First local area solo

Today I had my first solo flight away from the airport. The aim was to practise the various things I’ve been doing recently (which are steep (45 degree) turns, practise forced landings (PFLs), and possibly stalling and recovery).

First was a couple of circuits with the instructor (just to make sure I can still actually land!) – it was interesting as the wind was completely calm today, as such on my first attempt I was a fair distance down the runway before touching down (the lack of wind means the ground speed is much higher for the same airspeed). The second one (which was to land) I extended the downwind leg to give myself longer, and was much better.

Then we taxyed back, the instructor got out, and it was over to me. The take-off was uneventful, and I remembered not to turn until either I’d reached 2000 feet or was clear of the city. On changing frequency from the Tower to Approach I remembered to use the ‘Student’ prefix on my callsign (this lets the controller know it’s a student pilot so they can take that into account when planning etc).

I went out to the local area, and once I was clear of the airport and Cambridge started practising my steep turns (remembering that my lookout was even more important than ever now as there was nobody else to catch anything I missed – though as it happened I didn’t see another aircraft throughout the flight – I think nothing else was operating in the area).

The steep turns were OK (I had a tendency not to apply enough back pressure, meaning I would start to descend as part of the turn, but not disastrously so). I then decided to do a PFL – for this you essentially get to around 3000 feet (which is a typical cruise altitude), and pull the throttle. You then have to maintain the best glide airspeed (70 knots for the Cessna 172), pick a field (preferably in to wind, although with the wind calm today this wasn’t an issue), and aim to fly a suitable pattern to land in it. Once you’re safely flying the aircraft towards the field, you look at whether you can restart the engine / fix the problem. For a PFL you proceed as if you are going to land, and then at a suitable point (that avoids breaking the low flying rules) go around. Throughout this you remember to warm the engine every 1000 feet of descent to avoid the PFL turning in to a real forced landing!

When I’d done PFLs with the instructor I had a tendency to get to close to the field, so I tried to avoid this, however with the lack of wind meaning I had increased ground speed I still ended up a little close. On both of the attempts I made however there did end up being an alternative field that I think would have worked had it been a real emergency.

After that, it was time to head back – this was the bit I was most nervous about, as to whether I would find the airport again (I wasn’t too worried though as if the worst came to the worst I could ask on the radio for what’s known as a QDM, which is a heading to fly that will take me back based on where my radio signal is coming from). After convincing myself that I was definitely pointing in the right direction by checking the distance on the DME (distance measuring equipment – it shows how far away from the airfield you are) was going down, I then was able to get the ATIS information and do my checks etc.

Once handed over to the tower, I was authorised to do a standard overhead join. As I got overhead the radio was busy with a clearance being given to a departing jet. I finally got my overhead call in just as I was about to start descending, and was quickly met with a ‘remain in the overhead’ due to said jet being about to take off. Another orbit around the airfield and I was then approved to descend.

The overhead join was uneventful, and I flew a perfectly reasonable circuit. The landing was a little firmer than ideal (I potentially flared a little early / a little too much), but safe enough. Then it was just taxy back and park up.

All in all, a great 85 minutes of flying, and a good confidence boost that I am safe doing manuevers etc myself. Next time I go solo I’ll also practise some stalling.