Piper takeoff
6 min read

Growth over comfort. I’m not sure when I learned that phrase or where I heard it, but it completely sums up my experiences of becoming a pilot. I certainly was not comfortable the first time that small plane rose off the runway. I was not comfortable the first time I heard that stall horn blare, and I certainly was not comfortable the first time I turned final and my instructor said, “Your airplane.” So I guess that means I must be growing.

My grandfather was a pilot and I wanted to fly airplanes as long as I can remember. The first time I saw Top Gun and the first time my family visited the Wright Brothers Memorial in North Carolina were important moments for me and my growth. I always told myself that one day I would take lessons and get my license. I talked and dreamed so long about the trips I would take and the places I would go that before I knew it I was almost 40. Would I ever actually become a pilot?

My wife and I were expecting our first son when it occurred to me that the dream of flying was not just mine, but somehow it was his. Did he want a father who talked about dreams and accomplishments or did he want one who actually delivered? I quite impulsively signed up for ground school at my local airport. It was one week before my son was due. My wife was nervous, but she very supportively told me I had her blessing. We had previous conversations about how important a dream this was for me. It also carried extra importance now. It was a great life lesson I could teach my son about hard work, discipline, and how sometimes the most growth in life takes place when we step out of our comfort zone.

Holding baby

Welcome to being uncomfortable…

I’d never, ever held a baby in my life until the day my son was born. I think I was more terrified about actually holding a newborn than I was about being a father. When the nurse asked if I wanted to hold him, I told her that I was a little nervous and overwhelmed. I wanted to wait a little until things settled down and then I would hold my son. The seasoned nurse proceeded to completely ignore me and after swaddling my boy, she plopped him right in my arms. Well, maybe it felt like she plopped him. I’m sure it was much more delicate than that. I was scared and uncomfortable and I have several pictures to corroborate that fact. But I had grown a little. It was only a few short hours later that I was swaddling, changing diapers and putting him in clothes like a pro.

About three weeks after my son was born, my wife, my son, Cash, and I were at the airport to take my first flight. I had almost finished ground school and purchased books and some small items of equipment and I was ready to go. It was a drizzly, overcast day, but the CFI had assured me that we were still able to fly VFR. The ceiling was thousands of feet high and it would not be a problem to fly that day. I was just proud that I knew what VFR meant. I was in ground school after all and well on my way to becoming a pilot.

Then I had just a sudden fleeting thought. It came and went within seconds. But it was there. What if I didn’t enjoy the flight? I dismissed it. Of course I would enjoy it. In fact, the CFI may even tell me I just executed the greatest first flight in all of aviation history. Yeah, that’s probably what would happen. We continued on with the introductory lesson.

We talked about the basic principles of flight and the controls. I tried to interject any knowledge I had at that point to let the CFI know I wasn’t the average student. I really knew what I was doing. Besides, how many pilots has this guy come across whose grandfather was a pilot? Not many, I bet. I really enjoyed the preflight and was excited to get moving.

After completing our run-up, we taxied the Piper to the runway. I moved the throttle forward and we bombed on down the concrete. I’ll never forget the feeling of lifting away from the ground and breaking the bounds of gravity. Complete and utter terror. I remember squeezing the yoke while screaming inside my head, “HIGH ENOUGH! HIGH ENOUGH! TOO HIGH, TOO HIGH!”

Piper takeoff

Is this moment exciting – or terrifying?

Before we even exited the pattern, all I could think of was how I was never interested in flying again. How I had spent/wasted all this money on ground school and flight books, flight bag and fancy instruments from the fun online catalog I poured over for hours.

I thought about how all I wanted was to make it back to solid ground and have breakfast with my family. “How ya doin’?” the CFI asked. “I’m good. This is nice.” Good? Nice? What was I thinking? This is an insane death mission only for psychotics who want to die.

Please, God, let me survive this.

“Loosen your grip on the yoke,” he said. “Fly with just a few fingers. A light grip.” I loosened up a bit as sweat was literally dripping from my hands onto my pants. The whole flight lasted about 30 minutes even though it felt like it lasted 30 hours. But as we were climbing and descending, turning left and turning right, something happened. I started to feel calmer and a little more comfortable. I thought that maybe I could do this. Maybe with hard work and persistence I could be a pilot. Maybe I could show my son that his rapidly aging father was pretty cool. That his dad could be a pilot. Maybe my son could see that he could be whatever he wanted. That by growing, we can accomplish anything we set our mind to. By getting out of our comfort zone, we could grow the most.

I did stick with flying. I can’t even remember how many flights it took me to stop feeling really uncomfortable beforehand. Then I just felt, a little uncomfortable. I grow every time I climb into that small, cramped cabin and take off down the runway for another hour. I have a little over 20 hours at the point of this writing and I can’t wait to add some more. Even if I feel a little uncomfortable about it. I know that I’m growing as a person.

Jerry Ziegler
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9 replies
  1. Joe
    Joe says:

    Good story. I know a guy who at some point in his USAF pilot training looked over at the CFI and wondered “What in the world am I doing here!?” Time passed. Flying became good. You’ll see.

  2. Michael Hayes
    Michael Hayes says:

    Great story, really hit home for me. I’m nearing the end of private pilot training and my first child is due in 3 months. I had many of the same thoughts you did. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Kent Colgan
    Kent Colgan says:

    I’m 57 and just started flight training this summer so by comparison you’re way ahead of the game. You’ve described my initial experiences and feelings very well. Thanks for sharing.

  4. JS
    JS says:

    My first solo was a couple months ago. I panic, too, usually at night. Then when I realize there is no pressure, no mandatory timeline, I tell myself it’s not flying I want to stop, it’s the panic I want to stop. When fear gets bad, I tell myself that even if I just go up with a CFI every week for the rest of my life, what’s wrong with that? That calms me right down, enough to want to fly the plane again. :-)

  5. Steve
    Steve says:

    Jerry what you went through is not unusual. You are experiencing the realization of the great magnitude of what you are doing. I have 400 hours now and am still a newby in the grand scheme of things. At first you will feel that flutter of anxiety in the pit of your stomach. As you continue to progress it will go away . You will always be cautious but you will be relaxed. What you are doing only other pilots understand. It’s a way of life. Good luck

  6. LR
    LR says:

    Great article, Jerry. I also can totally relate to what you are saying; experienced a lot of that myself. One step at a time my friend!

  7. Ben
    Ben says:

    Jerry, great story! I had EXACTLY the same feelings and hesitation. You discribed the thoughts and feeling I had after my first flight to a T. I agree with you and the other commenters it gets more comfortable as the hours pile on. I think a little hesitation is a good thing. It keeps us safe. Keep flying….it’s an accomplishment only about %0.2 of us have earned.

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