

    To begin with, flying as late in the evening as I am now is a wonderful thing.  On my last final approach, I actually saw runway lights on 07 brighter than just about everything else around, and that was new.  I'd never seen that before.  The air was as calm and sweet as I could possibly hope for (mostly, but I'll get to that later), and I saw a lovely crescent moon hanging way out there on downwind; just winking at me like it was my best friend.

    Terri and I got going as usual, with laps around the pattern, and I swear: I had one tiny moment when I said to myself; "This just ain't gonna happen.  What the hell?"  We'd be lapping around, with Terri just riding quietly along back there, until final.  Even then, I was hitting all the numbers and doing it right, until the flare, and no matter how focused I thought I was, I'd time the damned stick pressure all wrong and balloon or bounce... I once let the airplane lift-off in the ground-effect and bounced that, too.  (shiver)  I mean; nothin' happening.  Nowhere.  I'd take off and everything would be just fine: stellar turns, hitting TPA dead-on with pitch & power in one smooth integrated move, eyeballing traffic like an ace and sounding like money in the bank on the radio.  Everything fine: until that last wing-span above the runway, and, looking back, it feels like I was pulling the pin on a hand-grenade just over the numbers: "beat...beat...beat...explode."

    Every time, Terri was her usual exemplary patience coupled with pro-instructor: mostly, asking what I thought had been wrong.  I usually came up with the right answers, but that's pretty easy when looking back at the mess.

    We did it four times.  I finally got up, around, and down in one lap with everything where it was supposed to be.  We had the option on landing, and took the full stop.

    "Okay, Billy, taxi back up to the jet hangar."

    Now, that's up toward the takeoff end of Runway 07 - not anywhere near where we park the Citabria.  I knew what was happening, of course: it hadn't been a secret that this was coming.  Terri had boarded the airplane with her hand-held radio, and we both knew that, if I could only lash together a couple of good landings, she was going to get out.

    I hooked a left off taxiway Alpha and into a large jet pad, empty except for one really nice Gulfstream, swung the tail around and stopped.

    "Okay, Billy," said Terri, "Whaddya think?  Think it's time for me to get out now?"

    In a voice that sounds like a man just tired enough to tell the whole truth, I said: "Terri, I've been ready to push you out."

    And Terri laughed heartily.  It was true, of course, but she knew what I meant.

    Naturally, she had last-minute instructions for me; a final scattershot application of pedagogy.  I listened carefully until she asked if I had a camera with me.  <hah>  I'd loaned my digital Sony to my brother, but had backed-up this flight with my ancient-technology Minolta 35mm SLR, and I got to play instructor for a minute: showing her how to shoot it.  (We'll see what we got.)

    Finally, her voice broke into full-body smile with a, "Good luck, Billy."

    I told her two things with all my heart, mind, and soul: "Thank you, dear.  I'll be right back."

    And I slammed the door and taxied away.

    The tape: "Wow.  I am in this airplane all by myself.  There she goes, walking away from me.  I hope she's not really really, terribly worried..."

    This is tricky to say, because it straddles a very fine line between graduations of ability, but I really believe I'd reached a point where I was actually distracted with Terri in the back seat.  Honestly, and I really only discovered it when I was alone, she was a major part of my consciousness: whatever I did and however I worked it over for analysis and perfection, I always knew that she was looking (literally) over my shoulder.  At a certain point, that's bound to be in the way.

    Don't misundertake this: I think the world of my instructor as a person and a professional, and I'm never going to forget her for the rest of my life.  She's brought me to something I've always wanted - to fly an airplane by myself - and done it in a very special way with her own Citabria.

    It was really time, however, for her to leave me alone.

    I thought about that, now & then, as I was flying, and hoped she wasn't biting her fingernails off watching me.

    It turns out she never had to.  I was sensational.

    As I was taxiing back after the last landing, Gwinnett tower congratulated me on a "fine job", and joked an apology: it wasn't until I was solo that everybody and their brother suddenly wanted to land at LZU, and most of 'em in jets.  I was always number two and three in the landing order and just about always cautioned for wake turbulence.

    On the second lap, I was asked to toss a right 360 turn (in left traffic) for spacing in front of a jet on straight final, and then continue downwind.  All this abeam the numbers where I was just reducing power.  "Oops; time to dance, Beck!"  Nothin' to it.  I rolled-in with authority, carved the turn like I was on a rope spiked to the ground, rolled out with a jubilant rudder-kick, made a tally-ho on the jet swooping into final (he wasn't very "straight" at three miles), and carried on.

    By the third lap, I was confident enough to turn to downwind in a climb; rolling out, pitching, and reducing power in one integrated move to 2100 MSL on the dot.

    "It's a beautiful night in the neighborhood."

    I'm listening to these indelible minutes as I write this, hearing me call my own play-by-play to the tape machine, interspersed with radio traffic; pitching to Vy, turning crosswind for the first time by myself, annunciating panel scans, remarking on every control input.  I sound completely on top of everything about it, except for the moment on my first downwind when I yell, "I'm in this airplane all by myself!  Woo-hoo!!"  I actually like the sound of that little lapse of discipline: it means that wasn't out of touch with the import of it all.  This is a very intense way to enjoy oneself, of course, with a lot involved.  (Before I left, Terri had said, "I want you to pay attention to directional control [on rollout] like your life depends on it, because it does.")  There is no mistake, however, that I was living it up like a monster.  The time of my life.

    The bottom line: I lined up three landings of excellent quality.  Perfect pitching in the flare; the second one bounced a hair (and I mean: a hair - maybe two), and the last one was so fine that almost didn't feel it.  On the tape, I just laugh quietly and say, "Oh, man... that was really sweet."  There really wasn't anything else to say about it.

    Later, Terri told me that I looked better than the Cub behind me.

    I picked her up at the jet pad.  She jumped in with instant congratulations, of course.  We just chattered lightly about the topic at hand until we got back to the Citabria hangar.  When I'd shut down, Terri said, "Billy, you've just done something really special - almost historic."  I didn't get it.

    "You've gone from your first hour to solo in a taildragger.  Almost nobody gets to do that anymore."

    She was at least as happy and proud as I was, and I felt really good about that: I'm a success for her, and she deserves it.

    She ran into the Astron offices to spread the word, leaving me to secure the airplane and record time.  When I walked in, she took me into a ground school class like a trophy, telling everyone in sight what had just happened as a matter of encouraging a couple of pre-solo students.  They looked at me like I was really large, or something, and I actually felt a bit behind the game: there was no way that I could do proper justice to Terri's effort without sitting down over drinks and explaining the whole thing... like a philosopher.  You know: one of those guys who thinks too much for his own good.

    I did my best, though, and I think I might have made the point to them.

    I handed over my LSD Ikon shirt.  Terri cut the back out of it.  Last I knew - after a warm hug - she was looking around for lime-green paint (53883's color) with which to inscribe it.

    I walked pretty slowly to my car.  I'll be back here on Wednesday evening for another supervised solo, but I wanted to hang around a bit.  I didn't look at the airplanes sitting in a row, or even the airplane on final: I looked at the stars and the moon.  It was nothing but crisp, clear, air between them and me, and I felt a lot more like I knew that air better than ever before.  There is still a lot of work to do before I get to commit aviation with proper authorization, but there is no doubt about something I wasn't sure of before tonight:

    To be in an airplane all alone for the first time is a big deal.  It's worth everything I've put into it, and a lot more: one of a very few (when I stop to think about it) truly unique moments in my entire life.  It will never happen again.  I don't know how many reading this ever stop to think about something like that, but you should, because, more than anything: this is a superb exercise in life.  That's what it's about, and it only comes once.

    Don't miss a minute of it.


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