The process of deciding to learn to fly, choosing a flight school and an instructor and, of course, finding the time and money to pay for it all are rewarded once a student pilot actually takes the controls of an airplane. And that's when the fun begins. Stalls. Engine- out procedures. It's enough to make a person ask herself,
March 25, 2001
I wonder that if in an earlier incarnation I was a great aviator. Because of
that previous life, perhaps some of that superior genetic code lingers on
inside of me. That is the only explanation that I can think of for my superior
piloting skills. I am superior, you know. A natural-born pilot is what I am.
With my white silk scarf, leather bomber jacket and less than one full hour
into my flight education, I already have the pilot's swagger.
See, natural-born. I told you so.
I have begun my flight training in earnest. Actually it wasn't in Ernest; it
was in N67396, a little red and white Cessna 152 that was a she, not a he. I
did not know it then but that airplane would take special care of me. Funny
how some aircraft are that way. They almost take on a personality of their
own. How I loved that airplane. I began learning all about Cessna 396.
Learning about her mechanics and her special personality. The simple learning
was through a thorough check out of the airplane called a
"preflight," a methodical inspection of the airplane prior to any
flight. The more difficult thing to learn about, her personality, simply took time and
On my first lesson my instructor John does the preflight inspection for me
as I follow along. I'll admit I had no clue what in the world was going on. I
felt what a dog must feel watching TV, just staring blankly at the action, not
comprehending a single thing. I did have the benefit of a checklist in front
of me though. A dog would not have that; they have no thumbs with which to
turn the pages.
One memory in particular of my first supervised preflight was when I
reached "Fuel Vent" on the checklist. What in heaven's name is a fuel
vent? I can't remember ever hearing that term before, never mind having had
checked it previously. There are times when it gets all so overwhelming.
Something so simple as a fuel vent had me befuddled. I felt as though I was
trying to get a cup and a half's worth to fit into a one-cup measure. Lots of
information and only a few of the relationships among them are clear. The
flying portion of the lessons are amazing but when you add to the picture
checking the instruments, the airspeed, the altitude, traffic out the window,
keeping turns coordinated, and the tachometer readings it can truly be
overwhelming. But it is supposed to be that way at first. Accepting that, I
was able to relax and not worry about being overwhelmed. That gave me one less
thing to worry about. "What, me worry?"
We began inside the airplane, checking some quite official-looking
documents. "ARROW," John tells me. "Remember that
acronym," he says. "It will help you remember which documents you
are looking for."
- A = Airworthiness Certificate
- R = Registration
- R = Out-dated letter. (At one
time an FCC license for the radios was required.)
- O = Owners Handbook (or POH)
- W =
Weight and Balance data for the aircraft
ARROW was just the start of my acronym-filled pilot vocabulary. In fact,
piloting helped to widen my vocabulary in many ways, often quite colorfully.
Some words would make a sailor blush. Is there no limit to what one learns in
Following the checklist we circle around the airplane checking to see that
it is in proper repair. As best as we can tell, it's fine, so we stuff
ourselves into the cockpit. It is close quarters in there, I'm glad my Mom
taught me good personal hygiene. I can only imagine what it would be like
locked in there with someone who was less than fresh-smelling. I sit in the
left seat and slam the door shut. I reach around for the seat belt, only to
find it dangling outside the cockpit. Darn it. I casually open the
door and retrieve the wayward harness, much to John's amusement. He tells me of
a CFI trick where the right seatbelt is purposely left hanging outside of the
cockpit for a soloing student. When the engine starts and the propeller begins
blasting wind backwards, an awful banging noise is heard as the buckle raps
against the door. This helps teach the student to always secure the cockpit
before proceeding, and also give the instructor his laugh for the day. Sick
bunch, instructors are.
I'm a quick study; I didn't need that to actually
happen. Just the thought of it has me making sure all the hatches are battened
down before takeoff. Eventually, I secure my seat belt and shoulder harness
snugly around my body. Then reaching underneath the seat I attempt to slide it
forward as far as it goes in order to have full movement on the
rudder pedals. Gag. Oops, the seat belt and the seat do not travel together.
Again, I unbuckle finally getting the process correct.
Soon we are ready to go. Referring to the checklist once again, we begin to
check things. Buttons ... check. Dials ... check. Switches ... check.
Little colored lights ... check. Guess we're all set. With a couple clicks
of the key, the prop begins to turn and my airplane comes to life. Now my
superior piloting skills can once again display themselves. Pay no attention
to the woman unable to buckle a seatbelt.
We taxi over to the run-up area to continue getting ready to fly. With the
coaching of my instructor I set up for the first of many short field takeoffs. Because of the length of my home runway, short field becomes my
normal takeoff. The checklist says, "Wing flaps to 10°, carburetor heat
cold, elevator trimmed for takeoff." I smoothly add full power while
holding the brakes securely. No doubt Johnny had his feet firmly planted on
the brakes as well. We note that the engine has developed full power of 2,200
RPM and release the brakes. The airplane lurches forward as we accelerate
down the runway. John is handling the radio calls at this non-towered airport
for the time being. "Ellington traffic, Cessna 67396 is on the roll,
runway 19, Ellington." Of course it sounded like, "Ellington rabbits
on a roll, hold the mayo, Ellington," to me. I was too enthralled with
the takeoff to really pay attention to the radio calls.
We depart the pattern and I'm introduced to lots and lots of new sensations
and terminology. More than I can rightly absorb in one lesson. We did climbs,
climbing turns and turns to heading. Some straight and level flight, descents
and pattern entry. It is a little turbulent up there but I remain unfazed.
John says either it doesn't bother me, or I hide the fear real well. Finally,
and of course, John did the landing.
The whole time I'm flying all I hear is John saying how terrific I am
doing. These are my thoughts as I begin my flight training. "It is all so
easy. I am terrific." A couple of times I was so good, I had to ask him if
he was doing the maneuver for me. My flight instructor confirms my swelled-head thinking with more adjectives
like "great" and
"excellent." Are these words that CFIs use on a regular basis, I
wonder? Of course not, I am special. I'm still quite enchanted by the thought
of my becoming a pilot, but it is really starting to become real. I'm
beginning to understand the words I had been learning in my private pilot
manual. Now I understand a little better the gyro instruments I have read
about, where they are located and how they work in real life. I easily
followed John's instructions without too much fretting. When he asked me to
hold the RPM at 2,150, I did so by adjusting the throttle until it was just
right. I knew where the tachometer was; I knew where to look. I saw that we
could descend by pitching the airplane downwards, or by pulling back on the
throttle and reducing power. He explained that often it was a combination of
both actions that caused our altitude to decrease. In careful concert, the two
of us work to bring us back down to the ground quite nicely. So maybe I was
not only a natural-born pilot, but I was also blessed with perfect eye-hand
I'm looking forward to my next lesson. The plan is for me to fly twice a
month. I have scheduled my next lesson for the following Thursday. Twice a
month doesn't necessarily mean they have to be spaced out every two weeks now,
In the lessons that follow, I work to begin to get the feel of flying and
then how to land the airplane. At 3,000 feet above sea level, that is. We
start there, flying in the practice area, pretending we're in the pattern. We
practice all of the actions necessary to land only we are doing them at an
altitude where we don't have a messy collision with the ground should I foul up. On the "downwind" leg of the pattern, I perform a
check, another acronym used for the pre-landing checklist.
We prepare the airplane to land. Then we take action to land it. Carb heat
on, pull the power back to 1,500 RPM and wait for the speed to slow down enough to
begin adding flaps. One notch, maintain altitude, wait for 70 knots on the
airspeed indicator. Turn "base." Descend at 500 feet per minute,
speed should have slowed to 65 knots. Add one more notch of flaps. Turn
"final" and slow to 60 knots. Then slow into some slow flight. We
practice what it feels like to be puttering around in the air, the controls
all mushy and slow to respond. Getting used to the feel of landing way up here
should make it easier once the earth and I get closer.
My early lessons consisted of lots of ground instruction. I have yet to
enroll in a formal ground school class, having been frightened by the
potential cost of it on my Discovery Flight. So I am spending $25 an hour to
listen to John talk. Not that he isn't worth it, mind you. It's just a lot of
money to spend just talking. On the ground with John, I learned about traffic
patterns and the procedures required to navigate them. Soon enough, I was preflighting
the airplane while John watched. While taking a fuel sample I saw a glob of
goo at the bottom of the tester. I showed him my discovery and found out that
is what water in the fuel looks like. Very interesting. Now my question is,
"Who put water in my fuel tanks?" And why? Ted the mechanic says
that water is cheaper than avgas, which is why he puts it in. Ted is such a
I suspect I was getting a little bit too confident in my flying because for
my next scheduled lesson, my instructor told me to read up on stalls. Stalls?
Now there is a word that puts the fright in frightening. If my car stalls, it
stops going and I have to call AAA and have them send out Joe in his White
Shining Wrecker to save me. Stalling in an airplane does NOT sound like a good
idea to me. That sounds as if the FAA safety inspector will come calling to
investigate the incident, perhaps a little late to save me.
Certainly I take John's advice and read up on stalls. Looking for more
information, I'm directed to a web site I am unfamiliar with at the time — AVweb.com, it's called. I join up and under "Search This Site" I
come up with a number of terrific articles on stalls. I print them off and
begin to learn all about the forces that actually keep airplanes in the air
and how a stall is an interruption in that force. And I discover that they are
not quite so frightening after all.
After reading all there is to know about stalls (or so I think), John and I
strap on the airplane once again and head up into the wild blue yonder. My
mind is full of dreams of perfect recoveries and impressive handling of the
aircraft. I turn the key, the engine turns over and it was as if I had
forgotten everything. My legs forgot how to stop the airplane on the ground
smoothly. My eyes forgot where to find the instruments. My brain forgot how to
handle the task at hand. I was a blithering fool. Or so it felt to me. How is
it that I, the natural pilot, could suddenly revert back to the diaper stage?
What in the world happened? Until now it all seemed to click in, more or
less. Until now I felt confident behind the yoke. Until now, even though there
was a lot to learn it all seemed doable. Today, after the first go round I
almost wanted to throw my hands up and say, "This is too hard, I can't do
it. Never mind. Sorry to have taken up your time."
Of course I would never really do that, but I wanted to. All the things
that boggled my mind that lesson were things I already knew. I know how to
read an altimeter, but danged if I could get myself to do it yesterday.
John would say, "Lets go to 4,000." Okay; I would if I had a
clue which dial to look at and once I found it, what the instrument was
Not too long after all of this, I got to thinking "My goodness, how am
I going to be able to solo, landing the airplane by myself? What have I gotten
myself into here? What made me think this was a good idea?" I did find that
most student pilots go through this phase and those who do not give up became
pilots and so shall I. More patience is required, more experience, more time
spent in the airplane. I know I need practice. I wished I could just fly the
plane for hours. Getting used to listening, looking, and feeling all that goes
Unbeknownst to me, what I had discovered was that I now had the
intellectual capacity to understand what flying required but this was before
the motor skills had been achieved. This lead to frustration, because I
knew what to do but couldn't get my body to do it. I hate when that happens.
I was learning a task for which my brain has no prior preparation. I have
never before done eye-hand-foot coordination the way I must do it in an airplane. A friend mentioned to me that she thought the brain learns these new
tasks by being "wired" for them: there must exist neuronal pathways
that are task-specific. The more motor skills are involved with the task, the more extensive
the pathways have to be, because they must extend somewhat even beyond the
brain. Until those pathways are literally built, you will not be able to
consistently fly an airplane. You are literally incapable of this task. And
unfortunately, the older the brain is, the longer it takes to make new
neuronal pathways. You can teach an old dog new tricks — it just takes longer.
Thus, the "patience factor" must be applied. The patience factor
is difficult, because what it demands is that you relax and let your brain
develop into this task. Unfortunately, both self- and externally-imposed
pressure will tend to short-circuit this process. So you have to resist the
temptation to pressure yourself, and you have to resist others who might try
to pressure you.
So the plan was to relax. We went up and I asked John to take the airplane
while I paused a moment to get my wits about me again. This need to pause made
me feel a little less the natural pilot, but it was necessary for me in order
to stretch my brain.
We went on and did a bit of pattern work, landed and talked, then taxied to
the runway. Finally I found myself again at that point. The taxiing felt good.
Felt "right." Whew. Pod people didn't come and suck all the
"natural talent" out of me.
From that point on I was okay. For that particular lesson, that is.
We went on to do some fun things that day. Power-on and -off stalls. Not
nearly as exciting as I thought they would be, but they are going to take
quite a bit of getting used to. It seems that in a stall you must do the exact
opposite of what "feels right" to do. (Or what felt right at that
point in my training.)
In the stall, when the nose drops down, it feels right to pull back on the
yoke. Left wing drops, it feels right to turn the yoke to the right to correct
for the drop. Nope. That is not how it works. I'd read that wasn't how it
worked, finally I was able to experience it firsthand. John let me recover
from one of the stalls all by my self. Good. I like it when he doesn't help.
Afterwards, we also did some emergency procedures. He pulled back on the
throttle and told me we'd lost the engine. The first of many "lost
engines." I began learning what to do in that situation. Funny how we
just happened to be by an abandoned airstrip when he asked me to look outside
for a potential landing area.
What I did like to see was that there is a considerable amount of time that
the airplane will remain aloft even without power. We configured the airplane
for our best glide speed and found it didn't drop out of the sky like a rock.
Certainly I am aware that in a true emergency situation the time will seem to
go by much quicker than it did in practice, but I was encouraged to experience
my airplane as a "glider."
Finally the time came for my first landing of the airplane without John's
help. We're on final and I almost wanted to tell John, "You take it, I
can't do it." Not because I couldn't do it, but more because I had the
mindset that I couldn't do it. The mind is an amazing ally or foe when it
comes to learning new things. Often times what you think will be will be.
At this time in my early training I knew that if I had to, I could land the
plane alone. If John had bad fish for dinner and keeled over in the seat next
to me, I could put the plane back on this sweet earth. Probably not really
pretty, but we'd be alive. Well, I'd be alive. I don't know about John after
that bad fish.
With time I'm getting better or worse, depending upon your reference point.
When I began flying I thought I was God's gift to aviation. Later on I had no
clue what I was thinking when I decided to learn to fly. Times when I thought
I knew it all slowly gave way to the realization that I will never know it
all. I have merely scratched the surface of what I will need to learn. What I
will eventually learn.
Practice, time and money, that's what's going to get me my license. Or is
that money, practice and time.
Thusly went the roller-coaster ride of my flight training. From sky-goddess
during one lesson, to being a hazard to all things living on the earth the
next. Sometimes this happened all in the same lesson. Some pilot I am. What I
felt I needed was more time in the cockpit. Lots of time. Like taking a day to
just live flying. Of course for most people, and especially people on a very
limited flying budget as I was, this is not possible. I tried to think of an
alternative that would help me. Short of robbing Fort Knox, that is.
Then it dawned on me. I wonder if a flight simulator would help. I see them
advertised all the time, there must be some benefit to them. In fact I know
that some flight schools use computers during actual lessons. I scampered off
to ask my pilot friends what the consensus was on computer simulation. Like
everything else in aviation, there were lots of opinions and few agreements.
What I decided was that they might be helpful. Obviously, they don't teach
basic stick/rudder skills, but it can be very helpful for things like
cross-country planning, plus basic radio navigation. They can teach a student
how the aircraft reacts to the control inputs, and vice versa. It also gives a
sense of timing for how long it takes to do various maneuvers. Off I went to
the computer supply store and bought myself the latest and greatest flight
simulator I could find. Brought it home, loaded it up and found out that
crashing airplanes, even on the computer screen, can be disconcerting for
someone who is truly learning to fly. I didn't like it so I never did get the
hang of flying that computer. Perhaps it was because I didn't invest in a
joystick or other accompanying accessories. Perhaps I'm not a simulator kind
of a girl. Whatever the reason, the program became something that my boys used
entirely more than I ever did. I decided that I would try to bum a ride along
with other students during their flight lessons. But it's a little tricky
finding a student who wouldn't mind the company and who isn't so far advanced
from my present level that it would not be confusing.
I was able to maneuver myself into the back seat of the 172 on a couple of
occasions. I found those sessions tremendously helpful. Not only did John's
words sink in further without the pressure of flying the airplane, I also had the benefit of simply enjoying the flight. I was also able
to see that I wasn't the best or the worst student in Johnny's stable. Over
and over I watched other students make the same mistakes I did. Heck, some
even made errors that I didn't make. Once, I even learned how to porpoise a
landing. I gained a new appreciation for John's patience level as well. How many
times can he repeat, "Right rudder!" without having his head
explode? Obviously, many times more than I could.
It was also amazing just looking outside the cockpit and feeling relaxed
enough to just observe. Get the lay of the land, literally. How wonderful to
see the earth from this vantage point, to see the world from God's
perspective. And on someone else's dime, too.
After watching other student's performances, I am more in awe of my own
clearly natural pilot tendencies. Of course, I'm sure if the other students
flew with me they would conclude that at least one student in the airplane was
Gosh, I wonder how long until I solo. I am a natural-born pilot. Shouldn't
be too long, now. What, maybe eight hours dual instruction ought to suffice for
me? Cut me loose, Johnny. Cut me loose!
Additional articles in this series by Tina Gonsalves include: