How flying saved my life

To be honest, flying didn’t really save my life. It did, however, make me a better person, dad, husband and surgeon. Unlike many who grew up dreaming to fly, I didn’t start in aviation until I was 30. I never really thought that it was a possibility for me to become a pilot. This all changed with a free hamburger at a hangar at a small airport.

I grew up looking at airplanes and airports as “hands-off” type of places. Much like visiting a museum, you can look but don’t you dare touch. Only those with special security clearances and badges attached to their outermost garment were allowed beyond the tall, barbed-wire fences. In order to enter an airplane, one must be stripped, searched and violated. The cockpit is a high security zone for which a steel door separates the pilots from the passengers. Curiosity at the controls and avionics behind the steel door is deemed suspicious and subject to interrogation.

Pietenpol Air Camper
A Pietenpol is one way to make sure flying stays fun.

My first experience at a small airport flew in the face of what I thought about pilots, airplanes and airports. I found myself surrounded by pilots, standing in a hangar, surrounded by airplanes that I was encouraged to touch. Encouraged to walk around, sit in, ask questions about and to my surprise, take a ride in. The best part about my first airplane ride is we didn’t ask anybody if we could do it. We never filed a flight plan, we didn’t call the FAA for permission, we didn’t even have a radio. My first small airplane ride was in the plane that I would do my first 40 hours of primary flight training; a homebuilt, open-cockpit Pietenpol Aircamper.

This first event was one of many that I would go on to attend. The weekly Friday meeting was called “Hangin’ at the Hangar” or “HATH” by the local EAA chapter that sponsored it. It was at this meeting where I would also meet my flight instructor and mentor, who offered to teach me how to fly basically for free. In exchange for every hour of flying that we did, I owed the chapter one hour of work. This work was everything from mowing around the hangar and the grass strip to picking up the shop and cleaning the airplane. The fee to rent the Pietenpol with an instructor was $30 an hour. Keep in mind this wasn’t 30 years ago – this was in 2013.

Learning to fly is and has been the most frustrating and difficult thing that I have ever done. Nothing that you have ever done translates to flying skills. Just because you can drive a car has nothing to do with flying an airplane.

My first lessons were spent just trying to get that stubborn taildragger to the runway without veering side to side like a drunk monkey. This experience was amplified by watching one of my fellow students who was starting at the same time I was. For someone like me who had played college athletics, graduated medical school and was in a surgical residency, it was pretty difficult and awfully humbling to watch a 15-year old girl without a driver’s license excel while I seemingly couldn’t get it.

I kept plugging away one hour at a time. I did my cross country flights with no electrical system, no radio, just a whiskey compass and a map. My instructor, who I consider a mentor, didn’t teach me how to get a pilot’s license, he taught me how to fly an airplane. He taught me how to fly stick and rudder and how to land on grass. The most incredible feeling in the world is a forward slip in the Pietenpol on a warm Ohio summer evening.

Inspecting car
You know you’re a pilot when you start doing a preflight on your car.

While learning to fly, I also learned how to change the oil, change a tire (which always seemed to go flat when I was flying), rivet, weld, and a host of other skills. I also learned the importance of knuckleheads. Knuckleheads are those guys who always seem to just be hanging around the airport talking about aviation. I learned more ground school material from just being at the airport than I did from any book or instructional course.

I found myself applying what I was learning about flying to my daily life. I found myself using checklists before surgery and during ICU rounds. I started preflighting the car before road trips. I was surrounded by pilots who loved to teach and were passionate about flying. If a 30,000-hour airline pilot can take me under his wing and teach me about flying, then I could certainly take the time to mentor a high school student about a career in medicine.

The point that I am making is that learning to fly made me a better person. It challenged me to do things I never thought possible and exposed me to a culture that is so important to our existence. I was incredibly lucky to have taken up that offer to go get a hamburger at the airport.

17 Comments

  • Great post. I am of the mind that having a driver’s licence is more of an impediment to flight training as there are a lot of car-habits which are counterproductive when flying.

    • Several years ago, I had an interesting conversation with the surgeon at OHSU who identified and corrected my spinal problems. He has a reputation among the staff as being the best of the best, his patients having uniformly superior results, with very short recovery periods, and with little post-operative pain.
      I asked him why I had so little pain during my recovery. He explained that one thing that he did was to tease the muscles apart and work between them, instead of cutting through them. Later in the conversation, in response to my questions, he stated that OHSU had done a comparison study of similar operating teams in an attempt to determine why he obtained statistically superior results. He said all they found was that the atmosphere in his operating suite was always quiet, calm, and collected, with classical music in the background. I think he is just exceptionally lucky (that place where through preparation and continuing education meets opportunity).

      We discussed him having witnessed unnecessary death several times in other’s operating suites. Panic, excitement, and lack of continual education and preparation have no place in an operating room or a cockpit. Panic later.

      He would make a great pilot.

  • Great Story. The best thing about aviation is the people. Thank you for the added motivation to work on my Pietenpol project.

  • Very nice story. When you start making real money (out of residency) be sure to buy a plane, it’s the next step in aviation love :/)

  • Interesting perspective: Kind of flies in the face of the current thought that all GA needs to get new people is slick plastic airplanes equipped with computers and parachutes. The only thing more antique than a Pietenpol that you could have used for training would have been a Curtiss Jenny.

    Curious though: what was the arrangement for “renting” the Piet? Was it a chapter aircraft owned by all the members?

  • Andrew, well told. I was an endocrinologist full into my research career when I took up flying, but in retrospect it provided me with many benefits similar to yours. Learning to cope with my anxiety about lifting my soft tissues a mile above the ground and with the many things one has to learn to fly well and “in the system” was a tremendous exercise of will, mind, and muscle memory. I’ll never regret a moment or a dollar spent in aviation. Best wishes to you for several decades of safe, happy flying and many new friends at the hangar. Oh, yes, and to echo Liad, when you can, get your own airplane.

  • Wonderful post! It brought to mind Patricia Benner’s 1984 seminal work, From Novice To Expert. Benner compared the learning experiences of nurses and pilots, and how they became proficient. Skill acquisition, judgement, and experiential learning are all discussed. It won’t surprise you that pilots, RNs (and by extension MD/DOs), have lot in common during their respective learning curves.

    Thank you for sharing your story with us!

  • This is the best story ever! $30 and hour and 2013!!!!!!! How is this not everywhere. I am paying $200 in a Cessna 172 built in 1976. To be fair it had a refurbished interior. While i have a good career there was no way I could maintain this monthly expense in the NYC market.

  • Me too, Mort.

    Back in 1951 I paid $11.50 dual and $8.00 solo in Trig’s Champ, (part l4l) flight school while working as ‘line-boy’, grass cutter, stacking the hangar, gassing planes and apprentice mechanic. Total cost for the 35 hrs and ten minutes= $310.00. I was a teller at the local bank making $30. for the 40 hr work week ……took a pay cut, to $20./wk for a 60 hour work week at the airport. (Hated shelling out cash at the ‘window’ while the trees were coming out of their winter-time slumber, birds chirping, etc. You get the picture.

    The ‘cheapest’ flt. time I ever had was in EAA Chapter 60s Corben Baby Ace, Bethlehem, PA, first chapter project completed. (I’ve been a lifetime member of EAA since 1960. best 300 bucks I ever spent.) The 65 HP Lycoming burned 4 GPH, at 25 cents/ gal = one buck per flight hr. plus a buck to the Chapter. I flew the Baby Ace from eastern PA to Rockford, Ill, (EAA moved to Oshkosh in 1970) both in 1960 and 1961. (Low ‘n slow as the cars on the Ohio turnpike were creeping ahead of me!)

    Then in 1968 after 4 yrs. and 5,000 man-hrs. build time, from ‘scratch’, finally flew my Cont. 225 hp aerobatic (D’apuzzo designed) two holler PJ-260. Mine, (N112JF) was awarded “first runner-up” to it’s Grand Champion sister ship, Tom Lucky’s N4030Q. These burned 10 gph and about 45 cents/ gal., 135 mph cruise. But…the big plus was that I’d do the annual inspection, call the FAA to approve my work and I’m good to go for another year. I remember one year, the only discrepancy was a spark plug with cracked porcelain…. 6 bucks for the new ‘plug’, fresh oil change and filter…..it doesn’t get any ‘cheaper than this! Wife Mary, whom I taught to fly back in 1956, also flew solo (primary) aerobatics in the PJ.

    Great memories of my 15,300 hours in ‘the biz’. Low-n-slow, former DPE.. jim

  • Nicely said. Along similar lines of thought, the Naval Air Training Command used to have signs on both sides of airfield gates: driving in the sign read, “Stop Driving. Start Flying!” when exiting it admonished, “Stop Flying. Start Driving!”

  • Nice perspective. I did it backwards. Taught and flew power lines until VN war wound down, for Ross and then Doss Aviation for Army and then AF. Then Medical school and residency before private practice in 1980. Lots of similarities and good lessons. Keep going.

  • I couldn’t agree more flying is an incredible thing. I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to fly and lessons learned flying for the world. BTW that girl was actually 16 and I’m pretty sure she was struggling just as much or more then yourself, Andrew.

  • Very nice article Andrew. I remember driving that 15 year old girl to the airport many times. I loved every minute (and all the hours) I got to hang out at the airport with everyone. A very interesting group. BTW that girl is now at the U.S. Naval Academy. Go Navy!

  • One of the critical things in flying is staying ahead of the airplane especially when things go bad. The laws of physics dictate. It’s not something you have complete control over all the time. Understand limits and stay inside them is the key. Having one or two ways out will keep you alive. A little luck helps too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *