Staying alive: the merits of multi-state training

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.

Anchorage from the air
Anchorage, where airplanes are a way of life.

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.

Alaska pass from air
Weather is a critical consideration for a student pilot in Alaska.

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.

Pacific Coast Highway from air
The scenery changed after a move to California, but flying is still flying.

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.

Checkride complete
Private pilot checkride complete!

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.

9 Comments

  • Awesome post Jill – I did all of my private pilot training in Alaska, soled at Birchwood (PABV) , and did my checkride with the legendary Heidi Ruess out of the Lake Hood Strip. Learning to fly in Alaska brought so many challenges and unique opportunities that lower 48 pilots don’t get to experience. I live in Fort Worth TX now and it definitely is a different world when it comes to flying!

    • Hi Josh,

      Heidi was my flight instructor!

      She is such a great person, in fact — I loved her so much and there was so much respect for her within the flying community up in Alaska I write an article about her in Alaska Magazine a few years back when I started flight training with her (and Rick, her son).
      http://www.theduchessguide.com/alaska-2/writing-alaska/

      Yes, I imagine Texas is much different. Weather was obviously a big issue back home in Alaska but I suspect you deal with a lot more thunderstorms down in Texas — a unique weather phenomena!

      Jill

  • Great post. REALLY liked your celebratory jump photo. Kudos all around. I strongly agree that flying is vastly different in every part of the north American continent. When I travel for business or pleasure I like to hook up with a CFI and do one or more of the FAA Wings flight credits. It’s a great way to see the world from a very different perspective, learn about local Wx and ATC issues, AND have a great time talking aviation during a break in my schedule. Next such stop will be the east coast of FL, followed by upstate VT this summer. Thanks again for the great story and useful suggestions.

    • John,
      That’s so great! And wonderful idea on the FAA Wings Flight Credits, hadn’t thought of utilizing that but further incentive to try some new territory with a local CFI. Thanks for the comment.
      Jill

  • I’m envious of your “weather” differences. DownUnder we have… cool, hot, and Very Hot.. And most of Oz is the same topographically… vast and flat. Only the coastal strip on the East is ‘interesting’…

    If you want another challenge, try a radically different class / type of airplane and flying-style…

    I’m broadening my horizons by trying out GA, aerobatic ‘planes. – It’s as much fun as it is instructive, – and the experience is already making me a better LSA pilot.. 🙂

    • Hi Jim,
      I couldn’t agree more. I got to take my first stint as a passenger in the back of T6 Texan over the holiday break (I think the UK/Oz nomenclature is the Harvard) to my absolute delight. It’s one of my absolute favorite planes so to ride in an old WWII bird was incredible enough, but then on top of that, the pilot talked me through a few aerobatic maneuvers and got to do my first loop and barrel roll. I thought I’d be terrified, but I was thrilled. I think more aerobatics are in my future! Have fun flying in Oz – great country and much like Alaska, lots of open uninhabited bush flying (although to your point, quite different weather!).
      Cheers!
      Jill

  • Jill
    Great article. I live in rural SE Oregon but commute frequently to work at NASA Ames and Armstrong in my C182. I’ve also flown it to Alaska 3 times and am hoping to go again this simmer.

    I’m actually semi-retired from NASA but am still working on the Flight Opportunities Program (it’s on the NASA web site). I’m curious about your UAS work. We are having some problems with recent FAA changes in UAS regulations. I’d appreciate hearing from you on that topic.

    Regards and best wishes for safe flying in the lower 48.

  • Hi Bruce,
    I think we’re all having troubles with sUAS FAA regs 😉
    I’m only half kidding. What specific questions do you have, or issues? My regulation knowledge is primarily around 333 Exemptions and the forthcoming Part 107 regs (and only the small UAS – nothing over 55 lbs,).
    Happy to help if I’m able. I work on the UAS Operations Team at Langley and am the only Jill Brown, so feel free to shoot me an email and I’ll see if I can answer any questions. My mother lives in Salem and my little brother lives in Eugene, I know that’s more central west coast of Oregon, but regardless, it’s a beautiful state you’re living in (and flying in!).
    Jill

  • Thanks for a great article, Jill. I, too, learned to fly in Alaska. The difference in our careers is that I earned most of my now 22,000 hours as an Alaska bush pilot and professional hunter. And I share your anticipation about flying in high-density areas . . .

    My first flight into LAX was a night flight from Lake Tahoe, a very eye-opening flight. I was flying a Cessna 180 on small wheels (always a necessary explanation when flying in Alaska). While crossing the Los Angeles Hills just south of Edwards AFB, I got my first glimpse of Los Angeles and the absolute sea of lights. I just couldn’t imagine why so many people would flock together in such a small area! And when LAX Approach asked me to report the Four Stacks, I was absolutely speechless. When I admitted that I was new to the LAX neck of the woods, Approach told me to look up at my 10-o’clock and report what I saw. I told the controller that I could see a Super D Constellation on a descent. He told me to “Follow the Connie.”

    I very soon saw the four red and white chimneys, reported that, and was told to contact Burbank. The rest was academic, but I still wonder why so very many people crowd into such a small geographic area . . .

    Thanks for sharing your story.

Comments are closed.