Now We're Flying

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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,

Sometimes 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 experience.

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?"

A First Flight

Are All the Big Parts Still Attached ... ?

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 aviation?

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.

... Short Field, Shortly ...

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.

... Back to Terra Firma

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 coordination.

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, does it?

Followed by More Firsts

Landing ...

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 GUMP 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 card.

... Stalling

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.

Learning Retention Rears Its Ugly Head

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?

Nevermind ...

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 telling me.

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 on.

... Dogs, Tricks, and ...

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.

... Patience

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.

Rollercoastering

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.

Airplane = Glider ...

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."

... I Think I Can't ...

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.

... Alternatives?

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.

Looking Ahead

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 a natural.

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!


Editor's Note:

Additional articles in this series by Tina Gonsalves include: