Fitting in flying around a busy life – and learning a lesson

As a student pilot, the ups and downs of the learning cycle can be as exhilarating as your first flight or as frustrating as bad weather on a day you really wanted to fly. On one particular day after not flying for a few months, I had my first “I can’t believe I did that!” moment. I had asked my instructor to go on a “no stress, fun flight” which basically meant I needed to escape my life responsibilities for an afternoon and do something just for me. I missed being in the air, but did not feel like any particular “lesson to be learned” that day. My flight instructor and I usually had an objective before each lesson that I wanted to work on or learn more about, but over the past few months I had a lot going on in my life, didn’t feel like studying and this day I just wanted to be up in the sky!

Developing my love for the sky began as a little girl flying with my father, Walter Pilarski Jr. Watching him endlessly checking the weather, listening to him call in his flight plans and writing in his logbook always fascinated me. A part of me always wanted to learn, as it was thrilling when he would let my sisters and me take a hold of the yoke, but part of me doubted my ability to achieve. I did not pursue flying as a youth and, as the years passed, my father flew less and less as many of his friends gave up flying due to their age. I hated seeing that, but never thought I could do anything about it.

Stearmin
A ride in a Stearman is a good way to spark interest in flying.

My interest in flying was re-inspired as an adult in 2011 when vacationing in West Virginia with my son; we saw an ad to go on an aerobatic flight with a pilot named Christian Kappler who owns a business (Wild Blue Adventure Company) flying people in the New River Gorge area. I had always watched in awe the “loop-ty loops” as my Mother called them, in airshows my whole life. I knew I just had to do this! If flying in a fully restored World War II Stearman biplane wasn’t cool enough, going upside down in one definitely was! I had so much fun I said to myself, “I want to do this too!” The day I got home from that vacation I contacted a local FBO and set up my first flight lesson at Buffalo Airfield, which was close to my home at the time. Every time I drove by the sign that said “Learn to fly here” I was tempted to call but never did… until now.

My first lesson was cancelled due to weather with low clouds and poor visibility and I learned then the disappointment that comes when anticipating a flight. But 10 years after a horrible day in our nation’s history, I made Sept 11th a good day to remember for myself. That was the first entry in my log book: 9-11-11 Cessna 172 6538F, 9G0 Local, Intro Flight, Preflt Check lists, taxi, S&L, turns, climbs, descents, trim, Thomas W. Bell ATP/CFI. I was able to average about two lessons a month due to my life schedule and pocketbook. I didn’t care about how fast it would take me to get there, just that I had fun along the way. Tom was always patient with me and my schedule and gave me a solid foundation to later build on.

I had kept my lessons a secret from my friends and family as sometimes it’s nice to have a little something just for you in this world, but took both my mother and father on a flight with my first instructor, just hours before loading up my moving van when I relocated to Charleston, South Carolina. It was a perfect clear, calm day and they were both surprised when I showed them what I had been up to!

After moving to the Charleston area of South Carolina in 2012, I had some adventures with a few flight instructors at a couple different FBOs, but it wasn’t until I was volunteering at a Young Eagles rally in Walterboro, South Carolina, when I met a pilot there who gave me the name of his former flight instructor and told me he was the best. He described him as one of the most patient, knowledgeable and safest pilots he had ever flow with. He described his passion for aviation as second to none. Those were all the qualities I was looking for. I had my first lesson with William Finn on April 24, 2015, in a Cessna 150. When I showed my dad a picture of my “new flight instructor,” he said, “I can tell already, he’s a good one!” I asked, “How?” and he said because he looks “experienced.” When I told Bill that, he chuckled and said, “Does that mean your dad thinks I look old?”

Now being a single mom, full-time dental hygienist, religious education instructor, member of our church’s finance council, secretary of the Lowcountry Flying Club, assistant Scout master with the Boy Scouts and neighborhood yoga mentor, I’m pulled in many directions. Sometimes I have lulls in life where I have more time to fly and other times months go by in a blink and flying isn’t an option. I was proud to solo in 2016 and finally take (and pass, of course) the dreaded written exam in 2017. Now that my son is graduating high school this year and will have his Eagle Scout requirements behind him, I may have some more free time to complete my training. I’m hoping that when we return from Scotland from an International Scout Jamborette this summer, it will be my time to fly!

Cessna throttle
Don’t be in a hurry to pull knobs…

So back to my “no stress, fun flight” experience, where lessons are always to be learned!

Isn’t it funny how we learn best when not expecting to, while having fun and by our mistakes? (I guess that’s what makes the teenage years so fun, too.) Well, after a great flight, from Berkley County Airport to North Myrtle Beach, with ideal weather conditions, where all my landmarks were found, my calculations were spot on and the part I dreaded most (communicating with air traffic controllers – as it makes me nervous) all was done with confidence and ease, I made my mistake.

After receiving clearance, I entered the pattern and then was in key positon and instead of applying carb heat in the little Cessna 150, I pulled the throttle and cut the power! Whoops! Thank goodness for flight instructors with quick reflexes and lots of patience with student pilots. Before I even realized what I did, he swiftly pushed in the throttle and simply smiled and stated, “That’s not the carb heat,” with a smile on his face. How embarrassing and humbling at the same time! Of all the things I beat myself up over struggling to learn, that was a mistake I never in a million years thought was even possible to make!

Lesson learned: Anything can happen at any time anywhere and under any circumstances. Even routine things you’ve done a hundred times can be forgotten if you’re rusty!

5 Comments

  • Wendy,

    Thank you for taking me for a walk down memory lane in your 150.

    We owned a 150 for many years and despite its limitations (perhaps because of them) the airplane provided us with a lifetime of adventures.

    I wouldn’t be too upset about pulling the throttle instead of carb heat. Some of us have pulled the mixture control.

  • Wendy,
    I respect your self-awareness and ability to put flying into the right place in your busy, giving life. Recreational or sport flying is supposed to be fun, after all, and you seem to have found the right formula for you. I wish you many years of continued enjoyable involvement with aviation. You seem to be someone any of us would be pleased to have in our lives.

  • Wendy,

    I enjoyed your story very much. I got my license at age 62, now turning 72 in September. On my latest day of flying to multiple airports, at one I set full flaps after turning final, but somehow bumped the control lever and ended up with them retracting as I approached for touchdown. Needless to say I had to keep the speed up upon landing. In our C150 I can’t see the flap indicator on the windscreen pillar when setting in the left seat, and I was concentrating on the landing so much I didn’t look at the flaps. My fellow pilot in the right seat informed me of the flap position after we were down. This wasn’t the first time I’ve made errors, but fortunately each time I’ve corrrcted quickly. Recent time in the saddle makes a difference.

  • Wendy,

    Thank you for your openness. I am 54 and want to start that life long goal of flying. I really enjoyed your article. My daughter is living in Charleston, SC to go to grad school. Beautiful area to fly over. I hope to learn as much as I can to avoid the mishaps, but as you say you could not have imagined making. Thanks again.

  • Hi Wendy,

    Enjoyed your article. Found some of myself there 🙂 I’m in about the same place in my training. I’m learning in the Citabria, where the carb heat and elevator trim are close together. Guess what I’ve done (more than once)? 🙂

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