How well do you recall your very first flight in a light plane? Or your very first flying lesson? If those memories are fading, reading Philip Belcastro's account of his first three flights will probably bring them flooding back.
February 5, 1996
The passion to fly, to be one with the sky, to roam where only
God intended birds and angels to be, has few equals. A smitten
victim visualizes melding with a craft as it transverses boundless
skies, rising and rushing to and from mother earth, in a grand
tour of her greatest vistas and breathless majesty.
My first wing...
My first flight began as a loss-leader Discovery Flight. The
temperature hovered at freezing with the sky layered in curtains
of blues and silver-whites. The airport just north of New York
City pulsated with considerable aircraft traffic, construction,
and a dizzy pattern of vehicles rushing underfoot. Early for my
scheduled appointment, the receptionist ushered me into a door-less,
preflight planning room. I passed the time attempting to read
the map pinned to the wall while avoiding fresh coffee stains
on the table. I had located several landmarks, that were needlessly
obscured by acronym, after acronym, after acronym, when a very
disgruntled flight instructor began leveling a complaint at her
boss in the hallway. The boss listened as the instructor's voice
broached tears. The issue unresolved the discussion ended when
the receptionist announced that the instructor's one-thirty is
in the preflight room.
She entered the room and with admirable composure, introduced
herself and the flight school. As she pre-flight-schooled me
there remained the residue of conflict in her eyes and voice.
"Well let's do it," were the words that brought me to
my feet, through a side door, and into a huge hanger laden wing
tip to wing tip in shinning, sleek jets, biplanes, and a beautiful
twin engine classic. She scurried along the hanger's perimeter
but I, was strolling through heaven's motorpool. Within arm's
reach, perched in their nests, lay the wings of my passion, teasing
my eye and inviting my company. Falling well behind her gate I
remained starry-eyed as a child on Christmas morn. Immediately
upon swinging the metal door out onto the exposed ramp, gnarly
noise and noxious odors assaulted my senses, yet the seduction
of the Mooneys, biplanes, and Lear jet back in the hanger, lingered.
Lingered that is until she said, "This is our training
The Cessna 152 is not a sexy aircraft, nor does it conjure up
pre-dawn landings on white sand beaches. I had not even flown
yet, and already had my very first significant disappointment.
She was dumpy, boxy, small, and painted in PMS green. As the instructor
ran through an abbreviated preflight I unsuccessfully tried to
overcome the shock that my first blind date with the heavens was
being hawked as an aircraft with...great personality.
"Okay take the pilot's seat," she calmly directed. I
said to myself, take the pilot's seat? Mounting the aircraft with
as much confidence as a five-foot, two-inch Center in the NBA
my next thought leaped backed to the planes in the hanger which
were prettier, shinier, bigger, and seemingly designed to transport
human beings with shoulders. Sitting in the left seat one leg
still hung up before the dash I became visually accosted by analog
gauges, switches, dials, levers, notes stuck to the dashboard,
and two convenient foot rests on the floorboards.
"Oh if you freeze at the controls, even though your a big
guy, I will have to punch you to regain control of the aircraft,"
she routinely informed me. From that moment on what the aircraft
looked like, never entered my consciousness again. The task here
involved a frantic attempt to orient myself, and figure out what
to do with this machine. The instructor pointed out most gauges
(instruments, sorry )and after mastering how to read the fuel
gauge and magnetic north on the compass the next words I remember
were, "You will take off...," or something to the belief
that Twill bring us up. She was not concerned with the fact that
my aviation career up until that point consisted of less than
three minutes of taxi time, during which the instructor had been
transmitting numbers and requests to someone in my ear telling
us to hold short, Tango to Whiskey, and wait in line for a jet
Sure hope she knows what she's doing, because I do not have a
clue, I said to myself. I taxied onto the runway, a long runway
with embedded rubber trails. Slowly I got her nose lined up with
the white line some twenty more feet down this very long runway,
while a gaggle of jets and other prop planes waited with measured
"You're clear, push the throttle forward, keep us on the
white line...throttle all the way forward, pull back slightly
on the yoke, right rudder, not to far up, hold the nose tree level,
you're up, we're gonna come to the left here soon. . . "
Truthfully I will never recall exactly what she said. I sat in
awe that this homely machine had brought me to my first audience
with winged flight. I wished only the crackling chatter in my
ear, and the laboring roar of the engine would subside and allow
me my first moments alone with my love. No doubt pinch-nze
time had arrived. I had to remember to breathe. One part of
my brain kept informing another, "I am flying, it's happening
right now, we're flying." Still another part tried to revive
the time-orientation department of my brain to accelerate back
to real time. My fingers were white crushing the yoke, least we
fall out of the sky.
"We'll practice a few turns."
Emanating from within came the repeated message, God...I'm flying.
A few times the message was addressed directly to God, but most
often the whole sentence resonated as an exclamation. In fact
most of my conscious conversation was with God, and not my instructor.
"Keep the nose up," came through my headset.
The few times I glanced down at the gauges I came away markedly
more confused. But no matter, I was flying. My subconscious shouted,
"Yes! Yes!" I peered out the side window and
down. I instinctively asked, "God (to) look at that."
When we caught sight of the Tappen Zee Bridge gracefully stretching
the Hudson River I reminded God how beautiful it all was.
When we lost about fifty feet in two-tenths of a second I also
spoke directly to God.
"See the airport?"
With conviction I reported, "No. "
"Head on in at 111°, watch that area ahead of the dam,
a bit to the left. Nose up."
"God, it looks so different from up here," were my thoughts.
"You can head it in, but I will land the plane. When I say
my plane you release the controls. "
Somewhere in that faded, yellow wind screen appeared the footprint
of the airport but the plane's nose pointed off to the left, and
we needed to go straight, descend, loose some speed, follow the
landmarks, what did the tower say, one-one hold short...traffic.
"Watch your air speed! Okay my plane."
It was over, I had become a passenger. The Cessna floated over
the numbers and above the broken white line, then grated the concrete
and settled down to the runway. Other aircraft were arriving and
our orders were to vacate the runway and Tango and Whisky home.
No discernible emotion could be observed on my instructor's face
and to me that fact was remarkable. How could she sit there so
unaffected by what we just experienced.
In a tease, my first flight was over. Only when the engine had
been silenced did I feel the soreness in my right knee which spent
the entire flight scraping the bottom of the dashboard. The tension
slowly ebbed from my body leaving many taut muscles in exhaustion.
The machine stood silent, dispassionate, and unaware of what it
had accomplished for me. The instructor continued describing shut-down,
however I was preoccupied with the fact that airplanes can fly.
We walked back through the hanger which rekindled my craving for
a handsome warbird, or elegant lady airship, or the slender penetrating
profile of a Lear jet. The instructor sat me down for a briefing
on the school and asked if I wanted to purchase their flight kit
that included the POH for the Cessna 152. "Gee I don't
known I haven't decided on a flight school yet, you're the first
one I've visited."
That first flight consumed my thoughts for the rest of the day.
In many ways it was more than I expected, in some ways less, and
in no way exactly what I expected. I had been in privileged space.
That day I had a great answer for the obligatory greeting of,
"What's new?" Everyone had a different reaction to my
first flight. Some folks confessed to acrophobia, a few female
colleagues used satire to criticize my masculine expression for
power and control, and still others searched my eyes for additional
signs of insanity. These earthbound souls would not know my joy.
They confused self indulgences, social agendas, and ozone layers
with the fact that I flew today. I had been granted brief passage
through the skies created for life and angels granted the gift
of flight. I rode the winds, skirted the clouds, and looked up
and into earth's window to the universe. In a puny semblance of
contorted metal I gained entrance to a world of elegant splendor.
What's new? The earth, the clouds, the wind, the mountains, the
rivers, the trees, the sun shinning through a silver curtain of
water-lace and silk in a rainbow of life, were all new...again.
My second wing...
The second time I flew an aircraft, was like the first, a 30-minute,
loss-leader Discovery Flight. However that would prove
to be its only similarity with my very first flight. The airport
straddled a valley some 46 miles from my home. The drive up north
consumed all of an hour, much along scenic back-country roads.
Over the past two winter months I had been driving to all the
local airports within a fifty-mile radius of my home to interview
flight instructors and scope-out flight schools. FBO cantinas
contained copious quantities of information about the resident
flight school(s) and instructors. My philosophy is that schools
do not educate students, teachers educate students. My winter
project was to identify a good CFI, hopefully working at a well-maintained
and professional flight school. The airport carried two schools,
one of which I had eliminated. The second school had just two
instructors, a father and son. The father, a qualified CFII and
FAA Flight Examiner had just celebrated his eighty-second birthday.
This man's reputation hovered right there with the DC3 and movies
like God Is My Copilot. I had met the man a week prior
after spending a fair amount of time with two of his former students
in the FBO cantina. The man had white hair atop facial features
brimming with character, all carried by a stately tall, slender,
frame. He donned an eight-section cap and had little trepidation
meeting you eye-to-eye. He knew (knows) a great deal about aircraft,
a great deal. He knew a great deal about aviation history simply
because he could tell you first hand about most aviation events
from about Lindbergh on up. My wish in life is that at eighty-two,
I can still distinguish the difference between a Cessna 152 and
a hot dog stand at less than 50 paces.
My flight would be with his son in a high-mileage Piper 140. The
son inherited his father's tall frame but carried a more reserved,
subtle manor about his business. An ex-Marine, (although there
is no such thing as an ex-Marine) he could easily require a recalculation
of the CG by turning his neck. His credentials included a certified
A&P. The aircraft in question had seen many starry-eyed wanna-be's
like me. I could have sworn it moaned, "It's only a matter
of time before you run me lean at 1000 MSL till my heads ache."
Indeed she had one new head, two new ignition wires, and a rebuilt
master cylinder. The Piper kept her keep by being the workhorse
of the flight school. The cosmetics of the aircraft could best
be described as a Florida beach-side hotel room the day after
Spring Break. However my instincts about this CFI/A&P assured
me of the flight worthiness of the aircraft. Indeed after the
first crank she hummed like a thoroughbred. The Piper had only
one door, leaving the right seat worse for wear. The rudder had
to be bolted to a super-mutant variant of Thigh Master. The
front windshield design provided more questions than answers,
as to what might be outside her nose. It was not a Mustang,
but it was an airplane.
As the CFI schooled me I realized the benefit of being taught
by several instructors. Each one had added something to the science,
art, and practical application of pre-flight and flight. This
observation would play a key role in my selection of a flight
school. My A&P-CFI suggested I circle the area of the run-up
for fluids, parts, and any other evidence of mechanical failure.
A good idea and Standard Operating Procedure
Finally ready for the main course, engine humming, teeth rattling,
expert in at least three gauges, throttle in hand the CFI boils,
"Damn, damn!" Out of the Piper's rationed window two
parachutists appear, landing just 75 feet left of the active runway.
Truthfully damn, damn is not a direct quote as the quotation marks
imply, but simply a translation from the original text string
that continued for some twenty explicatives exploring such topics
as people's ancestors, the intellect of the parachutists, and
a general commentary on small town politics.
Welp, okay parachutists down, let's go, the clock's running. The
CFI broadcasted our departure, "Okay power up, don't rotate,
let her fly off the ground."
Wait a minute what happened to the ATC, ground, tower, hold short,
tango and whisky?
"Keep her down till she fights you to fly."
We're off the ground like a greased pick-up on virgin ice. "There
are a bunch of planes up here! "
"Watch out for traffic, it's mostly knowing where they tend
to be. Let's do some turns, level, and make sure your airspeed
is locked on eighty."
"There's a bunch of planes up here."
"Here watch, kick in the rudder with the aileron."
"There's a bunch of planes up here." (this last, "there's
a bunch of..., I said to myself)
The mountains were standing in the green-haze background enjoying
the sky which had been especially ordered for the day. Deja vous
bit me on the cheek. Nearly all the noise, odor, and even the
puny windshield faded as I realized I was flying. Again I related
to the CFI as a voyeur invading my moment. I did not want to practice
precision 30° turns just then. I hungered for just a minute
or two to absorb every wondrous sensation and skipped heartbeat.
Instinctively I reminded God how beautiful this all is, and the
majesty of mother earth.
"Okay let's stall her out, nose up! Okay there, she's a few
clicks before she stops flying, feel it?"
"That nose will drop out from you, don't pull up,
let her stay down a second, get some air speed. "
Well, I just wanted to go back up there and get my lunch.
"Bring her up, climb to 2500, add power, wings level. Here
this angle." The plane jumped when he took control, much
like a seventeen-year-old private being barked at from a post-war
mangled drill sergeant, the morning after catching his wife in
bed. He wore the plane like a prosthetic device, and that plane
would not dare change attitude without asking permission first.
"Go head take it." The old mare knew it was me again
the moment I pulled on its reins. "Do you know where the
Sorry, right now I don't know where my wrist watch is. "No."
"Okay, it's right under us, see?"
"No." (The wing's in the way, the side window is too
small, but I do see a plane crossing our path. There's a bunch
of planes up here.)
"Okay emergency, you lost power." He reached for the
throttle and threw her in idle. I will swear to this day the Piper
snickered under its exhaust, knowing exactly what the rookie had
coming. "Here." With less than the concentration required
to brush one's teeth he banked her left and started a spiral descent.
Only when those wings waved under the fuselage did I get my first
peek of the runway. Simulated emergency and a few other numbers
came through the dash speaker as we lost altitude at a rapid rate.
Later the concept of centrifugal and centripetal force would be
easy to understand as I recalled the various positions of my intestines
as we spiraled towards a fast approaching runway. "I'll put
her down on the numbers. "
Please God, not through the numbers.
Neither pilot nor aircraft ever doubted their abilities or limitations.
In a dance of wind and a gentle song-breeze the two floated home
and this time I felt like the voyeur, stealing their private moment
of intimacy with the wind. She brushed her wheels, and than gently
laid her head into the rollout as if to stretch out after a morning
jaunt. I had such a strange feeling, jealousy, pure jealously.
He had me taxi to the home ramp, but there could be no doubt of
my amateur status.
The long ride home found mixed emotions. First I kicked myself
for not starting flight school years ago. Next I realized regardless
of desire or even intellect, skill is required. For me the simulated
emergency demonstrated my inability. To be sure feeling incapable
is not often found on polished curricula as a learning objective.
Most education experts would admonish the author of such an objective.
But this is not Marketing 101 or Contemporary English Literature.
This course encompasses the safe control and comprehension of
the fundamental physics and skills necessary to pilot an aircraft.
The course is about ability and limitations, and the margins they
create. The course is not about aircraft but an aircraft. It is
not about piloting, but a pilot. The course is about a given day,
a given aircraft, the hour's weather, and the pilot's ability
at that hour. The course is not about passing or failing, it is
about insuring every safe takeoff will have a companion safe landing.
That day my goal changed. My goal was no longer to fly. It is
to fly my plane in an intimate dance of wind and safely return
to dream again, of my next dance.
My third wing...
The third time I would take to the skies would be my first true
flight lesson. After several months of searching I decided to
use two CFIs as my instructing team. A handful of discovery flights
had demonstrated that each individual CFI added or detracted from
the art and knowledge of teaching someone to be a safe, responsible,
and confident pilot. My team consisted of a CFI with a natural
ability to teach flight control skills matched to a CFI with a
keen sense of procedures, the dynamics of artificial flight, and
operational safety. Thankfully there was no ego conflict in their
sharing the same student or trepidation of exposing their instruction
to review by a colleague. The benefits to me were enormous. In
the off-hours they would discuss my progress and decide on the
objectives for my next lesson. As hoped for, each CFI contributed
their insights and helpful aids to my better understanding a skill
or fact. Many identical facts and skills were emphasized by both
CFIs reinforcing their importance in my repertoire of elementary
piloting skills. In contrast each CFI would sometimes vary on
a particular skill or fact thereby increasing the breath of my
knowledge and abilities. In addition working with two CFIs afforded
me a considerable advantage when scheduling lessons. A student
pilot must also reckon with the inevitables in life such as death,
taxes, and your CFI accepting employment elsewhere. For me the
latter would come much too soon. However by having two CFIs this
greatly reduced the anxiety, time, and financial cost of selecting
a suitable replacement.
There is always something memorable in firsts, that is
the first time we experience something new and hopefully good
or rewarding. Often we define our experience by reminiscing about
our firsts: first love, first car, first time in the big city,
and first flying lesson. The morning of my first flying lesson
had a winter chill capped by crisp sprays of virgin pearl clouds
stretched out for a lazy jaunt across the silver-blue sky. Poised
at attention wingtip to wingtip about the far end of the ramp
were five relatively new Tampicos (TB-9) covered in a heavy morning
mist. While we walked towards the formation of aircraft the instructor
had admirably started my introduction to preflight check lists.
My eyes, however, were scamping the assembled, available, winged
maidens for 5541 Charlie. All five sat shy, seemingly self-conscious
about their slender shapes, low-wing profile, pearl-white paint,
and conservatively stripped tiers of red and blue. 5541 Charlie
waited at the end of the formation.
The instructor announced, "Let's climb aboard 5541 Charlie."
Through gullwing doors I seated myself behind a full compliment
of gauges, instruments, radios, dials, switches, levers, buttons,
wires, belts, foot pedals, and a yoke. Like my five-year old I
had a bout of gee-what-does-this-button-do-(Daddy)? My
instructor faithfully lectured on about the required documents
while my mind's eye had us already rolling on the runway. "Preflight
begins in the cockpit, now lets go back outside."
"Back outside, what for? I could taste this baby fifty feet
above the George Washington bridge?", were my exact thoughts.
Exiting Charlie before I had even a chance to turn a few knobs
or crank the engine, just to stand out in the cold checking for
rivets and squirrel nests, was the ultimate tease. The CFI detected
my impatience to escort 5541 Charlie into the sky, while he patiently
pursued his objective of insuring that I would appreciate and
adopt the task of conducting a meticulous preflight check from
this moment on, and throughout my flying career. Deep down every
item on that checklist made sense and I tempered my unbridled
anxiousness by contemplating the consequences of water in the
fuel system, one aileron, one brake, or a shattered propeller.
It would turn out that in my first twenty hours of flying I would
discover: an under-inflated tire, a minor hydraulic leak, low
oil, a disconnected return spring from the carburetor heat cable,
and water in the fuel system.
"Okay, let's board."
Do you know the feeling you get when you see an oversized serving
of triple chocolate cake with two layers of cherries on the dessert
"Please take out your pre-start check list?"
Internally venting my frustration I barked, "Another check
list? Don't they pay mechanics to check out these planes?"
As with the first one this checklist made a good deal of sense
too. Right after yelling CLEAR, to three unamused and now
very annoyed birds perched on the hanger's eves, 5541 Charlie
came to life. The aircraft rocked and roared as instruments came
alive, decibels soared, and 5541 Charlie woke.
"Watch that oil pressure." My instructor began conversing
with Ground Control as he instructed me on the basics of taxing
an aircraft. I moved us forward over the painted straight lines
in a series of consecutive S-turns, no doubt causing any aircraft
owner watching me boogie past his parked pride and joy to send
in any overdue insurance premiums. "Point the nose out here."
I repeated to myself, "Point the nose out there, faced off
the road, off the runway, to the left?"
"Please take out your Engine Run-up Check list."
"You gotta be kidding, right?" Freud would have a field
day with these guys who massage checklists all day. We got all
our bolts, we're running in the green. I'm paying $1.75 a minute
while we perform diagnostic tests..." Yet, after the run-up
that checklist too made sense to me, and now I hoped that Freud
never took the time to diagnose those of us who live by checklists.
Which is a good motto, "Live by your checklist."
"Okay enter runway 3-4, straighten the nose wheel on the
("It's true you are rewarded for patience.")
"Full throttle, look down the runway."
What a feeling! 5541 Charlie hummed as he took me down the runway.
"Final check, instruments green, airspeed indicator live,
your gonna need right rudder here, rotate at 60, okay pull back,
little more, get us up."
I pulled 5541 Charlie's yoke up and he responded in-kind graciously
agreeing to my request to fly. The sound, the sensation of lift,
speed, and the sight of the ground being exchanged for sky, is
the opening act of, theater in the clouds. Your mind begrudgingly
sheds the familiarities and orientation of land for the intoxicating
and unfamiliar physics of three dimensional travel. No need to
imagine or dream. You are flying, consciously scooting above the
land, escaping land-locked chains with artificial wings granting
views of the most inspiring of wonders. You are absorbed by the
beauty and awed by the majesty of creation. Mankind's structures
appear as a pox on a divine design. Hypocritical and idealistic
are common in-flight ailments. You wish there were no housing
developments, no crass refineries, noxious exhaust, and obscene
strip mining pits. You wish: all aircraft save yours were grounded;
the term controlled airspace banned; and you could fly forever
on a twenty dollar bill. You wish the world knew the same beauty
and peace on its mantle, as from the sky you transverse. You wish,
you dream, you thank God...
"Okay Phil let's try a thirty degree turn to the right, using
both aileron and rudder."
Charlie and I danced awhile using some very basic steps as we
got to know each other. Both of us were tentative. A couple of
times I squeezed him too hard. Overall we had a blast, scooting
and banking, climbing, and descending. It seemed like we had just
finished our second dance when the band leader announced, "Head
on in at 111°, try to keep it at two-thousand."
The verb try was the operand word.
"There's the airport, 3-4, 1-6, 2-9, 1-1, see?"
"No." My instructor did not lose heart his student could
not locate a one-hundred and fifty foot wide, mile long runway
from a few miles out. Charlie paid no mind he just buzzed along
somewhere between 1800 and 2200 MSL happy as a brown bear squeezing
a squlrmmg samon in his jowls .
"Need to keep it at 1500. We're number one for 3-4, we'll
start in on base."
I thought, "Sounds good to me."
"Okay need to stay at 1500, tight in the pattern."
I said to myself, "There's the runway. Oh look there's 3-4
"Descend at 80 knots, slow deliberate turns in the pattern,
we got a bit of a crosswind."
("Fine with me as long as we don't have another checklist.")
"Please take out your pre-landing checklist."
My instructor gave me the illusion I had something to do with
the approach, communications, and landing. Charlie and I knew
better. The instructor softly lowered Charlie onto the numbers.
Safely into the roll out the instructor made Charlie, my plane
so I could faithfully duplicate my now trademark taxing pattern
of S-turns home. Not landing the aircraft yourself is like not
getting a good night kiss at the end of a date. I parked Charlie
by the fuel island and like clockwork I heard in my headset, "Please
take out your Shut-down Checklist."
5541 Charlie's engine cantered to a halt. My first was over. Too
short, too soon, too little, it had to be the quickest hour of
my life. I felt special, somewhat strangely undeserving of the
experience, and seduced by all that is there to taste. We walked
back to the flight school and I remember looking back on 5541
Charlie being refueled and feeling in debt to him, obligated for
giving me a moment that will always be a vivid memory. Since that
first lesson I have gone out with other Tampicos, Victor, Romeo
and Juliett, but 5541 Charlie was the first and will always be