Editor’s Note: This is the first article in our recently-announced Summer Writing Challenge. We asked young pilots (16-24) to share their stories about learning to fly, and we’ve heard from several already. If you or a young pilot you know has a story to tell, email us at: [email protected]
With my friends and family circled around the table at my seventh birthday party in early June, I closed my eyes in front of flickering candles and wished with all my might, “I wish I could fly.” Granted, at that moment I was hoping to flap my arms and levitate from my seat, but I spent the following years of my life aspiring to do the next best thing.
Not long after, on one hot summer afternoon, I pulled the blinds shut as I gazed upon E.T. The Extra Terrestrial soaring over the moon on an old VHS tape. Exhilarated, I rummaged through the garage, and taped a 14-foot wing to my mountain bike, which yielded limited results.
Each following summer, on Father’s Day in June, our local grass strip airport, Marcellus Airport (NK71), would host a fly-in breakfast, where all the local Cub pilots would taildrag in for all-you-can-eat blueberry pancakes. Each June, my flying passion increased as experimental ultralights, small singles, and even remote-control aircraft buzzed around the airport. My family and I made this breakfast a tradition; each trip to the airport captivated me, as its runways perched expectantly over our town in the valley below.
Shortly after I graduated college, I splurged on a discovery flight over Chicago, Illinois, in a Cessna 172. Such an exhilarating 30-minute ride made my piloting dream seem real; it was an experience that would fuel me through the hurdles, expenses, and challenges of my impending flight training. It was then I arrived at my ultimate flying goal: I vowed that I was going to fly myself back home to Marcellus, New York, and land on the grass strip that had started it all. If only I had then known the path leading back home would be anything but smooth.
The following year, my stomach knotted and my heart sank when my Aeronautical Medical Examiner looked me in the eyes to say, “You cannot be a pilot.” A drug I had been prescribed in college disqualified me from holding a medical certificate. He completed the exam to find I was otherwise eligible. I could not accept this fate; my skyward yearning was too strong to ignore, but little did I know that overturning this FAA denial would become my lengthiest and most challenging endeavor to date.
All through grade school, I was a modest student. Conversely, with my pilot’s license on the line, I had never researched as thoroughly as when I scoured the Internet for solutions to circumvent the regulations. I searched aviation blogs, personal testimonies, and FAA databases to find a way to prove I was worthy of flying privileges. The aviation community was supportive; they knew the same desire. After months of letters, phone calls and referrals, I found the answers I was looking for: to be considered safe for flying, I had to perform a battery of psychological tests, administered by a clinical psychologist, whose final report would be submitted to the FAA for review. The entire process was slated to take upwards of six months and cost thousands of dollars.
I didn’t then have the resources to dedicate to hours of testing. I called on every friend and colleague to help connect me with an affordable clinical psychologist. A family member suggested I ask a university psychology program for help. Sure enough, the University of Illinois-Chicago offered services on sliding-scale fees. I was one step closer to the skies!
The battery of testing was rigorous and ranged from comprehensive IQ tests to emotional/personality inventories to countless attention draining “games.” (I lightheartedly called them “games” at the time to remind myself that each challenge was, in fact, inching me towards my ticket.)
In total, the testing took nearly 25 hours, and even more on the part of the clinical psychologists who compiled my data and formulated the reports. I will never forget people who helped me through this process; I shared with them my challenges to become a pilot, and at each testing facility, friendly, smiling people were ready to help me compile documents, fax results, and submit paperwork. Finally, after months of work and one heavy postage envelope, my fate lay in the hands of the FAA.
It was then I began my flight training. Without a medical certificate (Class 3/Student Pilot) I was still permitted to fly dual with an instructor, so I flew each and every chance I could. Studying for my pilot’s license was different than any studying I had done before. Each page, each video, each simulator session brought me closer to landing on that grass strip back home. I would talk airplanes with anyone who would listen, and soon built up a queue of passengers-to-be. I built a simulator in my living room, where I’d model the forecast conditions, weight and balance, and traffic of the morning when I would land at our Father’s Day fly in.
Returning home one chilly Chicago afternoon, it came. After 90 days of FAA deliberation, I opened a nondescript envelope that greeted me, “Dear Airman, above is your new medical certificate.” I immediately phoned my flight instructor, booked the plane, and shot into the air solo with a now-much-lighter Skyhawk. The remainder of my training breezed by. I had already invested hundreds of hours in my simulator, practicing online, watching and re-watching training videos in anticipation; I passed my private checkride with 41 hours.
On my birthday last year, (which happened to fall on Father’s Day), I flew my dad to his hometown airport from our pancake-breakfast grass strip. His parents met us there, along with several RC airplanes buzzing overhead. He used to ride his bike to this field as a boy; the hangar butted against a once-booming hamburger stand. I’ll never forget that day, which united three generations over a couple of grass runways. Even more, it was a day that honored the people who helped me along the way to realizing my dream. It’s because of them, that even when I fly by myself, I never fly alone.