There is a distinct difference between flying with an instructor and flying solo.
No, I mean, really.
For 8, 10, 12 flights there has been another person in the airplane—someone who knew what to do if something went wrong. But on that first solo flight, that security blanket is abruptly stripped away. Combine eager anticipation and a touch of anxiety with a heightened awareness of everything about that “first solo” experience, and your mind starts to play tricks on you.
Engine start, takeoff and departure are busy times in the aircraft and your senses are focused on critical tasks. You think of, and check, everything twice. Finally, you level off, reduce the power to cruise and everything slows down to a normal pace. A touch of comfort settles in. You take a deep breath, sigh, and it hits you, “I am flying this airplane all by myself!” With that realization, the comfort immediately evaporates, but gradually returns.
Then you hear it: is a quiet thump or a low hum—something new that you have never heard before. You scan the instruments and check the position of all controls and switches. You cruise gently around your practice area, constantly scanning the instruments for any out-of-normal reading. There are none.
After a few minutes you remember someone talking about the solo “gremlins,” sounds you have never heard before. You perform a few gentle turns, climbs, and descents. The plane performs normally. When you are concentrating on a maneuver, you don’t notice the sound. In reality, the problem is that there is no instructor, so you hear common sounds that happen all the time, that are normal, but that were never noticed before.
You begin to relax. The airplane is performing as expected, you can practice the maneuvers you discussed with you instructor—so you continue, occasionally listening to determine if the gremlin is still there.
But what if the gremlin is outside the aircraft?
T-38 Night Solo
I think I mentioned that I really did not begin to feel comfortable in the T-38 until a week or two before graduation. But “gremlins” were never a problem. We wore fitted helmets with headsets. We could hear very little outside the helmet.
About three months into T-38 training, several dual night flights were scheduled to practice increased reliance on instruments and how to translate features on a navigation chart into what feature looks like on the ground at night.
Immediately after that, we were scheduled for our night solo mission. Our mission was to take off, climb straight ahead to our cruise altitude—Flight Level 350—and continue straight ahead until we were 50 nautical miles from the base; turn left and fly an arc with a radius of 50 NM around the airport until we were on the opposite side of the airport, then turn toward the airport and request a straight in approach. All this time we were in contact with air traffic control.
With the mission briefing and preflight complete, I buckled in the aircraft, turned on the electrical power and adjusted the instrument lights. There is something surreal about being a cockpit at night. Instruments are illuminated with red lighting. Red does not interfere with night vision. It takes 15 to 30 minutes for eyes to adapt to dim light, but only a few seconds of white light can briefly destroy the night vision adaptation.
I received clearance to taxi to the runway, and was immediately cleared for takeoff. With slightly sweaty palms, I moved the throttles forward, then into full afterburner and we were soon climbing at 250 knots to our assigned altitude. I leveled off about 25 NM from the airport and set up a 0.8 Mach* cruise—and took a deep breath and began thinking ahead to the first turn.
The physics of flight do not change at night, but the dark closes in and you feel even more alone in the airplane—the cockpit becomes a cocoon.
We had an instrument, the DME (distance measuring equipment) that provided a constant readout of the distance from the navigation station set in the navigation radio. As I approached 50 on the DME I began a turn to the left, a 90-degree heading change so that the navigation station would be off my left wing. Flying straight, the aircraft would tend to fly away from the station, so I set up a routine: when the DME read 51, I turned left a few degrees back toward the station, to cut across the circle so that when I was directly abeam the station, the DME read 49. The DME would begin to increase to 51, and I repeated the process. This was an acceptable method for arcing around a navigation point without having to maintain a very slight constant turn.
Based on my navigation chart, my route would take me around the edge of Lubbock, Texas. Soon, I could see the distinct and unique pattern of the city lights in the distance.
A scan of the instruments showed all conditions were normal. A slight tweek on the throttle set the speed at precisely at Mach 0.8. I could look around and appreciate the view. It was a moonless night, but there were plenty of stars. There were some very thin, wispy cirrus clouds above, but there were big holes in those clouds and I could see and even identify several constellations.
There I was…
The air was smooth, the plane was on speed, on altitude, and on heading, and I could actually breathe in a relaxed manner. I was beginning to get comfortable in a T-38.
What was that!?
A ball of light—and ephemeral glow—flashed past my left wing. My fingers tightened around the control stick. Comfort fled! I turned my head looking for whatever was out there. I called ATC, my voice up an octave, and asked if there was any other aircraft “out there.”
“Negative, there is another T-38 about fifty miles behind you. That is all that I see.”
“Roger.” I did not know how to explain what I had just experienced. Then it happened again, this time the “light” flashed past me on the left—just light. No aircraft lights, no form or anything else. Just a round glow traveling far faster than I was. All I knew was that I was cruising at 0.8 Mach and this thing was passing me easily. The hair on the back of my neck started to prickle. My pulse went up. This was something entirely new, unexpected, and, should I say it, other-worldly, even alien?
The light passed in front of me on a crossing path, then again came up along my left side, hesitated and arced away. It was time to take action. I rolled sharply left, looking behind and below—and saw nothing. I had heard of pilots encountering unidentified flying objects—UFOs—but never expected to really encounter one; not over Lubbock, Texas. Beads of sweat dampened my forehead, inside my helmet.
I rolled back to the right. Then I saw them. Far below there were two huge search lights on the ground with their beams moving around in random circles. Just then, the light came back and I flew right through it. Looking down I could see the huge lens pointed at me. It was purely a coincidence, but it had sure gotten my attention.
Gradually my anxiety level eased and my pulse approached something normal. A reasonable level of comfort was restored and I completed my night solo successfully and without further interference from aliens.
I learned later that there had been a grand opening of a new auto dealership and they had the search lights going as part of their promotion. The aliens were only imported cars.
* See My First (and Maybe Last) T-38 Progress Check Flight for a brief explanation of “Mach.”
My first night solo in a T-38 had enough anxiety associated with it. I did not need to encounter a UFO! Gremlins and Aliens – A Young Pilot’s Nemesis describes several very tense encounter high over west Texas.
Gremlins and Aliens – A Young Pilot’s Nemesis relates the events of what appeared to be a UFO encounter high over West Texas.