My First Solo – Dave Rippon

I was first introduced to flying as a very young eight year old shortly after the war at an air display when I was given a flight in a De Havilland Rapide aeroplane. This excited me to such an extent that I have always yearned to learn to fly myself but unfortunately family life etc has always prohibited the very high cost involved.

Things changed however some sixty years later when as a birthday present I was given a series of trial lessons at the Dartmoor Gliding club based at Brentor.

After the first few flights with Alan my instructor the “bug” had really bitten. Then began the task of learning all the exercises necessary to ensure that a pilot could safely take charge of the aircraft. These included all the pre flight checks, take off and landing procedures aircraft controls etc. As training progressed the very necessary but sometimes tummy churning exercises including stall, spins and spiral turn recovery, all had to be learned and mastered.

In my advanced years this became quite a steep learning curve often making two steps forward and seemingly one step backwards. The subsequent training period was quite long and demanding but eventually it was felt that I had achieved the required degree of competency and all that remained was a suitable day with good weather.

One Wednesday morning in June, our normal flying day the weather was the usual summer weather, somewhat overcast with a moderate westerly wind. It did not bode well for flying but the airfield and aircraft were prepared for the day none the less

Several flights were made punctuated by some heavy blustery showers and by mid afternoon it was decided to suspend operations for the day. I made a request to Alan that I use the last launch to practice my cable break technique and land the aircraft back at the hanger. Somewhat reluctantly Alan agreed and I was sent to the K13 to prepare for the final flight.

Alan came to join me but instead of getting in to the cockpit he said that he had changed his mind due to an improvement in the weather and that he was going to send me solo. I was instructed to take off fly a normal circuit and then land back at the take off position. With that he said “away and enjoy your flight” and left me in the hands of the ground crew who were wiping the residual rain off the wings and canopy.

There was a moment of nervous excitement with butterflies in my tummy but once I commenced my pre flight checks these were soon dispelled.

The launch cable was connected to the aircraft and the take off run commenced. Due to the wind the take off roll was very short and the plane left the ground and rotated into the climb. My take off launch was very smooth thanks to the winch driver and I was soon climbing at a steady sixty knots at a climbing angle of some 45 degrees.

With frequent checks of air speed and height and the position of the wings against the horizon the ground rapidly dropped away. The fields became a patchwork pattern with little houses looking like a dolls house dotted around. This part of any flight is always very exhilarating but never more so than on this occasion. As I released the cable at the top I had achieved some 1400 feet above the ground and I trimmed the aircraft for cruising Speed of forty-five knots.

There were a few moments to look around; the air was like silk, smooth with a very clear light after the rain, it was so quiet and peaceful which is one of the joys of flying a glider without the noise of an engine. A band of fluffy cumulus clouds were around the horizon. Kit hill with its old chimney were clearly visible on the left together with the lower reaches of the Tamar and its two bridges. To the right Roadford reservoir was sparkling in the late afternoon sunlight though the north coast was hidden by cloud.

It was time to come back to reality and bank the aircraft for a turn to the right when Brentor church appeared under the starboard wing looking like a fairy castle on top of its rocky out crop. This turn took me over Blackdown and on towards the Tavistock road where several toy cars appeared to be making their way along the road. For a few minutes I was able to follow the old railway line north towards Lydford where the gorge was clearly outlined together with the church tower.Dartmoor looked dark and foreboding as the recent heavy shower had not yet cleared its western extremities. It was altogether an unforgettable moment.

A check on the altimeter showed that my height had dropped to under 1000 feet and it was time to make my left turn to re join the airfield. After a careful check for other aircraft I commenced my bank to turn around Brentor Village and back over the church to begin my landing circuit. At this stage it was necessary to adjust my speed to fifty-five knots on my down wind leg. There followed a series of banked right hand turns to bring me through my diagonal and then base leg onto my final approach. All the time I could hear Alan’s voice in the subconscious of my mind extolling me to check my speed and to ensure that I did not apply too much rudder.

I arrived on finals at an acceptable height with a clear view of the airstrip. Opening the air brakes I could then accurately control the rate of decent down to the round out point. I rounded out the dive just above the ground and held the aircraft in the air by gradually easing the control stick back until the speed had fallen sufficiently for the plane to sink gently back on to the grass and finish its ground roll.

I must admit at this stage I gave very satisfied little sigh followed by a big grin, which involuntarily spread over my face, Pam my wife would say it was my “smug look”. It was certainly a very exhilarating experience, which will be very difficult to repeat, and it certainly re paid all the hours of training.

My thanks must go to Alan my instructor for all the patience and encouragement that he gave during all those long hours.

Dave Rippon