We’ve all got our stories as to how we got into general aviation. This is mine. I just started a bit later. OK – a LOT later than most. OK – virtually later than all other folks I have since met who fly. I was 56 when I started my flying instruction and 57 when I passed my licensing check ride. The key is, it doesn’t matter when or how you started – what matters is that you stuck with it and finished. Even if you’re starting a lot later than just about everyone else.
I’d always been fascinated with airplanes. As a young boy growing up near Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, seeing the Vietnam-Cold War era fighters and transports constantly going in and out, the whole notion of flying was stuck in my brain. But, by the 9th grade, glasses on my nose, I knew that becoming one of those guys was just not in the cards.
At college I decided being a Cadet would be fun, and did the extra coursework to earn my Army commission, eventually becoming an infantry officer. From 1979-1987, military transports and Army helicopters were my method of going up, landing, and sometimes parachuting out as an Airborne Infantryman. Still, I looked at those guys who got to drive and wondered about becoming one of them; maybe a medical wavier for the glasses on my nose? But it still wasn’t in the cards.
My army stint came to a close and I still had the bug, now for general aviation – all I needed was the time, money, and opportunity to achieve that goal, that dream, of piloting an airplane. I was pretty sure that when the time was right, it would happen. It didn’t: all the usual excuses of work, kids, and other priorities – for the next twenty years. I mean, it’ll happen, right? Hang in there, it’ll come. So I did – and the years became decades and my feet were still on the ground.
Fast forward to October of 2015. I was at a GA airport to meet some executives flying in for a company meeting. The airport had a small restaurant for the hundred dollar hamburger crowd and several retired folks were there who wanted to show off their planes that were parked on the grass apron. I had some time and I looked at their planes and they told me how long they’d been flying, from 20 to 45 years. They obviously loved what they did. That evening I made a frank appraisal of my situation and all my excuses to that point with a conclusion I could no longer ignore: I wanted to be like them and that meant I needed to create the opportunity and go to it – quit expecting it to come to me.
Six months later, at the end of April, accompanied by my wife, all my ground school and manuals digested, dissected, and memorized, we arrived at First Landings Aviation (FLA) in Apopka, Florida. We were living in Chicago and looked at flight school options there, but none met our criteria and winter weather was not a desirable prospect if we could avoid it. I’d researched for a place that had full-time immersion instruction available with a first-class facility, comfortable weather, and a good reputation. After a few calls to the FLA staff and aligning a couple of weeks’ vacation for the two of us, we finalized our plan. It was finally in the cards.
For me, that first Monday – 2.1 hours of flying! Yet, what was I thinking? The cabin was small, you bounced around in the winds, and that runway came up awfully fast for landings, where exactly was I if something went wrong, and there was so much to know! I’m not saying I was thinking of quitting after the first day – it wasn’t scary or anything – it just wasn’t what I expected and it was a wee bit intimidating. OK, a lot intimidating.
We were flying a Tecnam P2004 Bravo with a six-pack as a trainer. Nimble, forgiving, but still daunting to a guy in his late 50s who had a highly experienced 22-year old as his instructor pilot. My wife wasn’t really sure if she’d like it, had not done much of the pre-work despite my insistence, but her first hour in the air had her totally hooked! As the week progressed things became less intimidating, even enjoyable, as basic maneuvers were mastered and the ability to understand and respond to cockpit information improved. Weather and winds didn’t let us fly all of our allotted slots, but we got in a good ten hours that first week. You know, I might be able to do this!
The following Monday things were clicking. The instructor pilot and I were approaching Apopka from Leesburg airport where we’d been doing touch and go’s. My instructor said, “The crosswinds are going to be a little hairy, you do the set up and I’ll take it once we’re on final.” It was our third training flight of the day. The prior Monday, when the instructor suggested he could talk me through my first landing, I’d looked at him and asked if he was crazy. Now, a week later I looked at him and told him he was definitely crazy, “I had this!” And, with him ghosting on the controls, I did.
At the end of our two weeks, the weather went bad for the back half of the week and my initial goal for that trip, to solo, couldn’t happen. I’d passed my FAA written and I was ready, but it wasn’t in the cards. Our upcoming work schedules – and less than comfortable central Florida summer weather – would mean no return visits to Apopka until fall. No problem: there was a flying club at the Racine, Wisconsin, airport, a little over an hour from our home in Chicago. We could keep stirring the pot there until we got back to Florida, so we did. Different aircraft type, instructor, and flying environment. The key was that we wanted to really do this now. “Do it,” which, initially really meant “Try it,” now definitely meant DO IT. Complete the training and get the license.
It took a couple of more trips to Florida that fall to solo, finish all the training requirements, and get ready to test. But getting it done before the end of the year was not going to happen: a couple of maintenance and weather issues didn’t align with work and travel back and forth from Chicago, so my wife and I continued to stir the pot at Racine.
The key is persistence. Finally, in March of 2017, eleven months from when we started this journey, we were back in Apopka for a four-day weekend with the goal of passing that check ride. It was a tad windy, but I was out of time to get it done before we had to fly back to Chicago the next day. The oral and practical exam were deservedly high pressure, but I passed: I was now a licensed pilot.
A new, old pilot of 57, soon to be 58! For those considering doing this – be you 14 or 80 – there is no more amazing a feeling of satisfaction than having that FAA inspector tell you those magic words: You passed. You can now legally fly yourself and your passengers in an airplane wherever the limitations of your license and ratings allow.
So that’s my story. My wife still has a bit to do to finish her license, but she will. Later that spring of 2016, we purchased our first plane, full of all the modern Garmin avionics and other cool stuff that we then had to be taught how to use. Some 300 hours (I don’t think in “years” anymore) later we are cruising across the country as the weather allows, enjoying our plane, and simply the sheer joy of flying. And still learning. A lot of pilots have flown a lot of years to get to 60: I made it in less than three. I guess it was in the cards.