Learning to fly: a serendipitous journey

Flying – there is not a single thing on this earth that has stolen my heart and brought me more joy and satisfaction than this single word has. That, however, was not always the case.

I was nine years old when my grandfather contracted cancer. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this event would change my life in more than one way. Up to this point, my only memory of flying was one in which I was fighting to clear my ears on a flight back in 2001, just a few months before the fateful events of September 11. It was my discovery of these events that caused me to grow fearful of flying. I became so afraid that I distinctly remember telling my parents somewhere between the age of five and nine that we would drive wherever we needed to go, so long as we didn’t take an airplane. Now, however, that was not an option.

MD-82 takeoff
Love at first flight.

Nerves weighed me down as my parents and I made the trek down the jetway to board the MD-82 aircraft operated by American Airlines. Like glue, the nerves stuck with me for the entirety of the taxi to the runway and continued well into the takeoff roll. It was only when we rotated that they finally melted away, and this was simply because something mystical had happened: we became unstuck from the earth and climbed skyward. If it wasn’t for this memory, I wouldn’t think that love at first sight, or in this case flight, is even possible. But in that instant, I fell in love. It’s as if all of the worries and cares of the world were too heavy to stay aloft with me in the skies, instead staying on the ground as I ascended further and further away from them. That was it. I was hooked.

Once my family and I returned home from that trip, I had it set in my mind that I was going to be a pilot. I simply had to be. All that was left to do was tell my parents of my new-found plans. Their possible reactions never crossed my mind as I prepared to tell them, though today I am made to understand it somehow is not always a positive one.

Fortunately for me, they were both more than understanding. Much like myself, my dad had also been bitten by the aviation bug and had even taken a few flying lessons himself back when he was a young officer in the United States Air Force. He was very active in flying flight simulators on his computer around the time my interest was piqued, so my first request was for him to teach me.

He went about teaching me how to fly the flight simulator of which I had so many memories of him flying most evenings upon his return from work. He took me to aviation museums while I went about reading every book I could find on the subject of aircraft and how they worked. Airplane models lay everywhere in my room, and I spent many an hour dreaming about being a pilot, drawing pictures of that American Airlines MD-82 on which I had become captivated with flying, and waiting for the opportunity to fly an airplane. From the time I was nine to the time I was 15, all I had were these dreams and whatever imagination could dream up of what it would be like to fly an airplane.

I will never forget the day that I no longer had to wonder.

Flight simulator
A flight simulator can keep the fire burning in between lessons.

My father and I were standing on the observation platform at that aviation museum he had been taking me to for years. I turned to my dad and casually asked him a question I had asked him many times before: “When can I start learning to fly?” I expected the usual answer of “a few years from now,” but not this time. He said, “Let’s go take a look at some flight schools.”

It took me a little while to absorb what I had heard. Even as we got in the truck to drive to the other side of the airfield, I was having difficulty fathoming what was happening. We walked into the first flight school we came across and upon entering the door, it was evident that this would be the place. After receiving some information from the receptionist, we set up a discovery flight with an instructor who had been standing close by and jumped in to answer questions. The morning of the flight came, and I met the flight instructor who would go on to be my instructor throughout the entirety of the long process of obtaining my private pilot’s license.

For most, it’s smooth sailing from here on out; they get the required hours, receive their private pilot’s license, and go on to add the instrument rating, commercial pilot’s license, flight instructor rating, etc. For me, however, it wasn’t so simple. To begin with, I flew only about once a month for the first year of my training, which caused me to endure an extraordinarily long and frustrating learning plateau.

Once I was finally able to ramp up the training, I went to get my medical certificate which, to my dismay, was kicked over to Oklahoma City by the medical examiner, and ultimately came back with a request for more information. It turns out they took issue with some medications I had been on at the time of the examination. After getting off all of the medications, and three more years of back and forth, I finally received the medical clearing the way for me to solo.

That wasn’t the smoothest process either. It turns out the medical, which had been mailed to me, did not have the student pilot’s certificate on the back of it. This problem was rather easily remedied by having a designated pilot examiner come out to issue it and, once he did, I was ready to solo.

I arrived at the airport the day I was supposed to solo, but as I went out to the airplane, I noticed something odd. I looked out the window of the terminal and noticed that the maintenance it was receiving on the nose wheel to re-pressurize the oleo strut was taking slightly longer than expected. By the time it was finally completed, any hopes of a solo had been scrubbed and I hopped into the plane with my instructor feeling slightly dejected.

Solo picture
Solo – finally!

Finally, the stars aligned. I looked at the severely blue skies, took note of the windsock hanging lifelessly on the pole, and marveled at the fact that I was the only plane in the pattern. I still look back on that day wondering how I was lucky enough to have those perfect conditions for my first solo­. In the end, it was well worth the wait!

After the solos came the checkride. I arrived at the airport early, met my instructor to make sure my documentation was in order and sat through the oral portion, which I thankfully passed. I made my way out to the airplane to preflight, still feeling a bit nervous from the oral. It quickly became clear, however, that the weather was not going to permit me to complete my checkride that day.

This luck with the weather continued as it was December in California and the rain was there to stay. Finally, after eight more cancellations and having to repeat the oral portion since I had relocated to Florida for college, I finally passed the checkride. As I turned off the runway, I heard my examiner say the best sentence I have ever heard in my life: “Taxi us safely to the tie downs and you’ll be the world’s newest private pilot.”

I have never had such a large smile on my face, and I can assure you that it didn’t leave there for quite some time after that.

Occasionally I will look back on the whole process and think about just how lucky I am to have had everything finally align so perfectly. Initially, however, I thought myself to be rather unlucky. After talking to some former airline and military pilots, I have found that obstacles like these are much more common than one would think. Now, entering my junior year of college, I hear other students expressing the same frustration with how they are progressing.

It is different for everyone. A student will arrive at college and embark down a road to a degree and find they do not like it as much as they thought, or that college isn’t all they thought it would be. They find their plans and situations are rapidly changing and morphing into something they had never hoped or planned for, their expectations are not met, results are nowhere to be seen, and they find themselves feeling as though they are lost and at the mercy of the winds with little to no control.

Learning curve
Those plateaus are normal, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t frustrating.

I must admit that, to this day, I still occasionally feel frustrated as I track my seemingly sluggish progress through the college curriculum or through the different ratings I hope to earn. Now, however, when I start to feel this frustration and get discouraged, I simply look back how beautifully everything has fallen into place. My plans never materialized when or how I wanted them to, but up to this point, they have always materialized.

I started out as a boy who was scared to death of flying and ended up falling in love with it while going to see a sick grandfather who, coincidentally, had once been a private pilot and aircraft mechanic in the Navy. The years of memories I had of my dad flying the flight simulator turned into years of memories I have of him teaching me to fly the flight simulator. That museum I was at the day my dad and I ventured over to the flight schools across the field is the museum I have been volunteering at for the past five years. One of the volunteers I work with and go flying with turned out to be a Young Eagles pilot of mine back when I was still dreaming of flight and its possibilities.

There are many names for such instances of luck and happenstance: fate, destiny, whatever you want to call it. The word that happens to come to my mind is serendipity.

Life truly does have a funny way of making all of the cogs mesh at the exact right moment. However, it’s up to us to work as long and hard as we can until that moment arrives. Every twist in the path and bump in the road, though frustrating and disorienting, exists to ensure that we are on the right path. As long as we have the courage and persistence to continue, the very road that proved to be so disheartening throughout the journey will deliver us exactly where we want to be.

So, as you go down the road of this serendipitous journey known as life, just remember: no matter how impossible or far away your dreams of flight seem now, if you are so immensely passionate about that dream that you can’t imagine life without it, you will find a way to make it a reality.

Keep on flying!

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Young Pilots Writer’s Challenge, where we hear from young pilots about learning to fly and the joys of aviation. If you or a young pilot you know has a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

2 Comments

  • Brian, well told, thank you. As you said, bumps, thumps, delays, and gray days are many pilots’ experience of primary training. The operative word is “persevere.”

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