I did the majority of my flight training at the Ramstein Aero Club, at Ramstein AFB, Germany. This was shortly after the Ramstein air disaster involving the Italian demonstration team. Needless to say, safety procedures were drilled into our heads and re-emphasized daily.
As an Army guy stationed on an Air Force base, it was always a challenge to find the time to fly and keep up my studying. Often I would come out of the field and get to Aero Club only to have my flight instructor giggle because I still had camoflauge in my ears....
When the momentous day came for my first solo, I was unaware! Like a lot of flight instructors, mine teased me about when I would do it, and then popped it on me by surprise.
Danny, my instructor, climbed into the small, cramped cockpit of the Piper Tomahawk (Trauma-hawk). He had a handheld radio with him. "What's that for?", I asked. "Oh, I just got this last week and want to try it out". Danny is Dutch, and if you've seen the latest Austin Powers movie, giggle here.
After some quick pattern work, he instructed me to taxi halfway down the long, military runway and drop him off near the tower. "What?" I said. "Your ready for your first solo, hot stuff!". A new level of excitement rose up in me, and then panic.
I suddenly began reviewing the entire FAR/AIM in my head, like spinning through a library's microfiche files.
Danny climbed out and gave me the thumbs up. I slowly taxiied away from him like a 16 yr old on his driving test.
I called Ground Control and received permission to taxi for take off. Ramstein's ample size provided me with plenty of review time to go over my take off procedure. Danny used his handheld to contact me and reassure me that I was ready.
As I taxiied to the hold short line, my heart started to race... then my head clicked in... "Calm down", "You can do this!".
Ramstein is one of the busiest military traffic areas in Europe. It's virtually a circus of every military type from every country you could ever see. I was commonly sharing the traffic pattern with heavies such as C-5's and C-141's, to F-16's and TR-1 (U-2) spyplanes.
I received clearance to take off, and got all the horses out of that 4 banger that I could. She lifted off easily, pretty. My first takeoff alone! WOW! I was Pilot in Command! This has got to be one of the best feelings in your life, being at the controls and leaving the bonds of gravity for the first time!
I followed procedure exactly and made a smart, precise pattern over Ramstein. My instructor congratulated me, and had me go around the pattern a few times.
"Okay hot stuff", "Let's bring her in for one of your smooth ones, okay?"
I was feeling great and had already mentally gone through my landing checklist. I called out each leg of my pattern and got the little aircraft configured for landing.
Only problem was, I hadn't received clearance to land!
I called Ramstein Tower again, and then ran out of time. I quickly cleaned up the plane, and added full throttle, climbing back to pattern altitude over the runway.
What had I done wrong? Where did I mess up? Why doesn't Ramstein acknowledge me?
I called for Danny to give me guidance.... nothing.... Ramstein Tower.... nothing.... local traffic.....nothing! Mommy?!!! Nothing.
I had radio failure. Click, click, snapple, POP! No radio. Shoot! What timing! I tried to remember what to do in this situation. I guess I never thought I'd ever have radio failure.
I flew around the pattern once, wagging my wings. I looked on the ground for the little Dutch flight instructor, hoping his mad dancing and jumping would give me a clue on what to do. Then I remembered. Fly towards the tower and wag your wings. If you can, cycle your landing light. I did this and immediately got a response in the form of a light signal from the tower. Little did I know that a buddy of mine was working that day ( I found out about 6 months later).
I got the "green light" from the tower to bring it in.... I could imagine the hot shot F-16 jocks stacking up behind me, waiting for the "Sierra" pilot to get his crap together. I was having a real in-flight emergency, yet I felt as though I was dancing on everyone else's toes. Apologizing to all the heavies waiting for me to land, I gently settled the Tomahawk down in 400 ft. and taxiied off towards the tower and my irate flight instructor.
When I got to Danny, he was hot, but questioned me like a homicide detective. "What the hell happened up there?" , "Didn't you hear a word I said?". "As a matter of fact, I did NOT!", was my reply. Danny climbed in and checked for himself, we had no radio. He called to the Tower with his handheld and informed them of my plight. We took her back to the Aero Club. I was surprised that he let me taxi it back. When we were almost there he said, "John, you did fine today... your pattern was perfect, your landing was great, sorry about the radio." It wasn't my fault, or Danny's fault. We were both sticklers on preflight, and maintenance logs. The radio simply gave up the ghost on that flight. It had worked fine up to that very moment, failing some time after I took off alone.
If there are any morals to this story, it's to always be prepared for whatever kind of emergency you might have... something as simple as a bad radio can raise your pucker factor 100%, and ruin your day. Especially on your first solo!