What did you sign up for?

Editor’s note: This is the final article in our Summer Writing Challenge, where we invited young pilots (age 16-24) to share their stories about learning to fly. We’ve published eight articles from six different pilots (read them all here), and we’ll continue to feature young pilot stories as an occasional feature in the future. Thanks to all who contributed–they’ve proven that the next generation of pilots is every bit as passionate as the last.

It is very easy as a pilot to become enthralled with becoming a more advanced aviator and completely lose touch with everything that called you to aviation in the first place. It doesn’t take very long either. For me it happened in about 120 hours. I had fallen out of love.

I started flying because I had a real passion for it. I had looked at a plane when I was about three or four and, for some reason that is beyond words, I decided I wanted to fly them. I wanted anything to do with anything that involved the word aviation. But just a couple years later I found myself slipping into a monotony of flying, and while I wasn’t necessarily a plain cheesecake kind of flyer (I was working towards an instrument rating), I was forgetting why I’d started to fly.

Matt in glider
A ride in a sailplane confirmed that aviation was the future for Matt Beattie.

I was 13 when I started flying, and I did it in sailplanes. A friend and I both started flying at the same time, and we both went through a lot of the flying firsts around the same time. I remember all of my first “firsts” like they happened yesterday. My first flight in a glider, a sort of shake-down cruise to see if it was something I actually wanted to do (it only took about 3 seconds), was incredible. I remember my 13-year old self thinking that if more people knew about this, Microsoft Flight Simulator would go straight out of business.

My first solo, my first checkride, my first passenger, all re-enforced why I had fallen for the sky as a young kid. And as if the flying wasn’t enough, the time spent on the ground at the sleepy little Freehold Airport (1I5) was enough to keep anyone interested in airplanes coming back. There were campfires at night and barbecues in the evening with older pilots dating themselves and telling stories of 747s flying for airlines that didn’t exist anymore, and war stories about the fighter airplanes that adorned my bedroom walls.

I didn’t realize it until a few years later but this was as much a part of what being a pilot is than the flying. The camaraderie that comes with knowing what it’s like to soar through the sky that brings all pilots together. Plus, these guys were thrilled to see young people genuinely interested in aviation.

By the time I was 17, I had a private pilot glider, a private pilot SEL, and by the time I was 18, I was working toward an instrument rating. And I was being consumed by monkey flying. Instrument flying is something that I believe vastly expands what you can do as a private pilot. I use my instrument rating now to get through weather that would force a VFR pilot on the ground. But it’s not the same fun that the passionate aviators fell in love with. It’s memorizing every detail about approaches and knowing everything and following orders. Monkey hear, monkey do, monkey flying. It’s satisfying when done correctly, but in a way that’s more about completing tasks correctly rather than pure simple fun. This was one of two things that I think caused me to temporarily fall out of love with the sky.

The other was that I had a lack of people to share my aviation experiences with, as well as a lack of access to airplanes. As a teenager, flying is something that is a bit impractical. Unless of course you’ve caught the flying bug, then it makes perfect sense. Money is not something that teens find themselves in great abundance of and owning an airplane is still largely a dream.

Renting an airplane is the only viable option, and then you are left to find an airplane to rent and hope that it’s a good one. It’s also not readily apparent to the budding general aviator where to go to find flying buddies. I didn’t have the atmosphere of the glider port. In fact, if I saw one other person at the local airport, it was a busy day.

My early aviator days were in a very small town in upstate New York, so that problem may be more regional to me than others. For those still wondering where to find flying buddies, it IS the local airport. Unless you are in a small college town where the majority of the population consists of drunken frat bros. Then you might be S.O.L. I did find an old 172 at the desolate local airport owned by a CFI that I could rent, and did so, but somehow I felt like something was missing.

It was about this point in my flying career that I transferred to a little aviation school in Florida (Embry-Riddle), and started to see a different side of things. There was such an abundance of aviation it was hard to miss. Granted the Embry-Riddle style of flying isn’t exactly something that I would call fun, which is something for a whole separate article, but it was easier to be involved with aviation. It was always around. I met people I could go flying with, which made it more enjoyable. I also met people who were had been flying a lot longer than I had, and I started to be introduced to “real world” flying, and the many differences it has from training. I became a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association and stumbled upon the Spruce Creek Fly-In community, which was described by Paul Poberezny as a year-round Oshkosh. And that, that is where I found what I’d been missing.

There is an attitude that is all about simply flying for the joy of flying. It is an attitude that can be found amongst people with a passion for aviation, young and old alike, no matter if it’s a four star general in the air force, a CEO of large company, or a young college student. If there is a real passion for aviation, this attitude is there. It’s the attitude that brings all people together over airplanes.

Camping at Oshkosh
Flying to Oshkosh was just the thing to reignite the spark for fun flying.

It’s something that I’ve heard referred to by some of these more experienced aviators as the great social equalizer. It is something so important the EAA has actually made it their catch phrase. It is the spirit of aviation. It’s what general aviation is all about. Flying for flying’s sake. It doesn’t have to be practical, it doesn’t have to make sense. Because when the wheels leave the ground, none of that matters. For the next hour, it’s all about the romance of flight.

I made my first journey to EAA AirVenture this past July, by Cessna. Our route was from Florida, overnight in Tennessee, spend a couple days in Oshkosh, then head up to Maine for a family reunion that was excellently scheduled (I am the only active pilot in my family), and then down the east coast to Florida via the VFR corridor in New York City and First Flight Airport in Kitty Hawk. It contained VFR flying, IFR flying, mountain flying, landing at Oshkosh, camping under the wing of the airplane, a turn around a point over the Statue of Liberty, and a visit to the very place where aviation was born.

It was a trip that pretty much had it all. And it was the ultimate reminder of what got my attention as a 3 year old, and what I fell in love with when I was 13. The only real words I can use to describe it are: it was exactly what I signed up for when I started taking flying lessons.

I’m sure I’m not the only budding aviator who has a story like this one. I’m sure there are some older aviators who also have stories like this. I think when it’s all said and done the moral of this story is: remember why you started flying in the first place. If it’s not fun any more, then make it fun! It’s really easy to get caught up in all the bureaucracy and reasons not to fly. But if you remember what you signed up for, why you started taking flying lessons however long ago it was, it’s also very easy to fall back in love with the sky.

7 Comments

  • Hi Matt!

    Great story! I’m glad to hear that other aviators my age are having just as much fun as I am! Always wanted to get into sailplanes…

    Blue Skies,

    Chris

  • I really enjoyed Matt’s story – it echoes many pilots natural cycle of starting with pure joy and ending up ensnared in regulations and so called “monkey” flying. Adding ratings and always seeking to improve proficiency undoubtably makes for better and better pilots, but this quest can, as Matt so effectively describes, take away some of the joy. I get great satisfaction from navigating successfully through LA airspace and following the string of commands from Socal Approach but at the end of the day sometimes feel that this mastery of airspace and communications, flipping frequencies every five minutes, can’t help but take away from the simple pleasure of just flying for the sake of getting airborne with no productive aim in sight. Thank you Matt for capturing this dichotomy that we all face as recreational pilots – the emphasis being on the word “recreation”.

    • This is what u got from the entire story ? Really ?!

      Matt, thank you, I hear you loud and clear.

      Gone flying 🙂

      Liad.

  • Matt,
    Great writing! It’s so easy to get caught up in the notion that we *need* to keep aiming for higher and more complex ratings. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of that, and it behooves all of us to maintain proficiency in our flying. However, it’s so easy to lose sight of why we recreational pilots got into flying in the first place. I wish you well in your endeavors.

    Safe flying!

    Brandon

  • Matt,

    I enjoyed your article quite a bit. I’m interested though in what you didn’t like about Embry Riddle. I just started in the Professional Flight program at Purdue University this fall, and I’m curious to see how they’re different. So far I’m enjoying the program at Purdue quite a bit.

  • Flying schools tend to fall into the trap of getting people on the qualification treadmill instead of trying to get them flying every weekend.

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