formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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March 23, 2010 Mike's first solo

The Liberty Gazette
March 23, 2010

The View From Up Here
By Mike Ely and Linda Street Ely

Out of many significant occasions in a pilot’s flying life, the first solo flight is a big one. Another is the moment the FAA designated examiner says, “Congratulations, you are now a private pilot.” Getting to each of these points is a big adventure built upon many smaller adventures. Adventure does not mean free and easy sailing. Adventure means challenges along the way and obstacles to be overcome, and sometimes doubts interrupt for awhile. But if learning to fly was easy, what kind of adventure would that be? Boring!

Adorning the walls of countless flight schools across the country is evidence of those who faced the challenges and persevered: once sweaty-backed shirt tails cut from students’ shirts on the day of their first solo flight. Photographs, some dingy and cracked with age, signed and dated by flight instructors who knew, even if the students themselves did not, that they were ready to make that next big leap. Some may even keep that shirt tail and preserve it as a bit of nostalgia; as the years rush by they’ll rediscover it while looking through old boxes of stuff.

My solo shirt tail was tacked up on a wall inside an old mobile home used by El Monte Skyways as their office at the El Monte Municipal airport in California. My instructor, Dennis Reece, and I had been practicing touch-and-go landings when he asked me to make the next one a full stop. As we taxied clear of the runway we pulled over next to the gas pumps. Dennis slid back the canopy of the four-seat Grumman Traveler and asked me for my student pilot license and logbook. After scratching out his signature on both he climbed out and said, “One time around the patch and I’ll meet you at the FBO. Just remember what you’ve learned, and have fun.”

As I radioed the air traffic control tower to get my taxi clearance it felt different from all the times I had done it before. There was a sense of fear and yet a sense of excitement as I taxied to runway 19 and prepared for takeoff. My heart was beating a mile a minute as I rolled down the runway. The airplane seemed to leap into the air and scream skyward with adrenaline of its own. I noticed how significantly better the airplane performed without Dennis’s weight, and climbed to pattern altitude more quickly than I expected. Following all the procedures I was taught, as the main landing gear squeaked onto the runway pavement accomplishment and triumph welled up in me bursting forth, making it impossible to wipe the grin from my face.

As I climbed out of the airplane Dennis sauntered up, scissors in hand, and as he clipped out a huge swath of cloth from the back of my shirt someone walked up and snapped a picture. That was March 7, 1977, 33 years ago and I had a whole 23 hours of flight time in my logbook. The photograph and the shirt tail have since disappeared along with the flight school mobile home which was replaced by another building which was replaced again by another. But the memory of that magic moment remains.

Mike and Linda can be reached at

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