Obstacles

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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.

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

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 remaining proficient.

Friends and Family

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.

Finances

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 certain.

The Challenge

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.

Scheduling

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?

Jealousy

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?

Persistence

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.


Editor's Note:

Additional articles in this series by Tina Gonsalves include: