Sixteen and Soloed
© 2009, Paul Berge
When does life begin for an AAA lifetime member? For Justin Miller it began halfway through the second day of 2009 and two months after his sixteenth birthday when he soloed his family's Citabria. While not an antique airplane, the Citabria, nevertheless, was the perfect vehicle for leaving the planet unaccompanied. Anything that gets another human into the sky is perfect.
We'd started his formal training over a year before in a 1946 Aeronca Champ, but Justin had been flying with his father, Gary, since he was old enough to be strapped into their Cessna 140A. Over the years the Cessna gave way to a brief experiment with a Cherokee before Gary returned to tail wheel sanity with the Citabria. By then, Justin could fly and wasn't a bad pumpkin bombardier, although he'd have to wait for his sixteenth birthday to fly solo.
Weather, maintenance and other reality delays saw the birthday solo wish postponed until January 2, when we lifted off from the runway, and I announced, "Give me three good landings in a row, and I'll get out."
Justin was primed, cocky even. He wanted me out of that airplane. His first approach was ridiculously wide but salvageable. He rolled onto the ice-crusted grass runway with aileron into the slight crosswind and tracked straight with rudder. When I felt the stick come back to hold us on the ground, I knew he was ready.
"Let's tighten up that pattern," I said, because instructors have to say something to bolster our sense of majesty. "And don't get slow on final." Not that he had gotten slow, I just thought I should emphasize it since it was obvious there was no longer any need for me in the airplane.
Two landings later, I stumbled out, bumped my head on the strut, signed his logbook and then sent him away with a pocketful of last-minute reminders about airspeed and coordination - all pointless, since he was on his own now.
I wasn't alone, though - Justin's father stood beside me trying to mask his apprehension. They live near the airport, and he'd been watching with binoculars from the porch. "I saw you get out of the airplane," he said, "and knew it was time."
It was time, time that paused as Justin taxied to the far end of the field and performed an abnormally long run-up. Finally, he lined up on the runway and without hesitation opened the throttle. From the way the airplane jumped off the ground I knew he must've been thinking, "Sure flies better without all that dead weight in the back seat."
As the wheels left the runway, Gary and I glanced at each other - two old friends, pilots who'd made the same journey decades ago and now quietly shared the thrill of watching another person become a member of the most prestigious club in the history of the world.
Three landings later, I waved Justin to the hangar where he took his time going through the shutdown list, although I suspect from the grin wrapped around his face, the checklist words were a blur.
I met him at the airplane's door with a congratulatory instructor handshake, but when I watched father and son embrace I knew another AAA lifetime had begun.
Gary and Justin Miller are AAA Lifetime Members and base their Citabria at Nash Field (IA66), Indianola, Iowa. Paul Berge, CFII, is also an AAA Lifetime Member and on the AAA Board. He, too, lives in Indianola, Iowa.