First Solo

I’d washed out of Moody’s flight school two years before, but remained at the Institute’s downtown Chicago campus to take courses in Bible and missions.

All of us students ate in the vast dining hall in Crowell Hall basement. I would look across at the flyboys who ate with us groundlings, but sat at their own separate table. They trained out at Moody-Wooddale Airport two days a week, but they lived here. Most of them wore immaculate, black flying boots. I don’t know how anyone could be a good pilot without black flying boots. Dave explained to me how he would smell burnt leather when he spent two hours burning off the old polish and applying the new. And their aviation glasses—gray-shaded and expensive. I didn’t feel worthy to wear flight boots or aviation glasses.

But I constantly dreamed of flying. I read and re-read the FAA’s small booklets—Facts of Flight, Path of Flight, and Realm of Flight (aerodynamics, navigation, and weather), and Wolfgang Langewiesche’s classic Stick and Rudderstill the best book I’ve ever read on flying.

When summer came to Chicago, several of the flyboys carpooled home to California, and took me along so I could visit my family. As we drove across the Midwest, I imagined every passing field a potential airstrip.

Now it is August of 1961, and fourteen of us enter Moody’s two-week flight camp. This is my final chance. After two weeks of training, I am one of only eight men accepted into the program.

The next day, our instructor, Leo, leads a gaggle of new pilots out to a tiny Cessna 150 sitting on the flight line. “Gentlemen, this is an airplane.” We all write it down. The airplane weighs 1500 pounds, and rocks in a light breeze—you can easily raise one wing and lift a wheel off the ground. It has a 100 HP Continental air-cooled engine that burns five gallons per hour.

Leo says, “Drain a little gas out of the gascolator to check if there’s any water.” I drain. The cold, green liquid overflows the little drain cup and runs down my arm. No water, but the fumes intoxicate me.

I write my Dad about Moody Wooddale airport: “It’s really a pasture—the ‘runways’ are all short-mowed grass.” But we will soon get very familiar with this pasture. After a summer downpour, the sodden field turns into an airplane-trap, sucking at the planes’ wheels. Once I got stuck, and had to get help to push the airplane out of a muddy, watery hole. Mr. Anderson sent me out with boots and said, “You have to stomp around in the mud and smooth out the ruts.”

Once every two weeks, Mr. Anderson has to pull a mower behind his red Farmall tractor, driving round and round for hours. After he mows he sets up bright yellow cones along each of the runways. No other markers and no lights. For night operation, Mr. Anderson puts smudge pots out along the sides of runway 18, the 3000-foot north-south runway. When you take off to the south, you climb out over the houses of Wood Dale, and when you circle back around low to land you head-waggle to look for cars along Thorndale Rd.

Runway 24 runs off to the southwest toward a narrow departure tunnel cut through the woods. On a hot, humid day, a Cessna 150 with two people and full fuel can barely rise fast enough to traverse the tree tunnel. Once, when I forgot to retract landing flaps before climb-out, I thought I would carry some of the tree branches with me.

In winter, the whole airfield turns white, so Mr. Anderson plows the airstrips and opens some taxiways. We put the J-3 Piper Cubs on skis for winter operation. The J-3 works well on the snow, but the skis have no brakes, so you have to plan ahead. One cold winter day I had an engine failure in a J3 Cub (my fault), and almost hit the 12-inch approach lip at the east end of runway 09.

Our tiny airport lies in the shadow of Chicago’s O’Hare International. We have to fly below 300 feet because the huge commercial jets approaching O’Hare airport scream over just above us. Each day, fledgling pilots and their instructors take off and fly west through a narrow, prescribed corridor out to our practice area. We learn to watch the smoke on the ground to determine wind direction. Here, we practice turns-about-a-point, S-turns across the road, slow flight, stalls, and spin entries.

This day, I’ve been flying with Leo for about an hour. After a few practice landings, Leo abandons his instructor’s seat beside me, and says, “Well, take ‘er around a couple of times. Remember she’ll be lighter without me in there.”

Suddenly I’m alone, and the next landing will be up to me. No support, no help, not even radio contact with Leo. I carefully taxi out to the runway.

As I take off and circle around, I notice a tiny dot along the active airstrip—it’s Leo, wearing black flight boots and grey aviation goggles, standing there and staring up at me. I take off and make a shallow bank onto crosswind leg. After reaching 300 feet altitude, I pull the power back and level off. Then I turn left onto downwind leg and begin a pre-landing check—fuel valve on, mixture rich, carburetor heat hot. I turn base leg, start a descent, and add 20 degrees of flaps. The last descending turn aligns me with the runway, and I lower full flaps.

But with Leo’s weight absent, the airplane is too buoyant. I point the nose down, but I’m too fast and too high! I remember my training—add full power, retract flaps, climb out, and circle around to try again. The second approach is a repeat of the first—too fast and too high.

I can’t see Leo’s face, but I imagine he’s wondering if I will get the airplane on the ground before sundown. On the third try I’m still too fast and high, but I determine to land anyway. I paste the wheels onto the ground far down the runway, then stand on the toe brakes to bring it to a skidding stop just short of the end.

When I taxi back, Leo says, “I’ve never gotten back into an airplane after a solo flight, and I’m not going to start now. Try it again. Slow up more on downwind leg, and start your descent sooner.” I take off again. This time I watch the speed, start the descent earlier, and come in for a perfect landing.

My first solo opened up a new world to me and began an adventure of a lifetime. But for the next 6,000 hours of flying I never forget Leo’s advice—slow ‘er up and start your descent early!

3 thoughts on “First Solo

  1. Jim, after reading some of your stories, I am soooo glad that I washed out of summer flight camp in 1963 and have kept my feet on the ground, most of the time. I finshed two more years at Moody in General Bible and Missions and graduated in 1965. By the way I met pilot Dave Osterhus at MAF-Fullerton airport, who encouraged me to go to Moody aviation and later join MAF. That did not happen but Bob Gordon and I became good friends in 1980.1981 at FTS and later we travelled togethe to Quito, Ecuador, where we performed an evaluation of the MAF program in Ecuador for two weeks. A few weeks later, one of the pilots that we flew with over the jungle for hours at a time, died after colliding with trees at the end of the runway in Shell. Bob and I were overcome with grief for the pilot and his family (whose name I don’t remember right now). Like you, Jim, I was trained in Cultural Anthropology and have spent most of my missionary career doing misiological fieldwork, writing, editing, translating and publishing missiological materials. Now I am retired and living on my son Rick’s horse ranch in northwestern Costa Rica wth my wife Linda. Blessings, Cliff Holland


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