Unabashed boldness…meh, not for me

Hello, my name is Valerie, and I’m a weenie.

It took me fifteen days to get back in a plane by myself after my last solo flight, and even that I only did after bursting into tears and having to sit in the plane for half an hour to deliberate on it.

Believe it or not, this was progress. The last solo flight I had scheduled I didn’t even make it to the plane.

The extreme weenieness began after my first cross country solo flight. Three specific thoughts occurred to me:

1) Every time I am alone in a plane, something new and unexpected seems to go wrong.

2) Most of the emergency situations I have trained for are things I can only read about, not actually experience (ex: How do I know I can land in a field with no engine since school policy prevents deliberately killing the engine or field landings? How do I know I can pull out of a spin when school policy prevents practical spin training?)

3) I don’t know enough to be doing this by myself. For the past few months I have been sprayed with a fire hose of information and caught what droplets I could believing that one day, I would have it all absorbed and understood. I thought that day would come before I had to be alone in an airplane, but it didn’t.

I still hold my breath when leaning the mixture (suppose I kill the engine by pulling too much), I discovered yesterday my gravity fed, not fuel injected system, does house a fuel pump, and don’t ask me how VORs work. Seriously, those things are magic.

Other contributing factors to my weenieness are that I’m new to Oregon and don’t know how to drive to most of the places I’m trying to fly to. I constantly feel lost up there. I look out the window and it’s all forest and rivers and mountains and little towns that look identical to the next little town. If I can pick out Hwy 26 or the Columbia River (I confuse it with the Willamette River all the time), it’s a really good day. If I can navigate back to my home airport without help, it’s a miracle.

Plus I still don’t have the experience to know what is a danger and what is normal. Flying over mountains, every time there’s even a hint of an updraft the first thing in my mind: “Oh no! IT’S WIND SHEAR, I’M GUNNA DIE!!! CLIMB! CLIMB! CLIMB!” When that right mag starts to bounce on the run-up, is it just carbon burning off from too much fuel or is the engine about to explode? I truly don’t know the difference yet. Which is why I came back to the parking lot on my last solo, burst into tears and refused to go up yesterday. A pilot that can’t even figure out what is wrong with her engine (or the fact that NOTHING is wrong with it) isn’t someone competent to go up there.

I am constantly out of my element. Out of my comfort zone. I do my best to stay calm and positive, and then something always seems to go wrong. Yesterday when I did finally make it up there for just a local flight instead of the cross country I had scheduled, I learned my transponder wasn’t reporting my altitude (this was bad because I had managed to fly myself right back into Delta airspace when the clouds that were supposed to be higher were not and I turned back).

The weenieness has not gone unnoticed by my CFI. Frankly, it’s hard to ignore a woman leaking Niagara Falls out of her face while conducting a preflight. He is trying lots of things to try to get me comfortable up there. First he got special permission from the flight chief to go to a little airport with a grass strip and practice (yes, actually do instead of just talk about) emergency field landings. Now I know I can land in a field and I know what to expect.

On our next flight I told him to deliberately make things go wrong with the plane without me noticing and let me figure it out and fix it. It was much more helpful from the way the flight school teaches it, “ok, now we’re going to pretend we’ve had an engine failure, but we’re not really going to do it.”

For the last part of the lesson he said, “ok, close your eyes, put your chin to your chest and when I tell you to look up, I want you to recover from whatever I have done to the plane” This proved the most valuable – and most nauseating – part of my training so far. He put the plane in strange attitudes, at strange speeds, sometimes almost to a stall when I looked up. Each time, I was able to pinpoint very quickly what to do to make it fly right again.

Yet, the next time I was supposed to go up by myself, I was in tears before I got to the plane.

I’ve tried everything I know to do.

Meet Gizmo, my copilot.

Gizmo is helpful, he holds my water bottle between his belly and his seat belt, I can tuck my map under his leg and it won’t fall between the seats, and he provides someone to talk to. (“Do those clouds look much lower than reported to you too, Giz?” and “I don’t like this turbulence either Gizmo, let’s get out ofย  here!”)

But to be truthful, even with Gizmo I’m still terrified to be all alone up there. There’s something about having another person in the plane. Another set of eyes to watch out or help you look for things on the ground. Even if they were in full panic mode, I could use them as a barometer. “Ok, you’ve got the panic covered, check, next we need to pitch for 60 knots…” Somehow the brain chemistry changes when it’s not just you up there. When you are responsible for getting someone else back safely.

I’m really not sure what to do. It has been explained to me that once I get my license I never have to fly alone again if I don’t want to. But I know to get to a license I have one more solo cross country flight I have to do before my check ride.

Anyone have a helpful tip or advice for how to get a weenie back in the plane by herself?


14 thoughts on “Unabashed boldness…meh, not for me

  1. No advice for flying, but everything you say still screams to me way more competence than you are allowing yourself to accept. You are ASKING to be challenged, to have the worst thrown at you, and you are still handling and coping. I suspect that you are always going to be someone who questions yourself – and that is no bad thing. You’ll just have to learn that when someone else tells you that you are good enough, you are good enough. By all means let the private voices scream at you, but trust the people who are judging what you do – not judging your emotional or lymphatic response ๐Ÿ™‚

    Side note, I think you and I are similar in this respect, and I understand how hard it is. I genuinely wish you the best with all my heart ๐Ÿ™‚


    • Thanks so much for your kind words. I think I’m beginning to figure out what is going on. Normally I am that obnoxiously brilliant student the teacher makes an example from and I usually have an overconfidence problem instead of a weenieness problem. But with flying I have found a need to hone all of my weakest talents all at once and (dumb as it will sound) I really didn’t know that is what it would take. I didn’t realize there would be so much math (which I am TERRIBLE at) or that navigation would be so difficult (I have NO inherent sense of direction) or that I would have to understand the delicate intricacies of how the engine works (I didn’t have to do that to get a driver’s license, I didn’t see it coming for a plane license). I think the closer I get to the check ride, the more I am having to develop and hone talents I have avoided (and therefore never really developed with any level of confidence) my whole life. I’m sure it is a good thing…or rather, it will be, once I break through the wall.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have spent a decade believing that my engine will fail. It helped to watch a 1940’s era outboard motor (same technology as the engines in our aircraft) start up after sitting for twenty years. It just started up. And it ran all day. Also, you could read Richard Feynman’s “Surely You’re Joking” which includes a description of having a piston engine running at Caltech and slowly removing the oil, the coolant, and waiting for it to seize.

    I am glad you landed on grass, but I do not believe you will ever get to experience an engine failure. It is a great thing to train for, because you learn other things, but even talking to people that HAD an engine failure tells me you need to fly a LOT of hours to get into the zone where it might happen.

    Unusual attitude training is a lot more valuable and I am glad you have started that.

    Gizmo was a great idea, but I would bring a digital recorder. You have a lot of questions when you are flying and SAYING them to someone, even a future you, is helpful. When I am solo I am talking to myself constantly. I do all my cockpit callouts. I say aloud all the things instructors have taught me. Try it.

    I also think that if you took a few pseudo-solo flights, where the CFI was sitting there but didn’t say *anything* the entire time, you might feel better.


    • Thanks for your suggestions. I will definitely try saying my checklists aloud when I fly solo next. I have done a couple of pseudo-solo flights with the CFI, it didn’t seem to make it any better.
      Tell me more about this outboard engine…you mean they pulled it off of a shelf and started it up and it ran, just like that?


      • Make the CFI sit in the back. See if that helps.

        If you have cleared it with the other student, riding along quietly should not be an issue. You need a different flight school if they aren’t encouraging learning.

        Yes, we took an outboard engine off the rack in the boathouse, where it had sat for more than twenty years, dropped it on the back of a steel boat, filled it with fuel and pulled the starter for ten minutes. It fired up. It never had an annual. I am sure there are gaskets in there which would be happy to be replaced. The simplicity of mixing fuel and air and then triggering the ignition with a spark, is outrageously simple. It is difficult to get it to go off the rails once it is rolling.

        I did spin training and some acrobatics with the outfit that Ron teaches out of. It was *really* useful and made a big difference about how I felt about my plane. (More recently I had Ron fly my plane out to Catalina and it was a real education to see how an acrobatic pilot would fly it, stay much closer to the edge of a stall than I usually do, but it meant that we were off the bumpy runway out at Avalon in half the distance than I usually am.) So if you happen to make it down this way for a break from winter, check out Sunrise and consider taking a spin less with someone there.


      • Ron and I have met. His blog is one of the half dozen that I started following when I began my flight training. When I saw that he had a new son and was thinking about his first flight I offered to bring my incredibly safe Diamondstar down to KSNA for him to take a flight. Really, it was a treat for me because seeing someone who regularly flies planes near the edges of their envelopes handle a plane I’ve flown for ten years was enlightening. It changed the way I flew right away.

        Any day now I’m going to use the Twinstar to help Ron commute from KSNA to KCMA.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I can offer a few suggestions:

    First, don’t be so hard on yourself. I think much of the pressure you feel is self-induced. Do you know everything about flying and aviation? No. And you never will. 8000 hours and 15 years into my career, I learn new things every. single. day. If you wait until you’ve learned everything to solo, nobody would ever do it. But the constant learning is one of the best things about flying.

    Second, if you wonder about your ability to recover from spins, how about getting spin training? I highly recommend it. I learned at a place whre nobody soloed until they had practical spin training. Important note: make sure you get it from the right person — that is, someone who is focused on your comfort and not on showing you what an awesome pilot THEY are. Spin training is valuable, but it has to be approached properly by the instructor (sound familiar??). I’ve provided spin training to countless students, and they all have a positive reaction to the experience. My theory is that people are afraid of the unknown. If you’ve never experienced spins, you’ll naturally fear them. And if you’re afraid of spins, you’ll be afraid of stalls because that’s one of the components necessary for a spin. If you’re afraid of stalls, you’ll be uncomfortable with high angles of attack since that puts you close to a stall. And if you’re not comfortable with high angles of attack, you’ll tend to approach for landing with too much airspeed.

    Third, how about riding along on some of your instructor’s other flights? Obviously this would have to be in a 4 seater rather than a 2 seater, but I’m sure he teaches in something with 4 seats. You’d be amazed how much you learn by watching others. And you’ll see other students making the same mistakes you do. It’s quite instructive to observe the teaching process without having to actually fly the plane. Best of all, it’s FREE. It also helps the other student by allowing them to fly with a different weight/CG configuration.

    Fourth, how about joining Women in Aviation or a local EAA chapter to build a support system for yourself? I think the blog serves part of that purpose, but it would be neat to have someone you could bounce thoughts and ideas off of.

    Fifth, attend a fly-in or airshow. They’re fun and will remind you of why you got into flying in the first place. You’ll meet neat people; that’s one of the best things about aviation: the people.

    Airplanes are amazingly simple and stable. Your aircraft isn’t going to fall out of the sky. You’ve probably seen how hard you have to work to even get it to stall. As far as the engine is concerned, in 8000 hours I’ve had zero total engine failures. I’ve had 3 partial engine failures. One was a blocked fuel filter, the second was a cylinder failure, and the third was a carburetor problem. In all cases the engine continued running. If statistics make you feel any better, it’s quite rare for a piston engine to stop running. The vast majority of engine stoppages are caused by the pilot running out of fuel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the great suggestions. I will definitely ask about a ride along, but I believe it’s against school policy (the last instructor that let me ride along was not invited back when he reapplied). I do have a mentor with the 99s, but you are right that I should connect more with my local chapter – they are not nearly as active, but they are still here in the woodwork and I should give them a try. I’m looking forward to the airshow here in July, but with your suggestion I’ll try to find one sooner. Finally, what do you mean “partial engine failure”?


      • A total engine failure is what I worried about all the time. You go from having 100% of your engine’s thrust available to having 0% available. One of my online pilot friends had a piston rod snap in his Continental engine, it poked out the engine case and stopped everything from turning. One moment humming along in a pressurized, gorgeous Piper Malibu and the next he was declaring an emergency and turning for Atlantic City’s airport. He was at 16,000 feet. His six year old daughter said, when they rolled to a stop, “Daddy, that was one of your best landings ever!”

        He had a friend that had a turboprop conversion of his Malibu and had the propeller depart the aircraft shortly after takeoff out of Colorado Springs. He turned it around (with the windshield filmed with oil) and put it right back on the runway he had just left.

        Harrison Ford had a total engine failure and did better than I would have with a plane that, without an engine, flies as well as a Coke machine.

        You will hear those three stories if you listen often enough to people hangar flying, especially the last one. You hear them in part because they are SO rare. In hundreds of thousands of hours of flying, your chances of a total failure of the engine is small enough that I should have started ignoring it (but I couldn’t so I doubled my chances of an engine failure and now fly with two fo the damn things).

        What happens much more often than total engine failure is partial engine failure, like what Ron described. I lost a magneto over KABQ on my first cross-the-country flight. I had twenty percent less power. Something like that. But I landed safely (and even hopped to an airport a couple miles away, a place that had a maintenance facility).

        One of the seminars I attended had the statistics and the incidents of partial power loss were still really uncommon, but it’s more often what pilots face. Full stop just doesn’t occur. One cylinder dying, sure. All four or six? Not so much.


      • That’s why the Feynman book was so interesting to me. A lot of what we learn about engines is the ideal, and the real world behavior of machines is a little different. There is momentum, and a lot more power than just what is needed to rotate the crankshaft. If you turn off the spark plugs for one cylinder, your four cylinder engine WILL still turn. It will not sound good. Eventually I think it is bad for the metal parts, although I can’t remember why (exhaust gasses probably ignite past the cylinder?). But it will turn. It will even produce power. Most importantly in an airplane, it can make the difference between best glide and level flight. So if I lose a cylinder I can fly to an airfield ten miles away, but if I lose the whole engine I’m probably looking for a golf course.


      • Partial engine failure refers to a malfunction which results in a loss of some — but not all — power. A good example would be the failure of a single cylinder. It stops producing power, but you’ve got three more under the cowling that are still functioning. In my experience, most engine failures aren’t the instant total loss of thrust you see simulated in training, but rather a partial loss, or the onset of some vibration.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Mother here. I have known you for a long time. There’s no doubt you are able to do anything you want. It is you who can decide how it will come out in the end, Love Mom

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

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