Discovery flight at 16, Private Pilot at 17

For my 16th birthday, my father thought it would be a great idea to gift me a discovery flight at the local flight center. When the day of the discovery flight came, I was all but nervous. Blue skies, not much wind, and a chilly day. From the moment the wheels left the ground in that Cessna 172 Skyhawk, I knew that one day I wanted to be able to do this. However, I was left with the heavy burden of reality: where do I even start to obtain this dream and more importantly, how will I be able to finance this?

Fast forward a year and two months, and I had just completed my first solo after only 11.8 hours in my logbook, and a week and a half since my first flight lesson. The day of my solo will stick with me forever. My flight instructor had told me two days prior that any lesson now I could solo; we were just waiting for a perfect day.

Zach in airplane
An empty right seat? Let’s go for it.

At last, the perfect day had come. Blue skies, no clouds, five-knot wind blowing right down the runway. A picture perfect flying day for any pilot. My instructor wanted to go up with me in the pattern and perform a few touch and goes to make sure I hadn’t forgotten everything I had ever learned up to this point. After two touch and goes, he told me to let the controller know that we would be making a full stop on this one.

“Bloomington tower, Warrior 2937R is midfield left downwind for runway 29, full stop.”

The controller quickly said back, “Warrior 2937R, runway 29, cleared to land.” I executed my final landing with my instructor before it was time to head out on my own. While taxiing back to the hangar where I’d drop my instructor off, not much was said other than he was ready to let me solo. Upon arrival at the hangar, I idled the plane, and my instructor said a few words over the intercom that will always stick with me. “Be safe, but most importantly, have fun.”

With that, he took off his Bose A20s and hopped out the door, only to leave me alone in the plane. Reality hit the second I turned the plane around to go back to the run-up area to receive my taxi clearance. I looked over to my right and saw no one sitting in the right seat. Instantly, muscle memory kicked in. I knew everything I had do to safely execute this short flight in the pattern. I called up ground, and let them know that this was a student pilot, with hopes that they would help me out a little bit had my readbacks not been correct or I left out a piece of information they needed.

After taxiing the 1979 Piper Warrior II down three different taxiways, I arrived at the hold short markings for runway 29. I took a step back to take a breath, and calm myself. I called up the tower, and was cleared for takeoff. I turned onto that runway and was announcing everything that I was doing. I applied full throttle: “airspeed is alive, gauges are in the green, and rotate at 55.”

Before I knew it, that little plane was climbing into the air, and I was the only one piloting it. All the thoughts of my being solo were behind me; I knew that I had to land this plane no matter what, and it was up to me and only me to do so.

After turning onto the crosswind leg, and eventually turning downwind, I reported to the controllers that I was midfield left downwind for runway 29. I was told to extend my downwind and that they would tell me when to turn for that left base. This was something that I had yet to encounter in my short aviation career, however, I did as told and just continued flying my downwind.

After I was about two miles away from the airport, I was cleared to turn on that left base and was told that they extended my downwind due to airliner traffic. Tower asked me to report when I had the traffic in sight. My eyes immediately looked out to my left, looking for a large jet on final for runway 29. After about 10 seconds of scanning, I had the traffic in sight and let the controllers know.

I then heard the dreaded call (at least for a student pilot on his first solo): “Warrior 2937R, runway 29, cleared to land, caution wake turbulence.” I knew that because of this wake turbulence, I was required to land past where the jet had just landed. I reconfigured for my now higher glide path and established myself on a long final.

It was at this point where I just focused all of my attention on two things: the sight picture I had established of the runway ahead, and my airspeed indicator. I was pitching for exactly 63 knots, and I wanted to land at that exact speed. When the runway was slowly getting closer and closer, I realized just how real this was; there was no room for error, as this is reality, not a simulator. I continued on my higher-than-normal glidepath, established with full flaps, holding the centerline, and a perfect 63 knots. I felt no wake turbulence, which was an indication to me that I had landed over where the jet had.

As the runway got closer and closer, I pulled the throttle back to idle and flared. I held it off and continued to do so, all while trying to hold centerline with the use of the rudder. Finally, the plane came down from the air, and I touched down just to the right of the centerline. Instantly, I raised the flaps and applied full throttle to take off again. I repeated these same steps for my next two landings and eventually made my way back to the hangar, where my instructor was waiting with a big smile on his face.

I parked the plane, pulled the throttle back to idle, turned off the avionics, and cut off the mixture and the engine stopped. My instructor instantly came running up to the plane, opened the door and congratulated me. I had completed my very first, and last solo, and was now one step closer to becoming a private pilot.

Checkride
Even 22 knots of wind can’t stop a checkride!

A short three weeks later, and a month into flying lessons, I am sitting with 38.2 hours, with my checkride coming up quickly. Aviation has brought more to me than I could ever imagine, and I am beyond grateful to be able to be one of the people known as a pilot. In my short aviation career, I have experienced so many cool experiences I would have never dreamed of. For the next three weeks, studying is going to be my main priority in preparation for my checkride!

Checkride experience:

Overall the check ride went well. I was with my DPE from 8:30 to 3:30, and the whole thing was a positive experience. I had a very windy day to do my check ride, winds gusting to 22 knots! However, I knew I could do it, and really wanted to get it over with, so I made the decision to fly. Everything went as expected, and the whole flight was 1.8 hours. Upon landing, I parked the plane and my DPE said he was going to go inside while I wrap everything up, however, he hadn’t said a word about me passing or failing. I put the plane away and went inside. I caught a glance of what he was doing, and saw the words “temporary certificate” at the top, and became ecstatic on the inside. We debriefed the flight and he gave me my temporary certificate.

9 Comments

    • I did have a lot of financial help from my parents, however I did put a few thousand dollars into the license my self. I was very fortunate to be able to have parents who were willing to make that financial investment, however the funds did not come 100% from them.

  • Good on ya son!! You remind me of myself. I am now 74 years old with 24,000 hours total.. I have loved every minute of it. It gladdens my heart to read about kids suich as yourself. GOOD LUCK!

  • Another way to finance a flying career *: Do your first 18 years on a Minnesota farm with no indoor plumbing, first 6 years in a one-room country school with no plumbing, go US Air Force after high school and then discover the G.I. Bill pays 90% after the Private license (early 1970’s). So pump avgas and wash planes for that and the 10% plus living expenses.
    * 43 years and 22,000+ hours, FBO owning up to 7 planes, ATP-Lear for 8 years, KingAir corporate for 19 years. SO: GO FOR IT!!!!………But that was back then; adapt for ‘now’.

  • Zach, congratulations on your license. Do you have a road to an airline job charted yet? Will you try for military training first, or will you enroll in a big flight program – say, Perdue or some other university? The airlines are still kind of “members only” when it comes to union activities and check airmen; to some degree, anyway… So, graduating from a good college is still important. Being able to actually fly the airplane is only a small part of being an airline pilot. A very small part. As a matter of fact, at most airlines, the very last process you go through before being hired is flying the simulator. (Except at America West Airlines. That was the first thing you did when you walked onto the property. It was easy to screw up that scenario. And if you did you didn’t get hired – no matter how good you smelled after jogging 5 miles…) Social skills and worldly knowledge, along with ‘people skills’ are just as important, if not more so. As an airline pilot, you will be in the customer service business; you will not be in the airplane business. I would suggest, also, that you complete a portion of your commercial training – several hours anyway – in a physically exhausted state. Stay up all day and night, then go flying. That’s what you will be doing at an airline; You’d better get used to that part of it… Learn to deal with sleep deprivation. Also, learn to – if you haven’t already – humble yourself and take orders from sixty different people about doing the same tasks sixty different ways – all contrary to what the flight manual says. Each captain is different and likes to do things HIS way only. Just don’t let the SOBs kill you. Learn to eat when and where you can. Remember, always call the hotel when you land at your layover destination, and find out where the shuttle van pickup location is. That’s the toughest thing about airline flying: Where in the $%(^*$@!! is the van to the hotel!!? If you get married and have children, be prepared to spend most Thanksgivings and Christmases – along with birthdays, graduations, games, recitals, etc, etc, away from your family. That will happen to you too. It’s just part of it. Remember: seniority is everything! The sooner you get hired the more holidays you’ll spend in the long run with those whom you love. I’m in my last year with the airline. I’ll retire in less than eleven months. It sounds (from reading the above) as though I resent my career. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve enjoyed MOST minutes of it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Every time I get my hands on that 757 I get confirmation that I made the right career choice. (Of course, the money helps, too…) Zach, go for it. Embrace it. Learn to enjoy every minute of every day as an airline pilot – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    • Thank you so much for your lengthy reply. I appreciate having an insight on the airlines from someone who is there themselves. I do play to attend a 141 university and have decided that that university will be Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL.

  • Congratulations. I would love to ride with you sometime. I am in Central Illinois for Fairbury IL. I love to go up in August and look at the crops. I have flown commercial out of Bloomington many times. I love to fly in small planes too. Good luck on your Aviation career.

    • Thank you! I am based out of Bloomington, IL so we aren’t too far apart! Flying commercial out of Bloomington is SO nice especially in comparison to O’Hare, Midway, etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *