I’ve been taking flying lessons, mostly in Belfast, for over three years. From time to time somebody who knows I’ve been taking lessons for a while asks, “Have you soloed yet?” Actually, first solo is not the end of pilot training; it’s a fairly early step in the process. The eager young (or middle-aged) greenhorn takes off and neatly (hah!) flies the pattern around the home airport and executes a few landings and takeoffs alone, preferably without accidentally swearing over the radio or breaking anything, while the instructor clutches a hand-held radio and paces beside the runway. Then, after the student lands for the third time, they taxi to the parking spot, shut down, climb out of the airplane, and life is never the same again. 

The day of that first solo, the student pilot — still very much a student — gets her “shirt-tail cut off.” This is a strange bit of tradition where the back of one’s shirt is quite literally lopped off with scissors by the instructor, assuming he can find the office scissors. Typically, at least nowadays, the new flyer’s name and the date of the first solo is scrawled on the piece of shirt and it is tacked up on the wall in the flight school or some other likely spot for everybody to see. It’s a thing. 

Because this is the coast of Maine, where weather suitable for a first solo (light winds and excellent visibility) is not necessarily a given, my first solo — a couple of years ago now — was postponed about six times. There was either too much wind or a lurking fog bank not far enough offshore. I remember thinking, “This is never going to happen.” I also remember being some powerful nervous the nights before the first few “maybe solo” dates, and less so by the time I actually flew alone. It did eventually happen, in a tiny red airplane called N18173 referred to by some of us as “Radio Flyer” or “The Little Red Wagon.” Memories of being a small child thundering downhill over a bumpy slate sidewalk in a rusty little red wagon were not entirely surprising.

After you take lots of lessons, log all the required time and specific skills including several long solo flights, sit for a hairy high-security computerized “written” test administered by the FAA, practice a few potentially stomach-turning emergency maneuvers, and plow through some needlessly complex federal paperwork, you locate a pilot examiner and schedule the combined oral and practical exam — the check ride. If you pass that, you get a pilot’s license.



Of course this summer we had two months of unbroken, tourist-friendly, dry-well-threatening, fire-hazard, totally flyable, brilliant sunshine, and then I get a check ride scheduled and it rains. Yup.

My early morning flight alone from Belfast was a pleasure. I was to meet up with the examiner at the Bangor airport for our third attempt, on account of weather, to get through this. At Bangor I managed just about the softest landing I’ve ever done, since there was nobody watching and it would not count whatsoever toward my test. Typical.

I’m going to skip the details of the exam. You’re welcome. After it was all over and he gave me a computer printout that said “Temporary Airman,” which I still find vaguely humorous, Tim the examiner snapped a photo for me, shook my hand, and left to go feed his dog. Standing beside the plane as it was fueled, I called Sandy Reynolds (my instructor in Belfast), my husband, and the guys at Penobscot Island Air. Then, I sumped the fuel, walked around the airplane one more time, removed the chocks and the pitot tube cover and the control lock, had a drink of water, shouted “Clear prop!” out the window to nobody in particular, and began my dialogue with Bangor Ground. I had to line up behind one of the Air Force Refueling Wing’s KC-135’s, resulting in the air traffic controller speaking that reminder phrase they utter so very frequently in Bangor: “Caution: wake turbulence.” This means when you are a little bitty airplane behind a great big airplane, watch out — you could have a rough ride or even get flipped. Best to wait a few minutes. For my first flight as a licensed pilot, I delivered the rented Cessna 152 back home to Belfast in garden-variety, hot-summer-afternoon turbulence. More of that than I liked, to be honest. Hello, real world.

I called my mom in South Thomaston from the Belfast airport and told her I had passed my check ride. She said “Good,” but I suspect she thinks I’m crazy. I could be wrong. From my dad, in another state, radio silence. Again, perhaps I misunderstand.

Maybe they are a little nervous, being the parents. That’s OK; I would be too.