“She’d Soloed”
© 2005, Paul Berge

The Cessna 150’s interior, cracked and faded with age, exuded the pickled aroma trainers get from decades of student sweat and anxiety. From the right seat I mentally calculated how long we’d be able to slog around the pattern before the line of afternoon cumulus clouds to the West turned to thunder, while reminding my student to keep the ball centered in the turn. I knew Emily was ready to solo. Unfortunately, she knew it too.

We bounced after flaring too high but recovered nicely, only to swerve between two runway lights. It was as we taxied through the weeds back onto the pavement that I knew that the only cure for pre-solo panic was to kick the instructor out of the nest. “Taxi to the ramp,” I said. “Stop here and keep it running.” I sounded as though we were about to rob a liquor store. When I unhooked my seatbelt and asked for her student license her face indicated she might need that liquor store and would rather take to crime than go it alone.

Emily was from a southern state where the English language flows like warm syrup, and while handing over her paperwork she said in her Scarlet O’Hara voice, “Must you?” Not, ‘Must I,’ as in ‘Must I solo today?’ But instead, ‘Must the instructor be so cold-hearted as to leave her to these damn Yankee traffic patterns full of unintelligible radio calls from strangers who show no kindness?’ I signed her certificate and muttered last rites about airspeed and coordination, but she only nodded with southern indulgence, and as I closed the door she calmly adjusted the pillow behind her back and cracked the throttle to blow my cap off. She was definitely ready.

I sat in the chair on the FBO’s porch reserved for instructors to watch their fledglings in pattern. In a show of indifference that didn’t mask my fear, I propped my feet on the railing and clicked on the portable radio as she taxied away. After performing what had to have been the longest run-up in aviation history, she announced: “Mah instructah is a complete and uttah buffoon who sends me to mah death, which I accept without complaint or misgiving.” Actually, she said she was departing runway 18, but I heard differently.

Like all students who shed their instructors she performed to near perfection, except as the Cessna touched down for the third time, I heard tires chirp sideways against the pavement and knew I still had purpose in this world. I exhaled and waved her in, relieved that I hadn’t failed. Unseen forces may protect beginners, but it’s the uncontrollable smile of a freshly soloed student that keeps instructors alive. As I opened her door, clouds on the horizon split the dying sunlight into beams of glory, and the first hint of thunder rolled like applause across the airport. Then, I caught that smile that only appears once in a flyer’s lifetime and now graced Emily’s face because she’d soloed.

© 2005, Paul Berge