I taxied the T-37 jet trainer to a stop near the takeoff end of the runway and shut down the right engine. My instructor opened the canopy, unbuckled his seat belt and climbed over the side. He stood by the large emergency fire bottle as I restarted the right engine. He saluted me and turned to walk toward the mobile control unit where he would watch me make my first 3 solo landings in a jet. I was highly elated and mildly terrified. Going solo is what he had been preparing me for over the last few weeks, the first major step toward earning my wings as an Air Force pilot.
I still vividly remember my first flight just in a jet a few weeks earlier. We were approaching the air base at the end of the mission. The instructor rolled the aircraft into a steep bank and then rolled out headed directly down the runway 1000 feet in the air at 200 knots (nautical miles per hour). At midfield, he rolled into another steep 180-degree turn, reduced the power and lowered the speed brake. When we were below 150 knots he lowered the landing gear and then to combat the added drag he increased power and raised the nose to maintain level flight. As we passed the end of the runway still at 1000 feet he lowered the flaps and began the final turn to land, carefully maintaining the appropriate airspeed. After rechecking the hydraulic pressure and safe position of the landing gear he radioed for final clearance to land, rolled out of the turn and smoothly raised the nose and cut the power for a perfect landing. It all happened so fast that I thought that there was no way that I could ever master these most basic skills necessary to fly this airplane myself. How would I ever solo?
Desire– I wanted very badly to be a pilot. At the end of a day, as I watched the T-38 advanced trainers return to the base in sleek 4-ship formation, I knew my goal was to meet the challenges and earn the gleaming silver wings of an Air Force pilot. Those wings would put me in the running to fly any airplane that the Air Force flew, from air combat to ground support to a multitude of other roles. Part of a dad’s role is to help his son be in touch with his desires.
Discipline– For every hour spent in the air learning the manual skills of flying the airplane I had to spend a dozen hours learning emergency procedures, aircraft systems, checklists, aerodynamic principles, local flight rules and on and on. If my desire was not equaled by my discipline I would never graduate, perhaps never even get to fly solo. Part of helping a son fulfill his desires for life is to teach him the meaning of discipline.
Determination– Flying is a complex combination of abilities, both natural and learned. It requires top physical conditioning for the rigorous challenges. A pilot must also be emotionally ready to deal with his fears, high stress, and temporary setbacks. It is hard work and not everyone completes the course. No one successfully finishes without a high degree of determination that marks the pilot as a man willing to pay a price to reach his goal. Part of preparing a son to grow to be a man is to help him develop the determination that will meet the challenges and disappointments of life with courage.
Confidence– A pilot’s confidence grows by mastering the simple skills first – controlling his altitude and airspeed, and then he begins the challenges of aerobatics (loops, rolls, spins) before flying on instruments in the clouds, navigating to other bases, or flying in formation with other aircraft. “Do I have what it takes?” is a question that continually confronts a boy on the road to manhood. That doesn’t stop when you reach the age of 21 or are “solo” in life. It is a lifelong challenge and the confidence to meet that challenge grows one step at a time.
My instructor in the T-37 was Captain Jerome Benson. He was a quiet man who never got very excited about things. He didn’t exactly look the part of a pilot, but he was good, very good. I owe a lot to him for the skills he taught me and for the confidence he instilled in my life so that on the day he stepped out of that airplane I was ready to solo.
I wanted to solo and Captain Benson wanted me to solo, but he knew best when I was ready. Every solo flight that I took he added some new maneuver for me to try on my own after we had practiced it together. As a boy, I couldn’t imagine how much my father wanted me to be able to make my own decisions and manage the complexity of life. Perhaps his greatest gift to me was that he believed in me and that confidence prepared me to accept challenges that he never was able to take on himself.
Son, believe me, your dad wants to see you go solo in life more than you will ever know. He may seem controlling at times, but part of that is his fear about his ability as a dad, not just about you as a son. Dad put into your own words what it will mean to see your son go solo in life.
Flying Higher Together
Son, how do these thoughts about being solo relate to you right now?
Dad, what was it like for you to go solo in life? What were your fears, failures, and victories?
John 16:12 Jesus said to His disciples, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” As Jesus was training His disciples He knew just how much they could handle and when they would be ready for the next challenge. We can trust His leadership in our lives today.
Son, are there things that you wish your dad would release to you and let you try right now? Dad, how can you reasonably respond to his desires and agree on some standards that may make it possible to show your confidence in your son’s readiness at the appropriate time.
John 14:16 Jesus said to His disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth.”
In the Christian life, we are never completely solo. As we learn to walk by faith and grow in wisdom, God gives us more and more freedom in the choices that we make. His Holy Spirit will never leave us or forsake us. He is the perfect sign that God is sending us solo without abandoning us.