My First Time (Blush)

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You always remember your first time. As a pilot, that is. The sights. The sounds. The smells. And the indecision. More than one would-be pilot has thought better of taking the plunge and that first lesson perhaps from a fear of the unknown. Questions like,

It's 12:40 on a lovely spring afternoon. My boys are in school; my chores and my errands are done. I grab my driver's license, a blank check, my "Be A Pilot Certificate" and head out the door. I am determined that today I am going for a Discovery Flight. Flying in New England in the spring certainly can give your patience muscles a workout. Schedule to fly, too windy. Schedule to fly, it's snowing. Then it's raining. Then it's too windy again. Patience is a virtue, they say. Well, with all that waiting, I have become a very virtuous woman. I am done with all that virtue stuff. I want to go flying.

After a short drive to the airport, I pull into the parking lot feeling vaguely intimidated. What in the world am I doing here? What have I gotten myself into? I am a middle-aged suburban housewife in Connecticut. Why on earth am I at an airport today? My interest in flying developed differently than most of the others I have met who have learned to fly. My self-induced aviation desires came to me later in life. I didn't grow up at the airport watching planes take off and land. My Mom wasn't a pilot; neither was Dad. In fact, I led a very airplane-deprived life, not even flying commercially until I was in college. A very sheltered life, indeed. Then something amazing happened. I took charge of my life and started to live it. It wasn't until I was 34 years old that I successfully conquered a lifelong weight problem. Adjusted my useful load, so to speak. After that, look out world, there's nothing I will not try. Once, at least.

A Brief History of Mine ...

Certainly my history did not have me aimed toward anything as adventurous as flying. The most exciting thing in my day had been finding the prize at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box. But things change, and so did I, quite drastically in fact. I lost over 100 pounds by changing my diet and adding exercise to my day. As I lost the weight, I found my life. Found the person I was underneath all that fat. I began running and found it to be a wonderful physical challenge for me. Bit by bit an athlete emerged, one heck of a determined athlete at that. With this determination, I went on to train for and run the New York City Marathon.

After completing that great physical challenge, I realized needed more. My mind needed a workout as well. When my son was born in 1989, I left the working world and became Mom. A noble profession for sure, but not one that really challenges your brain on a regular basis. Tries your patience certainly, but not the intellect. Learning to fly certainly could fill my intellectual need. Becoming a pilot would be a terrific mental workout that also gives me a fantastic skill that my family, my friends and I could enjoy. And as much as the physical exercise for the marathon benefited me, so did the mental training for flying.

After my boys had grown older, instead of going back to work as my husband would have preferred, I returned to a wonderful experience I had a couple years earlier. While in Cincinnati for a weekend road race a friend offered me a ride in an airplane. It was my first time in a small general aviation airplane. I was quite taken by the experience, though the desire to fly lay dormant for another couple years. Time passes, things change, and here I am now, at an airport, ready to learn to fly.

... Doing It ...

This small-town airport has only a handful of cars in the parking lot. All of them are pilot's cars, I presume. Timeworn vehicles with bumper stickers proclaiming, "My other car is a Cessna" and the like. It is also apparent to me that the owners are not spending money on their automobiles. While cars may have brought the people to the airport, they are certainly not what drive them. Obviously, automobiles are not their passion; it must be something else. Over the next few hours I learn what that passion is.

I park my Jeep alongside a beat-up Chevy El Camino and head toward the office. I walk into a strange little world filled with mismatched furniture, aviation magazines, airplane models and the smell of coffee brewing. In fact, it is the smell of stale coffee brewing. How they accomplish that, I have no idea. There I find the Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) that I have been trying to hook up with for the past three weeks.

Now that I am finally able to sit down with the instructor, I begin by asking him questions, questions that I have slowly come up with over time. I am not sure that the questions make any sense because it is difficult to know what to ask when you have no previous experience. I have virtually no aviation history with only one previous ride in a Piper Cherokee. I am almost a complete blank slate, an aviation virgin. To me it seems very similar to asking a native Italian how to make cannoli. First, you don't speak the same language and second, "What is cannoli anyway?"

What brought me back to aviation? Was it fate that chose my path? No, it was because of the Atkins Diet, of course. Isn't that how everyone begins? There had been some debate in an aviation forum over the pros and cons of this eating plan. I had been summoned to mediate the debate and offer my sage advice to the pilots there. Probably the last time for a while that I would be telling pilots what to do. In helping out there, I learned about discovery flight coupons available online. Shortly thereafter I had the coupon in hand and a discovery flight to take.

So, despite my husband's concerns over the dangers involved in flying, I embark on a mission to learn. Overcoming my husband's objections were almost as challenging as learning how to land. Actually, they were more challenging at times. The poor dear, he hates flying. Commercial aviation, general aviation; flying in general simply frightens him. So now you have a man whose wife wants to learn to do the very thing that scares him. This is the same woman who balked at driving into Hartford alone at one time because it was too intimidating. Now I want to soar above it. In addition, it is not just the fear of flying that causes him grief. The fear of bankruptcy is also there. Learning to fly is not an inexpensive endeavor.

... Learning About Learning ...

So, back at the airport I am still talking with the CFI, and I realize there are many things I want to know. Despite my aviation-virgin status, I have come up with some questions for him.

Instructor costs? At this airport the charge is $30 per hour. The cost of the airplane, a Cessna 172, is $70 per hour. My gut feeling says that is expensive. But at this time, I am not sure what my options are, and I am certainly not going to go bargain-bin shopping for an instructor. The axiom "You get what you pay for" comes to mind and I want good, not cheap. Of course good and cheap wouldn't hurt. Decisions, decisions. My instinct is "I want to fly..." and to just jump right in. But I can be too impulsive when I want something. Learning to fly should not come from impulsion. Compulsion, perhaps. Okay, moving onto the next question.

How often should I fly? He suggests 2-3 times per week scheduled ... probably one to two hours of actual flying. Two hours in duration, usually 1.3 on the Hobbs meter. From that question forms another. What is a Hobbs meter? It is a timer that measures hours in tenths of an hour to keep track of how long the engine has been running. Thus begins a love/hate relationship with Mr. Hobbs. I love that I can fly to Block Island for the day and pay for only the time the airplane is actually running. Cut the engine and the meter stops ticking. On the other hand, I hate that the meter seems to make time pass so quickly. An hour can pass quicker than a New York Second when you're flying.

Is this his day job? No. He owns his own company also. He is the chief instructor here with six or so part-time instructors under him. None of them are striving for anything beyond just teaching; no commercial aspirations there. I won't lose my CFI to the airlines in mid-training. From what I hear that's a threat in some of the larger flight schools and quite possibly a problem at the smaller airports as well. Though you can never be completely certain, I do not believe instructor turnover will be a problem here.

Does he use a syllabus? Yes, but he doesn't stick to it verbatim. If something is scheduled to be learned one day but weather calls for something else, he'll switch. Of course everything eventually gets covered. So far in our conversation, I find that I like him well enough though he does seem like a stickler for perfection. He spoke of zero deviations from things on which the FAA allows a 10% margin. My first thought is, "This is good, he will teach me to fly very well." Later I think that it seems unrealistic to expect perfection or more than the FAA requires, which might be the same thing, especially for a new primary student. Perhaps after I've logged many hours as Pilot In Command (PIC) I will be that precise. I'm starting to believe that it will take a long time to achieve the Private Pilot Certificate this way. But perfection with something like flying cannot be a bad goal.

Well into my conversation with the CFI, I recalled something that had been told to me previously. There must be a "click" between the instructor and the student. A chemistry that will allow the teacher to teach, and the student to learn. Without it the process is much more difficult. Though I liked this instructor well enough, there didn't appear to be any magic. I felt that I could learn from him, but the chemistry question stayed in my mind.

We also talked about other topics such as ground school. He suggested, of course, that I take the class offered at the flight school as training for the FAA written exam. In fact he made me feel as though his class would be the only way I could pass the exam. Well, I've already learned that there's never only one way in life. This course, at $300, seems pricey to me, and on my limited budget, I balk at the commitment. There must be another way. Thankfully, my AOPA mentor was there for me. Mike Campos flew up from Teterboro, N.J., to be with me today. When I emerged from the office, there was Mike waiting for me. I was glad to have a pilot friend there to help guide me through this. After talking to him and a few other pilots I found that there were other options for ground school: Self-study, computer-based study, videotapes, private instruction and local colleges.

... The Object of My Desire

After all this talking, it is finally time to go to the airplane. The instructor takes me around now and he gives me an introduction to the aircraft. He had already done a full preflight before I arrived and was giving it a once over for my benefit. He shows me how to check for nicks in the propeller and why it's necessary to do so. Then he explains to me what different parts of the airplane are, some I know, some I don't. A pitot tube? Sounds like something a doctor would handle rather than a flight instructor. Once we finish checking the airplane he directs me into the left seat.

THE LEFT SEAT? Oh my. That's for pilots, isn't it? I found I was a bit surprised at that request. Intellectually I know that is where the pilot sits but emotionally I wasn't prepared to sit there. I don't know why I was surprised; after all I'm a budding pilot, not a budding passenger. I am not scared, I trust he knows what he is doing. You certainly need to trust the instructor. I find that I do trust him and I am looking forward to the flight.

Into the cockpit of a Cessna 172 we go, which is no small feat I might add. Climbing in, I am hesitant to bump any of the controls. I do not want to disturb anything, much less break anything. There are headset wires to avoid, flight controls not to hit and it sure is much smaller of an area than I remember. But it would be — the last time I was in an airplane I sat in the back seat where there are no controls to be concerned about.

We put on our headsets and he begins the starting procedure. The instructor does a check of all the things pilots check for, clicking and flipping switches, something he did just to impress me because I certainly cannot imagine what they could all be used for. There are so many gadgets and doohickeys. They can't all do something, can they? And why is he reading the instructions from a list? Doesn't he know what he is doing by now? In retrospect, I probably should have asked what the checklist was all about, or perhaps he should have explained it to me. Either way, I would have learned that checklists are important to the safe operation of an aircraft, not something a weak pilot relies upon, but something a strong pilot always uses.

In spite of needing a checklist to figure out the airplane, he helps me get set properly and we head out for the runway. He has me put my feet on the rudder pedals just to feel what he's doing. Once we reach the runway he says, "It's all yours."

"Huh?"

"Just keep an imaginary line going through the yoke and the plane and stay along the dotted line on the runway. Use the rudder pedals to steer."

I try but it's difficult for me to get the hang of it. My hands so want wanted to grab the yoke and drive the airplane. Driving I know; flying I will learn. He has me put one hand on the throttle and one hand on my left knee to keep my hands occupied. Next time I'll remember not to chew gum. It is too hard to do that AND control an airplane. I briefly thought about opening the window and spitting the gum out, but thought better of that idea quickly.

I taxi down to the end of the runway; he takes control, turns us around, and then I taxi back. I later learn that what we did was to "back-taxi" along the runway to the departure end. There were no taxiways at this airport. We reach the other end of the runway and next thing I hear is, "We're off."

"Huh?" (I seem to be saying that a lot today.)

"Push the throttle all the way in and hold it. Keep the plane aligned with the dotted line and when the speed reaches 55 pull back smoothly on the yoke," he said calmly. Okey dokey, but please kind sir, would you mind telling me when it gets to 55? I cannot take my eyes off the runway or we'll crash. Thankfully he does tell me when we reach that speed. Multitasking is a learned skill, one I hope that I can master.

I think I make the takeoff by myself but perhaps he helps. He says I did it, but I just don't know. It just seems amazing to me that I have made an airplane fly. Well, maybe it wasn't me who made it fly, perhaps it had more to do with Bernoulli or Newton or some physics law but it sure felt as if I made it fly. Flying, something man has wanted to do since the dawn of time. Cavemen probably caught the aviation bug by watching pterodactyls fly no doubt, and here I am, learning to do it myself. Doing it myself doesn't seem as difficult as we continue the climb. Though I cannot believe that I am piloting this aircraft. Me. I am flying an airplane. Shy, quiet, wallflower of a girl is now a pilot.

I do left turns and right turns. Wow, piece of cake. This piloting stuff is easy. These are some more words that I will not utter aloud for quite some time. The air is pretty bumpy up here and I think the bumps are my fault. Pilot delusions of grandeur, I guess. Now I think I am controlling the weather. No, it isn't me I'm told. It's thermals. Cold nights, nice warm days make for bumpy rides under 10,000 feet, says CFI guy. There is simply so much to learn.

As the lesson proceeds something that takes me by surprise is the overwhelming freedom of flight. There are no roads to follow. I just fly. Wherever. How fantastic. I can see things that mere mortals cannot see. I am inside of the sky flying and it all seems so very different now. And the views; I believe I can see forever today. I'm "discovering" more than I had ever expected. Though I learn in time that there are many airspace rules that apply, on my discovery flight the limitless expanse of sky feels a bit daunting, yet wonderfully peaceful.

The End.  And the Beginning

We turn back towards the town where I live, and he asks where my home is. It's not hard to find, just off the town green. A little bit of searching and we fly over my house. This is the first time I have seen my neighborhood from the sky. The 'hood looks different from my new perspective. I wonder if the neighbors are looking up from their coffee cups at the airplane overhead. They are probably not. Most people don't. I am curious if they know it is me piloting that aircraft. Again, probably not. If that were the case, they would be running for cover.

Well, the flight is just about over. "Bring the plane down," he says. We descend and approach the runway. He, of course, does the landing part for me. By now I'm fancying myself a "natural pilot," but I'm not quite ready to land the aircraft with only 30 minutes in the air.

That feeling of being a "natural pilot" disappears once I am involved in my flight training. In fact, oftentimes during my lessons I've wondered exactly what the heck I was doing in the left seat of an airplane.

The instructor and I talk a bit, and head inside and call it a day. A great day. My AOPA mentor Mike buys me my logbook and in goes the first entry. 0.5 on March 26, 1999.

Oh, my. I'm not a penguin any more. I can fly.

Editor's Note:

Additional articles in this series by Tina Gonsalves include: