When I began my pilot training back home in Anchorage, Alaska, I had no idea that life and work would take me far from home within a few short months of that first flight.
I grew up immersed in the sound and culture of airplanes, not within the four walls of my own home, but deeply ingrained in the Alaskan culture that enveloped my childhood. Long summer days of nearly endless light were constantly filled with the humming sound of single engine props flying above, in and out of Merrill Field, back and forth from Lake Hood Seaplane Base. Float planes and taildraggers, planes on skis and even the occasional low-wing variety; planes were everywhere and to this day, nothing is more comforting and reminiscent of home than the familiar, welcome buzz of small aircraft engines above.
In March 2013, I finally worked up the courage to put my money where my heart was, and started pilot training. Learning to fly out of Lake Hood Strip (Z41) in Anchorage was a great way to kick off flight training. To start, I learned on a 2200 ft. long, 75 ft. wide gravel strip surrounded on three sides by tall birch trees. At Lake Hood strip, every takeoff and landing was short and soft – no simulation necessary! Clearing a 50 ft. obstacle? Necessary every time.
And don’t get me started on the weather. I had weather drilled into my head by my instructor both in the air, and on the ground, over and over and over. I learned to read the meteorological charts probably as well as the local news meteorologist. After all, the weather is fast changing and unpredictable up north and you get a weather briefing every time, no exceptions.
I learned about the importance of filing flight plans for search and rescue and had friends whose relatives were recovered after small aircraft crashes because rescuers knew where to start looking. I had several more friends with relatives who never made it home after their unfortunate crashes. Flying in Alaska taught me to respect the art, the beauty, and the wonder that are all available to us through and by these wonderful little aircraft.
Then came some bad news. A career change. An unavoidable move out of Alaska. And all this during my crucial final stages of flight school, but there was no time to wait.
Determined to finish what I started and be airborne, I reluctantly searched for flight schools in southern California. Luckily for me, I found the Long Beach Flying Club at Long Beach Airport (LGB) and the wonderful staff there. With the rare exception of perhaps the pre- and post- checklists, flying in the Los Angeles basin was nothing like flying back home in Alaska.
I still remember my first flight out of Daugherty Field in early 2014. I hadn’t flown in about six months and was going to have to make up a lot of lost knowledge and recurrent training. I got in the little Cessna 152 ready to taxi out of my tie-down spot when my instructor went over the clearance, taxiway and take-off radio frequency procedures. “You have to do all that?” I asked, now frightened with the deluge of radio frequencies, requests and read back procedures. Rarely did I make a radio call on my home strip, and it was usually only for takeoff and airspace entry clearance to land. You could go an entire flight pretty regularly and not run into a single other aircraft or need to talk to any controller.
I nervously contacted clearance and got clearance instructions, then switched to ground for my taxi instructions and permission before anxiously releasing the brake pedals to taxi out onto taxiway foxtrot to runway 25L for takeoff. There were so many taxiways, so much communicating and so much traffic! After run-up, we taxied to the hold short position and got ready to switch frequencies from ground to tower for clearance to take off. I was concentrating so hard on not butchering the clearance I had just received and repeated back, that I almost missed my flight instructor’s question.
“Say again, please?” I prompted. Maybe I had missed something important.
“Do you want to do a short or a soft field takeoff?” he asked again.
I stared at him like a deer in headlights. What the hell was a soft or a short field takeoff? I had no idea what he was talking about. My look must’ve explained as much because he responded that for our first lesson why didn’t we just “stick to a normal takeoff.”
“Perfect,” thought I. “I know what a normal takeoff is!” And I proceeded to put the flaps down 10 degrees, feet off the brakes and stick full back as we rolled out onto the runway in a smooth continuous movement on that glorious paved asphalt. Throttle full in and moments later we were wheels up with more runway to spare than I had seen in all my flying previously. We were up!
“That was a great soft field, by the way,” my instructor said as we climbed up to the practice area.
“Thanks,” I said. That night when I went home I pulled out my aircraft maneuvers book and flipped to short and soft field takeoffs. I wanted to understand what my instructor meant back in the cockpit. My confusion stemmed from terminology and not the maneuvers themselves. I simply assumed that every takeoff and landing was performed the way that I learned in Alaska, never realizing that learning on a short, gravel field had taught me the maneuvers expertly.
Completing my flight training at Long Beach Airport undoubtedly made me a better pilot. I got very comfortable and efficient at radio communications, clearances and fast frequency changes thanks to the highly compact airspace of southern California. Speaking of airspace: holy learning-curve, Batman! Flying in the Los Angeles basin, operating in and out of a Class D airport within the Class B LAX Mode C veil only strengthened my ability to navigate and understand airspace. It’s complicated and crowded and as a pilot you must remain ever vigilant about where you are and not inadvertently busting through someone’s airspace.
Undoubtedly learning to fly in these two extremely different regions has made me a far more experienced pilot than training in one alone would’ve provided me. Weather was almost never an issue in California, but I sure learned about the effects of density altitude in ways I’d never experienced in Alaska. Off-airport landings and gravel takeoffs are common enough in Alaska, but I sure learned the value of understanding Air Traffic Control procedures and complex airspace flying through the Lower 48. If you’ve only ever flown out of one geographic area, I highly encourage you to stretch yourself and try some training flights somewhere totally new.
I put this theory to the test again when I began my graduate research work at NASA last fall. I’ve never flown on the East Coast, nor lived here, so I had to challenge my brain again to learn the local topography, waypoints and highways for dead reckoning and one more challenge: the Washington, DC SFRA. All these different areas offer different challenges and opportunities for us to become better pilots. We are acclimatized to broader conditions than the sometimes myopic “way things are done” at our home airports and we stretch our brains to make new synoptic connections.
Schedule a ride-along with an instructor at a local FBO on your next vacation or connect with a local pilot’s group and see if someone will go up with you. Learn from the locals and add to your own aeronautical knowledge. Being exposed to more learning will only ever help us and our aviatrix brothers and sisters in the skies be safer, smarter and more adaptable pilots.