Last Friday I drove to Odessa for a flying lesson at Schlemeyer Field. The day was hot and windy. Josh and I did a few T/Os and landings; then Josh suggested we call it a day. As we pulled up the to hangar, Josh said "you can do some soloing now if you'd like". I thought about it for 15 seconds or so and finally said "heck yeah I want to!". During those 15 seconds I was imagining flying the plane myself and I felt a teensy weensy bit scared.
I left the engine running and Josh got out. I closed the canopy and it felt very, very quiet in the plane. The wind was from the south, so I taxied around to runway 16. It's a long trip and I did it like always. When I reached the runway lines, I head a call from an aircraft coming in to land on runway 16. I called out on the radio "Schlemeyer traffic, 497 Papa Alpha holding short for runway 16". I didn't know what was the "right" thing to say, but I had to say something. I waited a bit, then Josh came on the radio from the FBO. "Golden Eagle please report on your position." He was talking to the plane in the sky, somewhere, coming in to land at runway 16. I scanned the sky but couldn't see it. Golden Eagle gave a location report and then Josh came on the radio and told me I was clear to take off. Only then did I realize Golden Eagle was going into a traffic pattern around the airport and not coming in for a direct approach. I turned out onto the runway and stopped to do a final check: flaps to T/O position, fuel pump on, trim neutral. Then I applied full power and started off down the runway.
The Diamond 20 does not accelerate quickly. It hardly feels like it's accelerating at all. Gradually, gradually, with a loud hum from the engine, like a giant fan (it is), I moved forward down the runway. I never look at the airspeed indicator while taking off, but I think "rotate speed" is somewhere around 60 knots indicated air speed (KIAS). I pulled back on the elevator and felt for the "mushiness" that comes into the controls as the plane begins to want to fly. At this point I applied a little back pressure but then immediately moderate the back pressure to keep the plane in a very modest climb, making sure I can see the horizon over the nose of the plane. Too steep a climb now could lead to a stall, and the ground is very close, but far away enough to fall and crash into it. Climbing out into the strong south wind, it takes me a while to get to a relatively safe altitude of 300' about the ground (AGL) where I can retract the flaps and turn off the fuel pump. At 500' AGL I initiate a left-hand 90 degree turn. Over my left shoulder, I can see the runway I just departed. This turn is quick because as I bank the plane the strong south wind turns me rapidly to the left. A little way out and I initiate another left turn to parallel runway 16. This is the downwind leg, and I call it out over the radio. I have a good view of the airport and the runway I'm going to land on, if all goes well. About halfway past the airport I level out at 4000' MSL (that's 1000' AGL at Schlemeyer), pull back the throttle to cruising power (2000 rpm) and put in one set of flaps and turn on the fuel pump. A little way past the airport, I back off the throttle even more (1700 rpm) and point the nose of the plane up a little to slow down to 75 knots. Below 80 knots IAS I can lower full flaps, and I do so. This slows the plane down but gives it lots of lift. I left left again for "base" and then again for "final", taking a good look to my right before the last turn for any aircraft that may be coming in for a direct approach and landing. Focusing on the start of the runway, I imagine my glide path and back out power a little more. The strong south wind makes me feel like I'm high to land, but I'm not making much forward progress for each foot I drop because of the headwind.
As I drop closer to the Earth, it feels like I'm going faster and faster. I start to get a little nervous. The start of the runway passes beneath me and I'm about 20 feet off the ground and actually sinking pretty slowly. Just as I begin to sink, I pull back on the controls and "flare" at just the right moment. The plane touches down without a bump or a hop; perfectly; I can hardly believe I'm on the ground. The landing was so smooth, I think I must still be flying. A perfect landing.
As instructed, I came to a full stop and waited to hear Josh on the radio. He told me to do another one...
I repeated the process a total of three times. The second landing was pretty good, with one bounce. The third landing was not so good, with a series of bounces that was starting to feel like "porpoising". Thankfully on the third bounce I flared at the right time and stopped the bouncing.
Landing, landing landing. Just like location in real estate, landing is the thing in aviation. Yes, other things are important, like taking off -- but landing is really key, and the hardest for me to master.
Two most "soloing" lessons like this, then a short cross-country to Midland, then a longer dual cross country, hopefully to Big Bend.