Learning to fly is not without its challenges. They can range from unsupportive and downright hostile friends and family, to the ever-present financial bite flight training can take, to overcoming personal fears and to just plain finding the time. AVweb's series on primary flight training by Tina Gonsalves continues, as we ride along with a brand-new student during her first few flight hours and through her private pilot checkride.
March 25, 2002
|It don't come easy,
you know it don't come easy.
Got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues
And you know it don't come easy
— Richard Starkey
In the best of circumstances, becoming a pilot isn't easy by any stretch of
the imagination. Not only are we presented with novel techniques, sensations
and language, there are often many outside problems that stand in our way. As
with a boulder encountered on a hike, you have two options: It can trip you up
and stop your journey, or give you a steppingstone to the future.
While getting my ticket, I came to believe that there is one determining
factor in a perspective pilot's ability to overcome the obstacles that arise
while working towards the Private Pilot Certificate: the desire to fly. How
badly do you want to fly? I found that I wanted it bad, real bad. And that's a
good thing because I faced many boulders along the way.
One that I encountered was that all who loved me felt a strong need to save me
from myself. Had I lost my mind? Why did I want to fly? To my family and
friends, flying was a dangerous endeavor. Of course, the general media didn't
help the situation much with the spotlight shining brightly on any flying
incident. The public reads about an accident and that colors their view of
aviation. When they read a story of a plane mishap, my family is convinced the
next one may include me. Read about a car accident? Well that's a different
story. That driver was an idiot and that's why he died in a car wreck. But if
a pilot died in an airplane accident, it is the fault of aviation. Because as
everyone knows, flying is dangerous.
Fear is a fundamental source of reluctance for people. These people are not
shy about sharing their reluctance either. Of course, neither am I shy about
sharing my feelings of joy, so I guess we're even on that score. When someone
says he or she hates to fly, they generally mean they are scared to death of
it. The fear shakes out into two distinct types. The first is the fear of the
unknown. Many people are ignorant of principles of flight. They believe that
flight is sustained by power, and that's all. Any interruption of that power
and you're a goner, just as happens in the media. Imagine the confusion and
fear in such a person when dragged along for a ride in a small general
aviation airplane. No wonder they give us grief about flying.
The second type of fear is that of the known. There are fewer options for the
pilot faced with an experienced air traveler who has had some rough times in
the sky. Usually they have been scared in flight, and a pleasure flight is a
contradiction in terms.
My husband falls into the first category since he has not been exposed much to
aviation and actually isn't terribly interested in learning. A ground school
course would do him wonders if he would agree to take one. I still hope that
one day he will. I believe that if those who fear flying had more education
about aviation their concerns might be relieved somewhat. Or perhaps not. It
may be that there is no convincing the mere mortals that flying is not
dangerous. Maybe our mission isn't to change their minds, but only to open
them up to accepting our course. I still believe having them enroll in a
ground school course couldn't hurt. Or perhaps even lending them our private
pilot textbooks could go a long way towards dissipating some of their fears.
Although doing that may bore them to tears — it does take scads of interest
in the topic to get through most private pilot manuals, I'm sorry to say.
My personal view is that it is far more dangerous to drive down the highway
than is it to strap on my airplane and smash bugs for a while. The more you
know about aviation, the less fearful it becomes. On the other hand, the more
I know about driving, the more frightening that becomes.
Of course, these days you cannot even trust the tires on your car. Compared to
automobiles, general aviation has about one-tenth as many accidents on a
per-vehicle-basis, and the accident rate has dropped steadily since 1980. But
don't expect to convince the non-flyers. They come up with thousands of
reasons why it simply doesn't matter. Be it a parent, a spouse, or another
person of importance, many of us are presented with the daunting task of
trying to calm the fears of our loved ones. And try we must. Those who fear
flight often are simply unaware of the process. They haven't seen the
procedures that pilots follow to ensure the flight is a safe one. If my car
were "pre-flighted" with the accuracy of my airplane, I'd never
drive anywhere. The car would always be in the repair shop. Odd how it's okay
for me to drive with brakes that squeal in protest, proclaiming that they need
repair, yet "flying is dangerous."
In other words, flying can be as safe as you make it. How to fly safely, and
to deal with the rare emergencies that are beyond the pilot's influence, are
covered in pilot training. Education can help allay concerns.
I feel quite safe in the sky. More so than do I feel hurtling down I-84
through Hartford on any given day. At least in the sky I am somewhat confident
that it is mostly my skills that will help to keep me safe. On the highways, I
fear that some other fool is going to take me out. Any Joe can get a driver's
license; the qualifications are minimal. Pass a test at 16 years of age and
you are good to go for 50-plus years with no recurrent training. Not so with
airplanes. As it should be, training for a pilot certificate is more rigorous
than it is for a driver's license. Mandatory ground and flight training, along
with written and practical tests, help to ensure that pilots have achieved a
basic level of proficiency. Periodic recurrent training helps to maintain and
improve skills. Explaining this process can sometimes sooth fears a bit. Most
people are unaware of the extensive training pilots must go through in
It's hard for me to comprehend that many people shudder at the thought of
being airborne, even though I am closely associated with and/or related to
these folks. This closeness means that would-be non-fliers often become my
reluctant passengers. The pressure to "come along" may be
overwhelming. This places a measure of guilt on both parties, the passenger
and the pilot. This is another looming obstacle I encountered on the path
towards becoming a private pilot — a big one. For me, it was difficult to
negotiate these guilt feelings. To participate in an activity of which many of
my loved ones disapproved wasn't easy. It left me trying to convince them into
seeing my point of view. And the harder I tried the deeper down I dug. Not
until I accepted there was no accepting was I able to clear my conscience a
tad. I must say however, that at times I think it would have been easier to
take a boyfriend than to take flying lessons.
In order to pursue this goal of flying, I have the daunting task of trying to
convince that husband of mine that he'll need to part with some of his
hard-earned cash so that I can fulfill myself as an aviatrix and become a
pilot. You see, somehow I need to maneuver through this obstacle course of
people and finances so that I'm able to fly.
The desire to fly snuck up on me like an F-117 stealth fighter. Didn't see it
coming; only heard the aftermath once it hit. Prior to the beginning of 1999,
I'd never uttered the words general aviation, never mind saying it in
conjunction with myself. How surprised was my husband when this became a goal
of mine? Knowing his fears, how do I work into the conversation that I want to
take flying lessons? Dangerous flying lessons. Expensive flying lessons.
Dangerous/expensive/non-productive flying lessons? Certainly I don't feel
flying is dangerous. Expensive? I can't argue that one.
Money was a big obstacle to my flying. There are probably few student pilots
who are not faced with that challenge. It is not an inexpensive endeavor to
learn to fly. There is an old joke: "How do you make a small fortune in
aviation? Start with a large one." And a fortune, large or small, I did
not have. How do I pay for all of this?
Flying is a very expensive hobby. A hobby that is impossible to justify. Sure,
I could make reasons to try and account for myself: "Flying will make
distant family trips much more doable." "I could earn money
flying." "Fly the jump plane for the parachutists." "Learn
to tow banners." "Become a CFI."
There are many different justifications I could conjure up to try and appease
my finance man. I tried to stress the practical nature of flying. We like to
ski, and flying to resorts in New England certainly beats driving. "Why
honey, we can be at Sunday River in less than two hours rather than over four
by car." I don't think he bought that one. He knows me too well. Plus,
there was that concern of where one would attach a ski rack to a Cessna 172.
In the long run, none of these justifications really amount to a hill of
beans. In the end it is personal satisfaction with life's accomplishments that
tallies high on the list of reasons in learning to fly. And you cannot put a
price on that. No matter how hard you try.
When you are on the one who stands to gain the benefits from achieving a goal,
there is nothing sweeter. When you simply don't get it, when you do not
understand the desire to fly, it seems like a very expensive waste of time and
money. Learning to fly is not, in the strictest sense, a practical
undertaking. In fact it is a quite selfish goal.
Not that there is anything wrong with that.
What does the balance sheet look like when examined with an accountant's eye?
There is a great outlay of monies. From books and videos all the way up to
flight-testing, there is an enormous shelling out of cash. The airplane itself
is not inexpensive; mine rents for $60/wet. But it's not only the airplane
rental that costs you. There is also the instructor's time. Oh, and the
sectional charts that must be updated every six months. And the Airport
Facility Directories that come out every 56 days. And the E-6B you need to plan
cross-country flights. Oh and you'll need a plotter too. Ground school? Did
someone mention ground school? Ka-ching, ka-ching ... the cash register rings.
And what does it get you in the end? A bit of stiff paper that deems you are a
private pilot. And aims you toward more flying, more learning, more expenses.
A certificate that allows you to slip the bonds of gravity and to observe the
world from a perspective seen by very few persons on this blue planet. Unlike
others, we pilots know what it is like to see, from 3,500 feet, a brilliant
moonrise over a twinkling horizon; to view a bird flying in perfect formation
as we share that bird's bit of sky on a crystalline morning. It is for these
experiences that we learned to fly and for which we fly again. I have yet to
meet a pilot who learned to fly only as a means of transportation or who did
it strictly for the chance to collect a big paycheck for sitting in the left
seat of airliner. Instead, we are driven by other forces to satisfy our need
to master the skills of piloting and navigation, forces ethereal.
For me the task was made more difficult by the fact that I am not financially
self-sufficient. I needed to convince my husband to finance this adventure.
And before you utter, "Go get a job, Tina," let me tell you that
option was considered and jettisoned by my husband. He did not feel that my
working to fly was a good use of my abilities. His solution was to put off
flight training until the funds had been saved and set aside for that purpose.
A very wise idea indeed. For someone else, that is. I needed to fly and to fly
now. I'd bag groceries at the local market if need be in order to earn some
flying money. Additionally there are often barter arrangements that can be
struck with FBOs and CFIs. Helping out at the airport is what keeps me
airborne now that I am a pilot. I fuel airplanes, wash windshields, and run
errands as needed in trade for a little bit of altitude. Great deal if you can
get it. So try and get it. Talk to people. Find out what may be available. Try
and make something available.
But not only was it my husband who had to get used to the idea of my flying.
Most of my relatives thought I'd flipped my lid. Why in the world did I want
to fly? Had I lost my marbles? The second question was moot. But the first
question? How in the world do you answer that question? It's not something
that you can quantify to yourself, much less to someone else. Like describing
the taste of your tongue, it simply cannot be done. I gave it my best shot,
however. In its most basic sense, flying an airplane gave me the same feeling
as I'd had in those dreams. You know, the dream where you just fly through the
air like a superhero bereft of a flying machine, zooming around in a
three-dimensional world unencumbered by something so silly as the force of
gravity? Flying made me feel as if I was flying. Amazing, isn't it? Trying to
get others to understand this concept is a crapshoot, but worth a shot for
Beyond that physical freedom of flight, was the challenge of it all: To
participate in a rigorous training program that challenges the mind, body and
spirit and to emerge victorious. There is a great deal to be proud of when you
can say, "Yes, I am a pilot."
In addition to family and friends, there was also the bus stop crowd. My
children's bus stop is two-tenths of a mile from my home and I accompany my
youngest son to the bus stop each morning. While we wait for the school bus to
arrive, the moms and dads talk. They talk of upcoming school fundraisers; I
think about upcoming ground school classes. When they gather for coffee at the
local lunch counter, I'm at the airport putting avgas in my airplane. Makes it
a bit difficult to fit in. What do you talk about? What do we have in common?
Pretty much what I do is to make idle chit-chat about how lovely the day is,
how awful Miss Harrington the substitute teacher is, and what in the world are
we going to do about "those" neighbors who leave their empty trash
cans outside for most of the week. I nod my head, say the appropriate um-hum's
and uh-huh's and go about my day after the bus leaves. Some parents linger to
talk. Not me. I am gone as soon as the school bus doors close. I am certain
that there are days that as soon as I am gone that I become the topic of
conversation. And you know what? There's a big part inside of me that is proud
of that. That they think I'm insane for learning to fly. I think they are nuts
for not wanting to. So that "objection" was almost a badge of honor
for me. ;)
I remember the day I took my discovery flight. I finished up at the airport at
about 3:15. My boys were due home from school at 3:30. I come screaming home,
carefully observing the posted speed limits of course, and turn down my road.
There are the neighbor ladies who had gathered to meet the school bus. I stop
and tell them all about my afternoon. Trying to impress upon them the wonder
of it all. And they look at me, the whites of their eyes getting bigger as the
fear creeps on their face. "You couldn't get me into one of those little
airplanes on a bet," says one.
I bet you can't keep me out of them.
Hmmm. Betting, gambling. Now there might be one way to overcome the
"Flying is Expensive" obstacle. On second thought, scratch that, it
would only make things worse, I'm certain.
The scheduling of lessons was another bit of difficulty that I have
encountered. The airport I have chosen to learn at is a very small Part 61
"school." It is hard to call it a school even. It's John Lampson,
pretty much. A certified flight instructor working out of a tiny office, by a
tiny runway, in a tiny town called Ellington, Connecticut. We students rent
the airplane from the A&P who is based here and John climbs aboard with us
and teaches us this amazing skill called flying. One man, two airplanes, no
waiting. Yeah, right. One man, two airplanes, lots of waiting. To see John's
schedule is to wonder when in the world he takes time to breathe on the
weekends. Like many other CFIs his real job takes him from the airport during
the normal workday hours so he can earn a living. During the summer he is able
to squeeze in quite a few lessons before Mr. Sun sinks down below the horizon
and night steals the day.
But wintertime, that is another story. There are not enough daylight hours for
most lessons during the weekdays so the weekends are a blur of back-to-back
lessons. Run late getting to your lesson and you're out of luck. There is no
time for delays. No time for bad weather. No time for mechanical downtime.
There is simply no time. This can be a huge interruption in the
flight-training program if you let it be.
Cancelled lessons are a big hurdle to negotiate when you are learning to fly.
Go too long between lessons and it is as if the aviation just leaks out of
your head and you must jump back two spaces before proceeding along. Hitching
rides with friends helped to close the gaps between lessons. For an airplane
ride, I have dropped what I was doing and begged off "important"
engagements just given the opportunity to fly. For every flight is a lesson. I
also did some "chair flying." A technique where I would sit down and
imagine my lesson. Sometimes complete with airplane noises too. Any wonder why
the neighbors talk?
Another obstacle was jealousy. I am once again a woman in a male-dominated
field. My husband doesn't share the same passion for flight that I do. In
fact, he is not too fond of flying at all. Once in the air, he tolerates the
flight, but it's not something he looks forward to doing. Not something he
even looks forward to my doing, in fact. He mentioned once that he believes
that I will die in an airplane accident. Unfortunately, there is the potential
for that. There is also the potential that I will die in an automobile
accident. A skiing accident. A trip over my shoelace and break my neck
accident. Life is chock full of risks. Some are even worth taking. But risking
my neck and risking my love makes for a double-edged sword. The ugly head of
the green-eyed monster once again arose. I am very passionate about flying.
(Obviously, or I would not be writing these articles today.) To fly is a
wonderful gift. Even the desire to fly is a wonderful gift, an avocation that
thrills me from getting a weather briefing, all the way to tying down the
airplane after the flight. I would be pleased as punch to spend an afternoon
just watching takeoffs and landings at the airport. People see beauty in many
different things. For some it can be art, others enjoy music. I'm utterly
consumed by wonder as I sit on the fence rail at my airport in the late
afternoon as the airplanes turn base for runway 1. The sun is setting off in
the west, the silhouette of the airplane dark in the sky as it reduces power
and begins its descent to the runway. Engine to idle as it slips through the
air gliding on imaginary rails until the wheels simply just begin rolling on
the runway with hardly a sound.
Not many people see the beauty in that. Non-pilots see an airplane land.
Pilots share the sky with the pilot in command even when watching from the
ground. Pilots understand. There is a connection there that is unmistakable.
For a non-flying spouse or significant other to see their love sharing this
experience with another human can be quite difficult to watch. An obstacle to
overcome with kindness. I have tried to show equal enthusiasm in joint
endeavors. As much enthusiasm as I show for flying. It can be a tough, tough
trick to pull off. Hopefully the fact that I have tried helped out just a bit.
It's the thought that counts, right?
There are great many things that try and stand in the way of earning a private
pilot certificate. Many of the troubles we face are not meant to be conquered,
but instead to be negotiated. Sometimes the shortest line between two points
may be a crooked line. Sometimes we must plot a course other than direct,
bending along the way. Sometimes we must simply say, "Heck with it,"
and make it happen. They say patience is a virtue. I say that persistence is.
Additional articles in this series by Tina Gonsalves include: