Sunday, August 7, 2011

Letting Go - A CFI's Story

Moving on. Moving past. Letting go. Sitting on my front porch on a day off, clouds moving past, takes me back to other clouds so long back.

It's been 30 years or so since I first soloed. I was barely old enough to drive a car, yet I could fly an airplane, thanks to cheap fuel prices and an instructor who, after raising 7 boys, wasn't the slightest bit afraid of letting a little redhead aloft in a small tailwheel airplane.

I never had the dreams of most girls my age. White picket dreams in a small town. I charged down the runway full throttle and never looked back. If I had, I probably would have seen my instructor standing there, nervously puffing on a cigarette as he let me go, only thirteen hours of flight time under my belt.

It's hard to let the students go. I had one, a banker who was taking lessons out of a large International airport. For obvious reasons, we didn't practice our takeoffs and landings there but went to a country strip 15 miles away with a long WWII era runway, and almost no other traffic. He was a diligent and motivated student and when I crawled out of the airplane to let him do his three takeoffs and landings solo, I watched with confidence. . . . as he flew off into the distance AWAY from the airport, disappearing from sight.

Thirty unbearably frantic minutes later, there he is, coming back into the traffic pattern, to pick me up. He had gone BACK to the big International airport and done his three takeoffs and landings. He thought he had to solo at his home base. I called the tower, terrified of what I'd hear and they said he did an outstanding job, with the traffic and the communications, they didn't even know he was alone. After that, I was a little more careful in explaining that you had to solo at the airport the instructor was at.

As my students soloed, I think I understood what it had been like for my parents, raising a headstrong and independent sort like me. I thought, this is really hard, think of all the things that can go wrong. How did my Dad do it?

And I understood how hard it must have been for him to watch me leave the nest so young, and I understood better, the depth of his love and trust and the fears that something might happen. He still feels that way, wanting me to be safe, happy, and loved.

That moment of independence is one you never forget, be it a drive off to an out of state college, a job in a distant city, or that leap into the blue unknown. Everything seems to stand still, and for a moment you frame time, and years later, you can still fly back inside it, again and again and beyond.

That moment of time is there, in my memory, and in a faded photograph of a little two seat tailwheel airplane. There are years of other photographs, and one more recent, a photo of someone I love and also had to let go of. Looking at the photo, I'm filled with all this emotion, this longing and missing. Looking down at smiling green eyes, I realize that the lesson my family gave to me is still with me. The strength to love someone profoundly, and in the end, letting them go so they can become the person they need to be.


  1. you had to solo at the airport the instructor was at.

    Now that's good!:)

  2. I remember my first solo... I asked my instructor "are you sure?". He laughed at me. He stood out on the ramp and watched. It was probably just as nerve wracking for him as it was for me. It went fine. :)

  3. As the father of a girl who just turned sixteen only six short weeks ago and immediately got her driver's and motorcycle licenses... I can relate in many ways...

    I remember watching her drive off for the first time without us... will she remember "this", will she do "that"... one less thing she needs me for...

    Dann in Ohio

  4. The helpless feeling of the IP looking skyward and wondering, "where's he going now???" That's funny!

    I remember my first solo. It was a J-3 Cub and it was much less challenging for my instructor than your tale.

    Probably more memorable for me are the solos of students I trained in the USAF. Ten to twelve hours in a two-engine jet (Cessna T-37).

    Land and taxi-back to the first stub taxiway, then shut down the right engine, climb out, strap up the ejection seat and stand "fire watch" as your charge spins up the engine and taxis off to dance the pattern sky on hopefully laughter-silvered wings.

    IP took parachute, helmet, etc. across the runway to the Mobile Control Unit--a mini-tower that controlled student traffic on the T-37 runway. Sit behind the control and hope that nothing comes up requiring your intervention. Three landings and a full-stop.

    A great feeling to be starting another person on the path.

  5. That repair job - Yikes!

    WV: "bustr" Must have done it good.

  6. Right now, I hardly have the courage to let other pilots take the yoke and rudders alone when I am in the cockpit - I can only hope that I will have the courage and confidence, in my own ability to teach and in the ability of the student, by the time I have a soul ready and free to fly.

    Loving strong enough to let another fly free is a testament to your courage, character, and heart.

    ...I will certainly take the warning about making my instructions utterly clear to heart! Solo this airplane at this airport, and no other!

    Borepatch - that's a rudder lock designed to keep not only the rudder, but also the cables, pulleys and yoke attached from banging themselves worn or broken when 105-mph winds whip out of a mountain pass and lash the aircraft tied down in its path. Also works well for thunderstorms and western winds. Someday I'll hit it with a can of red spray paint, and attach a "remove before flight" ribbon for the sun and wind to shred.

  7. The beauty of letting them go is seeing the amazing beauty of their potential expand into the awesome. I am trying to keep that in mind as we slowly let our oldest fly farther into the world.

  8. I've *never* seen a rudder gust lock quite like that one before!

  9. Love the pictures, and your blog. I am thinking of taking up flying. But the money is a little tight right now. A friend just got his sport pilot, and has purchased a sport plane.


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