How hard is it to fly an airplane? It’s simple…

“So how hard is it to fly an airplane?” my good friend Mike asked as he settled into the right seat. It was the first time he had been in a plane smaller than a regional jet and I sensed he was apprehensive.

“It’s simple, like riding a bike, especially on a day like this,” I replied, as I untangled the seat belt in my 1979 Cessna TR182. “And you’re going to have three hours and fifteen minutes to see for yourself.”

The trip was from Bolingbrook’s Clow International airport (1C5) near Chicago to Lincolnton, North Carolina (KIPJ), a 5500 foot strip just northwest of Charlotte. We were headed for a guy weekend at the vacation home of one of our buds on Lake Norman.

Panel of airplane
All those knobs and buttons? It’s simple.

The Blockheads–my affectionate name for the poker group on our street–had been threatening to take this trip for two years and we had finally each gotten the hall pass from our wives and cleared our schedules.

Expecting to have all four seats filled, I was slightly offended when initially no one took me up on the offer to ride along.

Only by questioning the manhood of the posse was I able to lasso one brave cowboy. As we taxied past the gas pump toward the departure for 18, he looked like he was headed to the gallows instead of the heavens.

“My wife thinks I’m crazy,” he commented as we bumped toward the runway. “She made me increase my life insurance and she sprinkled holy water on me as I was leaving this morning.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, glancing at his unusually serious face.

“Only about the holy water,” he replied without his trademark smile. “She wants us to call just before we take off and as soon as we land.”

The weather was cloudy in Chicago and looked like rain, the remnants of a cold front that had passed through the August night before leaving cooler temperatures and a needed ½ inch of precipitation. Our arrival forecast was picture perfect: scattered clouds at 7,000 and a slight 6 knot crosswind.

In between we would catch up to that front with a lot of low overcast and some pop up thunderstorms over the Smokies.

For departure 9 knots was coming nearly right down the runway helping make a routine takeoff roll even shorter. As I raised the gear and reached over to lift the flaps, I saw Mike’s hands tightly wrapped around the magazines and iPad he had on his lap.

I had warned Mike I would be busy and to just enjoy the ride until we got to altitude. The morning air was thankfully smooth, with not a single bump or gust and I could sense him relax ever so slightly as his head swiveled back and forth taking in those first precious moments of flight.

As we penetrated the overcast at 3,500 I settled in on my scan. Once the gauges were tamed, I glanced to my right to check the engine readings and noticed Mike staring intently at me. I grinned without a word and went back to my work.

Breaking out at 5,400, we were cleared to 10,000 and passed off to Chicago center. A high dense cloud cover that we would never approach blocked out the sun, and the top of the low overcast had ripples running through it like hundreds of river tributaries across a massive delta. It stretched in all directions as far as we could see. I saw Mike studying it and taking pictures with his iPhone.

Happily sandwiched in the two vertical miles between these layers we leveled off at 15,000 feet. I went through the cruise checklist: setting manifold pressure and RPM to 23 squared, leaning the engine, switching the tanks to left, setting up our oxygen cannulas, setting the GPS to show airports within our 22-mile glide distance, checking our ground speed and noting our ETA on my lapboard. I set an approach timer for 60 minutes to remind me to check our oxygen levels and switch the tanks back to both.

I also popped up the WSI weather on the multifunction display and panned it out just to make sure those pop up thunderstorms way ahead of us were staying widely spaced. They were, and as long as the airplane hung together, I knew it would be an easy flight.

“Everything OK?” Mike asked, his nerves still on edge.

“Oh for sure,” I said enthusiastically as I gave the mixture a tweak and set the MFD back to show our current position.

“For as simple as you say it is, you sure have been busy.”

“A blind monkey with a stick can follow a checklist,” I laughed as I handed the thick laminated booklet to him. As he studied the pages thoughtfully I poured some coffee and fished around for a pastry.

On Mike’s iPad were versions of his new favorite TV show. Prior to takeoff, I had connected it to the airplane so that he could hear the audio through his headset. I offered to throw the switch so he could enjoy his in-flight entertainment, but he shook his head, unplugged the device and put it on the back seat.

“I’m enjoying this way too much to watch TV!” he said with his first smile since he had strapped in. “Thank you so much, this is an amazing experience,” he continued.

I was very pleased and turned up the cockpit heat and positioned the superfluous sun visors out of the way.

“So, are we on autopilot now?” Mike asked. “I mean, I don’t see you studying the instruments like you were before.”

“Yep,” I responded, as I cycled through the engine monitor and noted the outside air temperature. “In cruise the autopilot flies better than me and I can just enjoy the ride and keep an eye on things.”

“There’s so much I want to ask you,” he continued. “I don’t know where to start.”

I took a sip of coffee and a generous final bite of the apple turnover. Wiping my hands, I motioned for him to ask away.

“Can you tell me about the instruments in the airplane and how you were able to fly through the clouds?” he asked.

“Sure, Mike,” I responded, happy to have an interested passenger.

I went through the instruments one by one.

“So you have six instruments you need to keep an eye on?”

“There are six primary instruments, but you have to keep up with every gauge in the panel.” I then pointed to and explained each of the other indicators.

“So, you juggle six primary instruments and throw in one of these other ones once in a while?”

I nodded in agreement and found myself impressed with the next series of probing follow up questions about instrument interpretation, aircraft control and engine management.

A frequency change to Indianapolis Center took me away from the conversation and Mike looked outside.

Sunset with wing
Views like this help passengers understand why we fly.

“Look over here!” he exclaimed excitedly after I finished with Indy. His finger was jabbing rapidly at 2 o’clock low. I leaned over to view a five-mile hole in the lower level allowing us to see all the way to the ground where a deep blue lake traced the opening.

“Wow,” I said with sincere appreciation. “I honestly don’t remember ever seeing anything like that before.”

“It’s like we are over the Grand Canyon!” he chortled. Just then we hit a mild bubble of air that gently eased us up 20 feet and oscillated a bit before we settled. “On a springboard!” he continued.

I laughed at his perfect description.

As we caught up to the cold front, we turned our attention to the weather that was spawning widely scattered thunderstorms 250 miles south of us in Tennessee. They were directly along our route but there was plenty of space in between them and the tops were below 25,000.

My passenger was fascinated. We reviewed the print outs I had brought and compared them to the WSI weather displays. I showed him the Stormscope and set the range for 50 miles. Then I contacted flight service to give a pilot report and gather any additional information they had. There was an Airmet for icing over the mountains, but otherwise it was a delightful day to cross a big chunk of the US in a light airplane.

With the weather questions answered for now, I saw Mike return his attention to the checklist with a specific focus on the items marked in red: the 12 emergency types listed for my aircraft.

“What are the odds we’ll need this today?” he asked, thumbing through the section.

“It’s small, Mike,” I said evenly. “The airplane just had a 100-hour inspection and the 182 is one of the safest, most forgiving in the air. We have plenty of gas and the weather is not a factor. We should be fine.”

“But you keep the checklist out all the time?”

“Every piece of mechanical equipment will fail at some point. Once you decide to fly you just have to accept that the risk can be managed, but it can’t be eliminated.”

Mike turned quiet as he turned every page. He looked up. “Don’t you worry that you just have one engine?”

As I started to launch into singles versus twins, we were interrupted by Indianapolis Center.

A military operation area (MOA) east of Columbus Indiana had just gone hot and we had to make a quick adjustment to our flight plan. The controller apologetically listed 3 waypoints that I dutifully wrote down. Once we settled in on that course Mike asked, “What the heck just happened?” I took a long swig on a small water bottle before I answered.

“This airspace in front of us is used by the military for practice. They must’ve just decided they wanted to send some people up because that was pretty short notice. They re-routed us out of their way.”

“How did you even know what he said? You were taking dictation from an auctioneer!”

Instrument approach chart
“This looks like something out of ancient Egypt!”

Laughing out loud I unclipped the VFR sectional and IFR charts from my lapboard and showed where the MOA could be seen on the diagrams. I also pointed it out on the GPS. Then under his questioning I briefed one of the approach plates for Lincolnton.

“This looks like something out of ancient Egypt!” Mike chortled as he took the charts. “You have got to be kidding me! You for sure are speaking some kind of shorthand foreign language and flying by hieroglyphic maps!”

“It’s really not that complicated, once you know the secret code,” I said sarcastically.

“Is it really a secret?”

“Kind of and the secret is this: the federal government is responsible for all rules and regulations over flying. Sometimes things seem a lot more complicated than they need to be. Is it easy to do your federal taxes? No, and a lot of flying has that layer of complexity that a private company would make more customer friendly.”

We spent an enjoyable hour in cruise anticipating the weekend and savoring the unique vistas only we pilots and our front seat mates are privileged to enjoy. All too soon it was time to pick our route through the storms. Consulting with Center, a slight deviation left was all we needed.

After a moment in IMC, we were back in visual conditions between layers. Again the beauty of flight surprised us both.

As the windshield cleared, we could see that rising from the lower level overcast were dozens of stalagmites of cloud and it seemed we were in a cave. In the distance, shafts of sunlight colored these unusual formations with muted shades of gray, pink, red, orange and purple. We were suddenly in one of the fantasy paintings done by street artists near tourist sites.

“What about that?” Mike exclaimed.

“Whoa, no idea, Mike. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

We stared at this surreal image in silence until the high overcast gave way and we came out of the cave into the bright sunshine. The lower level became broken and then scattered before a controller change broke our reverie.

“It’s time to ask if we can start down,” I announced.

“But we’re still 34 minutes away,” my quick study stated, pointing to the ETA on the Garmin.

“Right, but we would like to be at 3,000 five minutes out. And, I would like to go down at about 400 feet a minute. So, using some simple algebra, 13 minus 3 is 10, divided by 400 is 25 minutes. Because we will pick up some speed in descent and it may take a few minutes to get the clearance, we’ll ask now to give us some extra time.”

We drifted down softly through a few mild mid-summer bumps gazing at the green peaks and valleys of the mountains of southern Tennessee. Once under the scattered layer, I requested the visual approach from Charlotte and cancelled IFR when the airport was in sight.

Mike made a video of the landing for his son so I was glad it was one of my better ones. The Cessna settled on the mains gently and the arrival of the nose wheel was imperceptible.

“Don’t forget to call Sue,” I said after we shut down on the ramp. The FBO pulled the rental car up to the plane and we emptied our luggage into the trunk.

As I made the 20-minute drive and completed a quick business call, I noticed Mike was furiously punching information into his iPad. I meant to ask him what he was doing because he seemed so intense. By the time I got off the phone he had finished and I had forgotten.

It wasn’t until we were relaxing by the lake that we all found out what he had written.

“So, how was the flight?” our buddies asked Mike and I. Mike nodded to me to go first.

“It was routine, uneventful, simple,” I said.

“I knew that’s what he would say,” Mike started in a voice that has launched a thousand business presentations. “Let me tell you: this is what this Blockhead,” he jerked his thumb my way, “thinks is simple.” He started reading.

Flying an airplane is as simple as riding a bike… Only you’re riding that bike on a springboard over the Grand Canyon while juggling six balls with a random seventh, eighth or ninth thrown in, doing your federal tax returns, taking dictation from an auctioneer, speaking a foreign language, interpreting several hieroglyphic maps, operating at least four computers, drinking a bottle of water, doing algebra in your head, and simultaneously conducting urgent experiments in navigation, critical thinking, meteorology, biology, psychology, chemical propulsion, thermodynamics, metallurgy and – of course–aerodynamics as you prepare to react to a dozen different emergency situations that could have life-threatening implications if you don’t do the right thing nearly immediately.

As my fellow Blockheads took it in first with gaping mouths and then with outrageous laughter they looked at me.

“Yeah,” I said, sipping on a Jack and Diet Coke. “I think he got that about right. It’s simple.”

“Simple?” Mike laughed incredulously. “So what do you think is more complicated?”

“Women,” I answered truthfully.

49 Comments

  • Great article. As a local only, VFR pilot never considering traveling or IFR, this alone just changed my mind. Thanks

  • We have about 4000 hours traveling in our Cessna 182. In our opinion, the author has the description perfect. …and we love it as much as he, clearly, does. Great article!

  • Mark – wonderful piece of writing! Most flying stories in aviation media are about flights (and pilots) gone wrong … as lessons to help us fly right, a worthy objective for sure. But it’s not often enough that we can read of flights (and pilots) gone great. The reality is that most of our flying goes well, and that when it goes well, our flying is rewarding as heck.

    For all the moaning in GA publications that pilots make too many mistakes, and that our safety record is not good enough … the reality is that most pilots do fine most of the time. Certainly the proportion of pilots who are capable is much higher than the proportion of car drivers who are capable.

    We ought not lose sight of that fact, and take some pride in what we do, that most people cannot and will not ever be able to do.

    Thanks, Mark!

  • I liked the story overall, but one line jumped out at me-

    “a lot of flying has that layer of complexity that a private company would make more customer friendly.”

    What? This makes absolutely zero sense. I know it fits in the with GA culture of the FAA being the enemy (which is a personal pet-peeve of mine) but it’s ridiculous. The best comparison is to the only other industry that has large private companies with a monopoly over the services they provide- utilities. You really think dealing with the FAA and ATC is worse customer service than your cable company?
    Nonsense.

  • Tyler I actually thought the IRS comparison was an excellent one. Think IRS on the one side with its complexity and Turbo Tax and its consumer friendly nature. Think FAA on the one side and Sporty’s or King on the other. The latter examples take dry material and make it more palatable.

    • Pedro,
      You bring up a perfect example. As someone who has done their own taxes for years and used turbotax, doing them manually is very difficult and Turbotax makes it so easy. The problem with your example is- Intuit (makers of Turbotax) lobby heavily to *prevent* the IRS from making filing simpler (http://www.propublica.org/article/how-the-maker-of-turbotax-fought-free-simple-tax-filing).
      How about companies like AccuWeather that charge for weather data (much of which they get from the NWS which is paid by taxpayers) lobbying to prevent the taxpayers from accessing the NWS data directly for free? (http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=773123)

      It’s called regulatory capture. Private business basically pay legislators to keep/make government more complicated/expensive so that way they can make money off of it.
      If you don’t think similar things are happening within aviation, you’re crazy.

  • Mark:

    Good story! But I’m puzzled about the accompanying photos — the flight was in a C-182 but the panel shot is a Garminized Bonanza! Have you decided to upgrade? If so, good choice. When shopping, look for a deiced radar equipped P-Baron and you’ll be able to conduct most trips in the sunshine in the flight levels in pressurized comfort rather than bumping along at lower altitudes.

    PS: Your spouse will like it better too!

    • Keith, the pictures are not from Mark’s airplane – just representative ones to get you thinking.

      Thanks for reading.

      • Nice looking pre 1984 Bonanza John, yours?
        I loved that dual control, I lay my Jepp. chart over it, is very handy. I prefer the dual wheel to the change made in 1984 to separate control wheels.

  • Nice story. And exactly the trip you want for a first time flyer. Though as I was reading I was waiting for the Horror. Just like in the movies, when things go smooth and quiet music.

  • Thanks for a well-written and entertaining story. I’m glad that it turned out so well for all; first flights can go sideways with ease. I’ve found that limiting their durations to about a half-hour, and never being more than 10 minutes from an airport, eases first-time passengers’ feelings of imprisonment. Admittedly, things are easier now that most people have plenty of airliner flying under their belts long before they ever sit in a GA airplane for the first time. Still, my sinister objective is to get them to ask “when can we do that again?”

    Passengers’ and student pilots’ anxiety (and susceptibility to airsickness) seems to respond well to experience – mostly in the form of the number (and frequency) of flights, rather than the total exposure to flight time. Eight half-hour flights is a lot more effective than one four-hour flight, in terms of calming jitters and stomach acid.

    Did any of the other “Blockheads” ever join you in flight?

  • Great article, really illustrates what flying is: challenging, rewarding, visually pleasing but very much not for everyone. But, we should promote general aviation to make sure those that enjoy it are continually exposed to its rewards.

  • Great Article!! Many pilots forget just how amazing it is to fly! Sure, it’s “easy” once someone has some experience under their belt; however, there is a perspective on life and who we are in the world that is undeniable. Mike, the passenger, will never be the same again because of his experience. If Mike decides to take up flying as a hobby, he will be changed again!

  • It’s sad that piston powered general aviation really has such a long way to go to be truly “safe”, but with pilots like the author, you know this flight was conducted the “safest”.

  • Flying – Most fun a guy can have with his pants on …. besides driving a ‘tuned’ Austin Healy Frogeye Sprite, that is … 🙂

  • Very enjoyable, and I loved the “summary” by your friend.

    Some 34 years ago, in one of the first of the same model airplane as yours, I took my friend Nancy from Greybull, WY, to Sheridan, WY, and back–she had business there. It was less than a 25 minute flight, but it saved her a torturous drive over the icy Shell Canyon road, a 2 hour drive in good weather. I don’t know if she had any previous GA passenger experience, but all the years I’ve known her, she’s been an adventurous soul. It was snowing lightly both directions, so we’d had to shoot the ILS approach into Sheridan and later the NDB into Greybull.

    But the joy of the flight was enroute from Sheridan back to Greybull. We had just leveled off at 12,000′ direct to Greybull (pre-GPS, King RNAV), and I could tell that we were only a couple hundred feet below the tops. I called Center, asked to climb another 500′, and told Nancy to get ready for the most beautiful sight she’ll ever see. As we climbed out of the clouds, the sun was just setting over the Big Horn Mountains. We see each other every couple of years, and invariably that sight is part of our conversation.

    There is something very special about flying that “ground-bounders” will never understand–or get to see.

  • When I saw that statement that flying was “simple”, I kept expecting the story to turn into a flight gone wrong one. Instead, it was a delightful flight gone right story, and a fine one indeed. With airline pilots stalling into the ocean from 36,000 feet, hitting a seawall when too low and slow on approach, and two flights landing at the wrong airport, the piloting profession is taking hits left and right. However, the truth is, the vast majority of flights are done safely and are uneventful. Thanks for a good read.

  • Would someone share that ETA calculation mentioned at the end of the article? I could use that basic calculation. Thanks!

    • Ray…
      Aircraft current altitude: 13,000ft
      Desired Altitude: 3000ft
      Altitude to lose:10,000ft
      Descent Rate: 400ft per min (VVI)

      Altitude to lose divided by rate of descent = time to descend
      Ft/(ft/min)=min
      Therefore: 10,000/400 or 1000/40 or 100/4 = 25mins

      Anyway, I think that explains what you were asking about.

      Most pilots are interested in when (DME or distance from IAP) to start the descent. In that case ft/NM is a better gauge, where 100FPNM is a 1 degree change in pitch…60 to one rule magic.

  • The problem isn’t whether flying is easy, it’s why are prices so high to learn. Then even if you do manage to get your license, the cost each time you go up is insane.

    I took a discovery flight in 2011 and was hooked. But once someone explained the cost AFTER you get your license, I was floored.

    Flying is amazing, but only to those that can afford it.

  • This was a good article. I am of the opinion that flying isn’t simple, except for those of us born to do it. For us true pilots, the craziness is second nature.

    • Hi Christopher and Sniffit:

      Thanks for your comments and I am sorry you saw it that way. I will work hard to take this feedback and try to see my writing how others might perceive it. Certainly I do not want to come across as you perceive it, quite the opposite. I write just for the fun of it and knowing how far some people’s perceptions are to my reality takes a lot of that away.

      The story really happened exactly as written except for the end piece at the lake. I work in the insurance claims field and there is a famous quote (from the movie “Double Indemnity”) about how hard it is to be an insurance adjuster and so the article is kind of a riff on that. So the whole telling the flight story was just a set up to the paragraph about how “simple” it is.

      Since I have been flying I have noticed that there sure is a lot to do except all of the pilots I talked to kept telling me how easy it is. For sure I mimicked their actions to my buddies, but it was always tongue in cheek. Since they have now all flown with me they know how hard I work at it and how seriously I take it.

      Obviously it came across different to you and the great thing about piloting and the world in general is we all have our opinions and the freedom to express them; I sincerely thank you for yours.

      You should know – you are probably not surprised about me – that most of the articles on Air Facts are not written by professional writers, just pilots trying to tell a little story. I am such a bad writer that you missed the whole point I was trying to make: flying IS really hard. I will try to do better next time if I get the chance.

      Why don’t you write up one of your piloting experiences for Air Facts? Your strong opinions and expert knowledge I am sure would be a pleasure to read.

      Thanks for your time and comments and thanks for reading Air Facts.

      Sincerely,

      Mark Fay

      • Mark – as you’ve no doubt noted, nearly all of the comments in this thread are complimentary of your story. You have nothing to apologize for, for either your writing, or your flying.

        I will take a WAG and surmise that your two critics in the thread above aren’t actual licensed, current pilots, and by their screen names aren’t “regulars” here on Airfactsjournal.com. Most real pilots appreciate both the understatement you used in your description of the flight, and what specifically was involved in doing it well.

        Pilots make up only about 0.2% of the population here in the USA, at roughly 600,000 active pilots today. That small number is partly a result of the cost of flying that most of us routinely complain about, sure, but it’s also a lot about the relative difficulty of flying well.

        There are other hobbies and avocations that are just as expensive as flying – such as boating, auto racing or collecting or restoration, big game hunting and offshore fishing, and such come to mind – but still have many more times our population. Literally, any idiot can buy and drive a big or fast boat, or a big and fast car, and many tens of millions prove fact over and over again every day.

        That pilots do and ought to take some pride in what we do well is nothing to apologize for. Most people in life, actually, respect us for what we do. Own it.

      • Hi Mark.. Brilliant !! Not only the story but your “reply to critics”.. Both had a lovely sting-in-the-tail in the closing paragraphs. Keep on flying and keep on writing about it. Many real pilots enjoy hearing about “flights gone right” – its the reason we do it.
        Blue Skies and Tailwinds to you.
        Owen.

  • This article took me right into the sky with you! I have always loved to fly and have been dreaming of getting a sports license for a very long time. I know I can afford to get a license now, but unfortunately I won’t be able to afford the expense of buying, or renting a plane. So, I will continue to read wonderful articles like yours and pretend I am in the air, where I know I have belonged since I was a kid! Thank you again for this GREAT ARTICLE!
    PS. Found the “checklist” remark very funny. They should have one for men too!

  • Great story! I’ve read it a couple of times now (the links at the bottom of the articles sure do their job) and it never fails to make me smile.

    Taking people flying and showing them that, while intimidating at first, it can be learned one step at a time is pretty neat. That said, did Mike start flying?

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