As a child, I dreamed of being three things: a train engineer; a pilot; and an astronaut. The most precious aspects of young dreams are the innocence with which we develop our initial abilities to believe, and the boundless possibilities therein. I fantasized about flight, became fascinated with airplanes and aerodynamics. I could lose hours pretending that my comb, toothbrush, pencil, spoon were magical instruments of flight. I’d glide and buzz around the house enjoying a whimsical flight of fancy aboard my craft. As I grew, at some point those sessions faded as the early dreams melded into kernels of subconscious thought.

Mid-twenties, as a young college graduate starting my career I’d drive along the moonlit lake shore at night. The routine, background phenomenon of a jet on final approach over the lake to its landing at the regional airport at some point became a haunting awakening of my earlier dreams. Mostly content in my new career, I’d contemplate many times what the lives of those pilots must be. I imagined a life of adventure and excitement as they ferried passengers on their own flights of fancy toward exotic destinations. I recall feeling as if there was something I’d missed out on. Feelings of sadness and almost regret began to bubble up inside as I longed to experience the magic that once seemed so real but now belonged to someone else. Many a subsequent moonlit night, as I drove that beautiful lake shore and noted those jets on their final approach path did I endure an overwhelming thought of, “There’s something I’ll never do.”

I sat, alone, nervously clutching the yoke of my Cessna 150. Engine idling, gentle cross wind blowing, pre-takeoff checklist completed, impatiently awaiting take-off clearance from runway 14 of Shreveport Downtown Municipal Airport……….there I sat. I sat…focused, poised, ready, remembering all the training I’d completed in preparation for this day. There is only one first solo as a pilot. This moment would never again be lived. And today, this was mine.

All previous flight hours, including take-offs, landings, emergency maneuvers such as take-off and landing stalls, spins (now those were really fun!), engine failure had been carefully and patiently supervised by my flight instructor. He was always there. Sitting in the right-hand seat of the plane, a position of “assistant” or “second in command” he was always there. Granted, as I progressed through training he rarely intervened in any way other than to gently verbally suggest, “You may want to lower your flight speed going into that stall recovery” or, “More right rudder!” Still, he was there. On this day, October 4, 1987 the seat was empty.

I heard it, “Cessna 49G, cleared for departure runway 14, do you copy?” Skillfully handling the radio mic as I prepared for take-off roll with my right hand on the throttle, I quickly, confidently repeated my instructions, “Downtown tower, Cessna 49G cleared for take-off runway 14.” This was it. My moment was here. Free to go. Free to “spread my wings” for the first time. Free to do what I had diligently prepared for, and what I knew was the necessary next step in becoming a licensed pilot.

As I eased the throttle slowly forward, feeding the bird its power, I steadied the yet earthbound machine straight down the paint: a little right rudder, no more left, ok now more right. Gaining speed, engine howling with delight, my heart pounded as my hands skillfully feathered the yoke backward, coaxing the plane upward into flight. Repetitive, meticulous training etched into my brain took over as I maneuvered the plane through the prescribed student first solo routine: circle the airfield at 1500 ft.; precisely follow the instructions of the local air traffic control tower as they authorize clearance for landing; land, and repeat the sequence three times. My heart now returned to normal rate and rhythm, my head clear, my spirit still soaring, I taxied the plane safely back to home base. I see my instructor proudly standing on the tarmac as I slowly guide the craft to its port.

Plane safely stowed, I return my steady feet to mother earth. My instructor approaches wielding scissors, and a smirk. He reaches out, issues a firm handshake and speaks congratulatory words. I’ve passed the initiation, joined the fraternity. One final detail of an unforgettable morning remained on the agenda: the time-honored tradition of “clipping my tail feathers.” (see photo below: on the day of the solo, which is always a secret, the instructor cuts off the shirt tail of whatever shirt the student pilot has worn that day). Many hours of training followed. There were cross-country solo flights, night flights, more emergency procedure training, more honing of skills. At the conclusion of the journey, I earned my ASEL rating as a new private pilot: airplane, single-engine, land designation. Free to fly where and when I wanted. Tail feathers clipped, mission accomplished.

As I guided my Cessna on final approach one serene, beautiful moonlit evening over the lake, I wondered if there was a young man driving that lake shore looking up, noticing my plane, and dreaming of one day fulfilling his fantasy of flight.


~ by William Maloney on February 16, 2010.

15 Responses to “Wings”

  1. I like the way you think and write. Nice stuff.


  2. Bill, excellently written. Your choice to take the reader abruptly from dream (wishing to fly) to reality (in the plane) was a dramatic way to tell the story.

    As a lover of flight, I am certain you are familiar with aeronautical publications. Contact the editor regarding submitting your short story. I can imagine what fun this would be to read while I’m flying 30,000 miles high comfortably in the hands of my trusted pilot. Let me know what options you have for publication after you do some research.


  3. The pictures and the drawing are great additions. Tell me about the pencil drawing.


    • Carole, the drawing was done by my flight instructor. After he “clipped my tail feathers” aka cut off the back of the shirt I was wearing that day. It’s a time honored tradition that whatever you’re wearing on the day you solo, your instructor is going to cut it up….and since the day of your solo is always a surprise, I always wore ratty clothes to my lessons! That was an old gray sweatshirt. Even though that was 28 years ago, I remember in vivid detail every aspect of it: the cologne I was wearing (I can smell it in my nostrils even now as I recount the story), the way that particular sweatshirt felt, the recitation, out loud of the 23 Psalm just before I took off, etc. He delivered the remnant to me on the next lesson with the drawing he rendered. I appreciated the effort and gesture, so had it framed. It’s been hanging, framed, on my office wall all these years. In fact, looking up at it last night inspired me to write the story I posted today.


      • First, thanks for being certain I got to read your reply. Your reply to my question carries us further into the story. I’m wondering how you could fit this into the telling of the first post without inteferring with the flow of the first post. Just a thought….

        I really enjoyed reading the “rest of the
        story. You are indeed an excellent writer.


  4. I tried to fly once too… Someone really should have told me that a cape doesn’t ensure flight, or even soft landing. Damn sticker bushes.


  5. Bill.. thanks for sharing such wonderful memories!! I love it. I think we can all relate to that feeling when a dream is about to be realized – when the levels of fear and excitement are only surpassed by the levels of adrenaline! We don’t get those feelings often enough but they are such defining moments… The next time I’m on approach to Shreveport I’ll remember this blog entry and the memory of your first solo.


  6. That is a great story. One of those once in a life-time events that we all wish we could re-live over and over. For you it was a dream, a dream which you pursued and in the end it came true. You did something not many people can say they have done, and I am not talking about flying. I am talking realizing a dream and doing the work to achieve it. I hope to one day live out all my dreams and forever I will remember your story and use it as motivation. Thanks for sharing.


    • Jason,
      I am honored that you would take the time to read this piece. I am doubly honored and humbled at the notion of inspiring you to achieve your dreams. Trust me, you have sufficient inner strength and drive to achieve anything you want in this life. Plus, you now have a beautiful, intelligent girl to share your dreams……no excuses, lol. I am so fortunate to have you, and now Jenna as friends.


  7. William… are you still flying? I publish General Aviation News and came across your post when I was searching for images of shirttails. Great post. Very much enjoyed reading it…


    • Thanks a lot, Ben. I appreciate your comments and I’m happy to know you enjoyed the post. I have not flown for awhile. I have been toying with getting back up. I miss it. What about you, do you fly? Thanks so much for taking the time to read, and respond.


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