It was a simple, declarative sentence in faded letters on a metal sign.
Learn to Fly Here.
The 14-year-old boy read that magical sign each Saturday morning as he and his father arrived at the small, rural airport near their home. He dreamt of the coming day when he, too, would be walking out to the waiting Cessna to pre-flight the airplane—touching things, nodding approval, removing tie-downs and chocks, climbing up to check fuel… Someday he would be the one yelling “Clear!” from the window and then firing up that machine to taxi away from the ramp and then into the sky, transforming itself from a cumbersome, wheeled vehicle into a statement of grace in flight. His Dad would be waiting for him to return, perhaps nervously; proud as he returned to the ramp one step closer to joining the exclusive society of Pilots. Airmen. Aviators. Inhabitants of dimly lit, mysterious rooms called the “Pilot’s Lounge.”
Learn to Fly Here.
I was not that kid.
The 48-year-old man with the mortgage and payments for cars, tuition, insurances and all the rest, driving away from another customer meeting, toward yet another customer meeting, read the sign, written in faded blue letters on a rusting white background, and found himself reaching with his left hand for the turn signal lever. Parked in front of a slightly down-on-its-luck-looking building, with a door marked “Office,” he wondered aloud, “What am I doing?” Why are there airplanes off to one corner, in various states of disassembly, some wingless and broken?
Youthful plans and dreams that once had fueled ample ambition had become muted—spent on college, marriage, kids, career, kids, career, education, promotions… the grind. He regretted none of those things and did not feel sorry for himself. But he was keenly aware that some things were left undone. Opening that “Office” door seemed to be the least practical thing he should do at that moment. He pulled on that impractical door and stepped into a new domain. Those present, engaged in what seemed to be important tasks, looked over at the newcomer for a moment, judged him to be a wide-eyed beginner, and then carried on with their work. Some were peering at computer screens full of maps and numbers, others were intently measuring distances on maps, and still others were just drinking coffee and engaging in important pilot discussion. There was a counter with a glass display case with headsets, books, maps, and hats. A young man behind the counter was handing a clipboard with a key attached to a teenaged girl. The young man looked up at the him and asked, “can I help you?”
His wife wouldn’t understand. His friends wouldn’t understand. His waiting customer would wonder where he was. This was for him. This was going to be his own. He was doing it.
Learn to Fly Here.
I am not that guy.
I’m the other guy. At the age of 57, I started my training for the Private Pilot certificate. Again.
Writing about flying airplanes is certainly not a novel idea and I doubt it can be done any better than Richard Collins did it; his columns and the book Stick and Rudder by Wolfgang Langewiesche have been critical to my developing knowledge of airmanship. There are magazines and newsletters and blogs dedicated to aviation. The writing in many of these publications fills a much-needed void but there are a few that are first rate, informative, and entertaining and among them Air Facts Journal is exemplary because its words are of, for, and by us—the grizzled stick and rudder flyers and rank beginners alike—die-hard seat-of-the-pants flyers and techno-savvy youngsters, each and all galvanized by the art and promise of flight.
This is my story. It is being written in real-time as I go through the process of becoming a pilot.
Like most hangar and pilot’s lounge talk, the preceding sentence is only mostly true. The truth is that I thought about starting this writing project when I started taking lessons. That was 265 hours of flying ago and I’ve just begun writing from the notes I’ve made along the way.
My infatuation with airplanes began when I was 17. My father bought a brand-new Mooney 201. It was a 1977 model, tail number 201FJ. I remember my first ride in that airplane as though it were yesterday. Pittsburgh’s KAGC was under high, gray skies as usual but that didn’t diminish my feelings of excitement and wonder. I don’t recall where we went that day or why, but I do recall the smell of the hangar and of the cabin of that plane, and its impossible array of gauges and instruments. My dad explained some of them and others remained a mystery.
A few years later, a used Bell 206B JetRanger was purchased. A foreman and I poured a rectangular concrete pad and covered part of it with a military style Quonset hut on the grounds of the family business. My Dad would land the helicopter on the pad and shut down. I would then secure the aircraft and use a tow bar to lift and push the machine into the hut.
I never flew either aircraft back then, but I flew in them. The general aviation hook was firmly set.
I made two faltering attempts to obey the declaration of that faded, painted metal sign. Each attempt yielded a cheesy flight bag and books, an E6B and plotter, and a few hours of instruction. Life had other plans for my immediate future. There were a variety of shenanigans and misadventures, more than a few romances, and life rolled on.
My career required countless moves around our great country. And later, having cashed out of the business I had started and gone all in on a technology startup, my travels broadened. Seven years commuting monthly to Berlin followed by another six years commuting monthly to Budapest brought me home to the Midwest. Nearly 5 million miles on commercial airliners and 1,000 nights in hotels ranging from opulent to “just try not to touch anything” left me in a state of not wanting to fly commercial again. Ever.
My business travel for the past five years has been almost entirely domestic. Our customers tend to be within 800 miles of home. I Googled airplane charters. It didn’t take long to discover that if it burned Jet-A, we couldn’t afford it. It seemed that no one ran a charter operation with a piston twin. Except one guy. That simplified the decision process.
After a first successful sales trip in a well-used and somewhat threadbare Cessna 310 with two of us as passengers, a second soon followed. I signed up for instruction and learned that we could save a few bucks by using a 182RG and taking the time as dual instruction. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the fearless colleagues who went along on those early trips when the ball was only occasionally centered, and approaches were rarely stable. The 182 made for slow going and some very long days and I was unhappy with the condition of the airplanes. I began to feel that another solution was needed.
An acquaintance introduced me to a man who had a leasing operation. The result was that after working out lease arrangements I was soon logging hours in the right seat of a Cessna 310 and a Cessna 421, flying our business trips with retired airline pilots and controllers, a young pilot who flew antique, radial engine airplanes in Alaska during the season, plus one unique pilot—also the owner of the airplanes—who nearly defies description. Imagine a man in his late sixties who, with a unique blend of southern-accented charm and rascality, tells a nearly continuous stream of hilarious and often instructive stories. He also happens to be the best stick and rudder man anyone at the airport has ever met and I’d fly with him any day.
When the pilot I’m flying with is a CFI, I log the time as instruction. Otherwise I log the time, but not as instruction. And I can report that I have logged some interesting time and encountered situations and events—most of which propel me no further toward checking off the boxes required for my private pilot certificate—but that I am convinced make me a more proficient and safer pilot.
Taking off into IMC with moderate turbulence in class B airspace only to have all radio function fail? Check. Cabin filling with smoke on a night flight in IMC? Check. Temporarily losing an engine while switching from mains to aux tanks? Check. Twice. Asking for VFR on top (as an alternative to center’s instruction to descend) only to be advised again to descend into known icing conditions and refusing to do so? Check (that was fun—the retired controller I was flying with taught me a lot about dealing with ATC). Requesting and being granted a block of altitude to work around buildups and then flying through holes and between layers that seemed to be tailor made for that 310? Check, an enthusiastic, hell yes, there’s nothing better than this, CHECK.
There have also been hours of uneventful, gorgeous-weather flight during which the various pilots with whom I fly graciously and unselfishly help me learn what they know. They’ve renamed me “George” as I hand fly the trips with the autopilot decidedly switched off. I am grateful for these pilots and for their many thousands of hours of logged time in everything from balloons and Super Cubs to Boeing airliners. When I can use the autopilot to drink some of the coffee I’ve brought or finally eat whatever snack I can find in the bottom of my flight bag, I’ve come to expect the man in the left seat to pull the power on an engine or switch off an alternator. Are these FAA-approved training techniques? I really don’t know. But I do know that being drilled in this way will make me a better, safer pilot and I am aware of just how fortunate I am.
Not all my experiences flying have been positive. I try to learn something from every situation, but sometimes the lesson has not been worth the risk. Having a CFI fall sound asleep on a cross-country flight when I’d had less than two hours of instruction, and making the peculiar decision to not wake him up? Flying on to our home airport trying to thread our way between two cells with heavy hail in them? Taking off at night in heavy rain after a long day, brashly assuring the pilot in the left seat that “I have this”? (I didn’t). These mistakes and situations made indelible impressions on me and underscored the wisdom of the lessons, reading, and training I had done. Those corny jokes and mnemonics of John and Martha King have become constants in my mind, and I will be forever grateful for them.
Fear packs a significant motivational punch. Climbing out after takeoff on that cold, rainy and turbulent night and feeling spatial disorientation take over my brain, thinking LEFT! and realizing my hands and feet somehow heard RIGHT!, staring at the altimeter and being uncertain as to what it was telling me? “Your Airplane!” I said.
“My airplane,” came back the response, in a maddeningly calm voice.
“I was wondering when you were going to make that decision.” Picking up ice as we descended to cross the VOR at 4,000, punching the button for the de-ice boots only to have exactly nothing happen? Check. The tail of that 310 felt like it simply quit flying just as we made the runway.
Learn to fly here. Indeed.
Almost all my time has been IFR, though much of it has been in VMC. It’s second nature now to take off, stay under the class B, and call approach to pick up our IFR to wherever we are headed that day. I like the extra safety that comes with those outstanding men and women of ATC providing separation services, being handed off from approach, to center, and so on. But, there are good reasons why this is not how the FAA wants us to learn to fly. Until recently, I’ve been decidedly uncomfortable flying VFR. My pilotage skills required a lot of work.
Landings were the monster that I had allowed to live in my mind’s closet. And landing the light, high wing 172 is different than landing the heavier twins. Once the runway is made, and the airplane is configured properly, chopping the power in the heavier twin airplane reliably establishes a nice, predictable sinking onto the runway (At least that is how it feels to me). It seems that the 172 wants to fly, and fly, and fly and, in my case at least, float along, teasing the runway. I had allowed the landing bogeyman into my head, and it would end up taking the patient skills of a 30-year veteran CFI to knock it out.
With my written test successfully behind me, I knew that the only thing remaining for me to do is just go fly a small airplane with a good CFI and check off the remaining boxes. The problem was simple: time. Managing the day-to-day of a manufacturing business, together with being the “sales” guy, makes for a full schedule. The usual way of learning to fly—two times a week at the local flight school—is an inefficient use of time. Thirty minutes to the field, sign in and pre-flight eats another 20 minutes, fly for an hour, secure the plane and debrief with the instructor, back to work, and there you have three hours of the day used, with a third of that time being the commute to and from the field.
So, is it any wonder that when my business travel puts me in the right seat of a very nice airplane and I’m asked, “Do you want to fly today?” my answer is an enthusiastic yes?
But I have found a way to devote the time required, and through complete good fortune I found a veteran instructor with the patience of Job who helped me evict the landing bogeyman and signed me off for solo flight. Even though I have 30+ hours of IMC logged and signed off by a CFII, I still need to log 0.6 hours more of “flight training in a single engine airplane solely by reference to instruments.”
My oral exam and check ride draw near. I’ll let you know how it went.