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Ride The Solo Cycle

Audio Blog, 9:32

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Somewhere around the sixth or seventh week of Army flight training, a few weeks after my stick buddy “Swanny” had washed out, Instructor Dennis Thorp was putting me through some basic flight maneuvers at one of Fort Rucker’s stage-fields. The fourteen stage-fields account for over 2,000 acres of land in southeastern Alabama, and serve as the main helicopter pilot training areas.

I landed the green helicopter (with orange doors to alert the world that a dangerous student pilot is training) on the runway after completing several patterns around the stage-field. I was still shaky on the controls, and felt like I was one mistake away from causing a disaster, if not for Mr. Thorp’s daily supervision. By no means did I feel confident enough for what was about to happen next…

Mr. Thorp, who sat in the right seat of the aircraft, looked over and said to me, “Candidate Van Buren, I think you are ready to do your solo ride. I’m going to get out, and you are going to complete three trips around the stage-field’s flight pattern.”

A wave of anxiety rushed over me, even though I knew the solo ride would happen within this two-week period. He made a call to the control tower to inform them of my impending solo ride, gave me a few final tips, wished me good luck, and then disconnected his audio cord and got out.

He just got out. Thorp walked off to the side of the runway, turned around, and had the nerve to smile and wave!

“Good gracious, I’m on my own.”

So that is how the Army “cuts the umbilical cord”. Abruptly.

I gathered myself with a positive affirmation, took a few deep breaths, and made a call to the control tower to announce my intention to take-off and fly my first lap.

“Tower, this is Thirteen Kilo, on runway 36, ready for departure”, I said with anxiety betraying my voice.

The tower cleared me for departure, and I applied power and got the bird airborne, made a left turn on departure, and flew the downwind leg of the pattern. So far, it all was going well. I made the call to the tower announcing my left turns on to base leg, then final approach, and was cleared to land.

The first approach was downright ugly. I came in too high and fast, and the air traffic controller must have recognized it. “Thirteen Kilo, slow your approach.”

“Tower, Thirteen Kilo, roger that.” I replied. In response, I pulled back aggressively on the cyclic stick to slow down, and the aircraft’s nose pitched up, and I started to sink quickly. I recovered by adding power in an abrupt manner, and somehow got the beast landed on the ground. Whew.

I looked over at ole’ Thorp, and he was just staring at me blankly. He must have been wondering how this was going to end, but there was nothing he could do to help me. The salty instructor knew that it was an important moment for his student to struggle, and grow.

The second and third trips around the stage-field were equally ugly, but in creative ways. Somehow, I managed to fly the aircraft around that stage-field by myself three times without getting myself killed. Halleluiah. It was a nerve racking and uncomfortable experience, but I was simply thankful that I actually made it.

Mr. Thorp shook his head with disappointment the whole walk back to the aircraft. He climbed into the cockpit, connected his audio cord, looked at me and just giggled. Then, I laughed. It was clear that he did not appreciate my undeveloped aviator skills, but he was satisfied that I had reached this milestone. 

“Congratulations. Let’s head back home”.

Within another week, after the last student completed their solo ride, Class 90-14 celebrated with a ritual that goes back to 1970 and is part of Army Aviation tradition: The Solo Cycle.

All of the flight students lined up on both sides of the street near the barracks, and the last person in our class to solo rode a decorated bicycle, dubbed the “Solo Cycle”, through a gauntlet of water balloons. In this photo, he has turned around and is returning for his second “fly-by”.  

Happiness was in the air, because the class had completed a significant psychological milestone, flying alone, and we were ready to advance to the next phase of training. Each student was better off for enduring the discomfort of this harrowing “solo ride” on the journey to achieving our aviator’s wings.

Similar to completing a solo ride, most people have significant moments, early in life, when their decision to engage in an uncomfortable process made them a better person.

Maybe it was the first time you were “home alone” as a child?

Maybe it was the first time you drove without anyone else in the car?

Maybe it was the moment when your parents drove away from the freshman college dorm?

Maybe it had to do with overcoming an athletic weakness, spiritual bankruptcy, a non-productive relationship, academic challenges, intense military training or career obstacles?

It is clear that to experience significant growth, you must be willing to go through the process of “growing pains”. The benefit of the experience is usually obvious over time.

This is one of the essential ingredients of every successful human story.

So how can we have the right attitude when embarking upon the uncomfortable growth phase?

Align goals with long-term vision. It helps to endure the discomfort in the short term, if you believe that the pain is necessary in order to realize your long-term vision (who you want to become).

For example, if your vision is to become a world-class businessperson, then you will enthusiastically sign-up for the challenging accounting course.

Share previous journeys. Our tolerance and endurance is fortified when we recognize that so many others have benefited by going through a similar growth process.

For example, every soon-to-be mother benefits from the calming confidence, companionship and perspective of a caring family member who has already experienced childbirth.

Celebrate the small daily victories. Every situation has something positive to take away from it, and you must find it. Of course, when going through an uncomfortable process, it is much easier to identify everything that was not satisfactory. After all, you are trying to stretch your abilities. The key is to acknowledge and celebrate small victories. As ugly as my solo ride was to watch, I did survive it, and advanced in flight training.

Have a sense of humor. If you can find a bit of humor in even the most uncomfortable moments of your life, you will endure, stay positive, and likely lift the spirits of those around you. When ole’ Thorp giggled, it made me laugh. All was well.

So what are a couple universal uncomfortable “growth experiences” that young people should volunteer to endure, regardless of their chosen life path?

Become an effective Public Speaker. So many bright, attractive and thoughtful people cannot stand up in front of a group and express themselves. Yet, this one skill has the ability to immediately mark you as a leader in any endeavor.

Why is it so painful? Primarily, because most people avoided doing it at an early age due to a concern about peer humiliation, and over the years the “mole hole has become a psychological mountain”.

Regardless of your comfort and current ability to express yourself in front of others, I recommend heading down to your local speaking club (The Toastmasters, for example), and beginning a deliberate program in your free time to polish your speaking skills. Kids should also be encouraged to speak at every possible opportunity, whether it is in school, church, family gatherings, etc.

Take up an individual sport or performing art. Everybody can see the value of participating in team sports. However, an individual activity, like martial arts or piano lessons, teaches us about self-improvement, and leaves no ambiguity about performance responsibility. The possibility of public failure, without being able to disperse it throughout the team, is a humbling and motivating factor that triggers focus and work ethic.

If you want to accomplish meaningful long-term goals, you must humble yourself and be willing to endure short-term discomfort.

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