Learning to fly the wrong way—and loving every minute of it

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.”

LTFH
A simple sign, but a powerful invitation.

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.

Mooney
The general aviation hook was set years ago, thanks to a Mooney 201.

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.

Cloud dodging
Flying around build-ups in a 310 isn’t on the Private Pilot ACS, but it’s great experience.

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.

View over water
Views like this make the long days worth it.

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.

25 Comments

  • Thank you for this article this morning. It caught my attention as I begin to pack my flight bag to head to the airport for my second flying lesson in the plane (ground school and written exam are complete). The first few paragraphs resonated because I have wanted to fly since I was 10 but now at 44 I look back at a full and joyful life this far that has not let me tackle this particular childhood fantasy. This year is my year. Fair winds and clear skies!

    • Love it! Have a good flight!
      I began lessons at 43 toward my childhood goal of flying airplanes.) I’m now 46 and am taking it slowly, because life happens. Enjoy the process!

  • Hang in there. You’re using the airplanes productively and learning at the same time. What’s not to like about that?

    What’s next, after the license? Get a house on a runway and park the airplane 50 yards from your back door. The only downside is wishing you had done that twenty years ago.

  • Fantastic article! I really enjoyed reading your stories, there is certainly no such thing as too much experience. Whether you hold a license or not, reading this shows me you are in every sense a pilot. Good luck with that last step and safe travels!

  • Jim,
    Thanks for the article. I feel as if your my twin in training, and your from the “burg”. I hope you are enjoying it as much as I am. Sure seems that way!
    Cheers,
    Ed

  • Congratulations on discovering the benefits of business aviation. My business for years has been as a corporate pilot and most often my bosses who previously eschewed an aircraft came to find out that their business now cannot live without one. My two most recent bosses built companies from scratch with revenue north of $100M.

    I encourage you to finish your ratings and then in pursuit of your business interests, operate your aircraft with a two person crew; you and a trusted copilot. Your good sense and intelligence have built your successful business. Your are probably very involved during your business trips with intense non-aviation discussions and meetings. It would be great to cap those days off with the distraction of a quick flight home. The copilots only job should be to insure that those are as safe as possible. Best of luck.

  • Appreciated your story this morning! Love that you’re learning on your own terms and making it happen. Sounds like you’ve learned some valuable lessons that few “new private pilots” get! Best of luck on your check ride.
    I have mine in February, one month shy of my 57th birthday!

  • Great story! I too started late at 59! Like Jim, didn’t do “it” in the traditional way. Bought a PA 22/20 on floats, logged 35+ hours then lakes in Alaska froze. What then, switch to conventional gear to continue in a tail wheel ( short coupled they said? , I guess since didn’t know anything else). Did I mention, 20 degrees and colder? First solo flying around Talkeetna, AK was awesome. When finally flew a c172 XP to complete night requirement year later (AK has year exemption) got high performance, all this after ASEL and ASES. Oh, I second Jim’s comment about the c172! Wouldn’t come down at all the way my pacer does!! Now on to IFR.

  • I was happy to learn that there was another 57 yo student pilot out there working towards his check out ride. Thanks for sharing!

  • Fun read. You’re never too “young” to start flying, though be assured you’ve got the retirement account to support your dream. I’m 71 next month with 135 hours in a Diamond-20 (too much plane for me), a 172, and now a 152 (now, that’s my plane! Slow and docile.) Checkride scheduled for April. Loving every minute. As I was told: when over 60, it takes longer and costs more. I’m here to verify that both are true. I don’t intend to bet the richest man in the cemetery; my son is understanding. After I get my license, I have no idea what’s next. Rent? Buy? LLC? We shall see. What keeps me going is that “wheels of the ground feeling.”

  • I’ve found a kindred spirit! My 1st logbook entries are from 1978 and I came back to learn to fly in 2019 – 41 years later at 69 years old. Many of my hours as a student have been devoted to exorcising the landing bogeyman. It is said that when it’s all over we regret most of all those things we didnt do. Congrats on following your muse!

  • Sometimes the hardest art f flying is finding a good instructor. If my instructor would have fallen asleep on me, I would have had to determine whether or not a c-172 could go verticle.
    Yes, they can but only for a short time.

  • Loved the musings! Got my ticket after 4 yrs of off-and-on instruction at age 62. Now age 73 and not having flown for over a year, I am anxiously awaiting my next flight sure to come in the next 2 months. Am one of 15 members of a flying club that owns a C150. Price is right and friends make it fun. I would block out more hours at a time for getting yourself prepared. You’d be better off working extra hours one day and take the next full day to get to the airport and fly several hours. Same time, but more efficient. Good luck on getting your ticket!

  • Great story and very well written (a page taken from the writing gurus mentioned). I await your next installment of your next success.

  • Great stories, great storyteller. Your article resonated with many of us, I’m sure; certainly with me! Best wishes on your check ride; I expect you will find it to be an anti-climax.

  • Jim, a well written article that struck close to home. I was 63 when I started 4 years ago, so you are still young! Enjoy the ride.

  • This is such a wonderful article! It’s never too late! Life was happening so I’m over 3 years into my training. I began flight training at age 43. I’m now 46 and have my long XC remaining so I can schedule checkride. In fact, I’m about to begin my navlog to complete XC from Apple Valley, CA to Jean, NV tomorrow!! Your story inspires me. Thank you and best of luck to you and our fellow aviators here!

  • A similar story shared by many of us. Had to put it off until 50 when my wife gave me flying lessons for Christmas. Took me almost 3 years to qualify-still at it 17 years later and still fascinated and loving it.

  • It is very sincerely never too late. Got my PPL 3 years ago at 75, bought my first plane (Bonanza S35) & installed a full glass panel. Finished all the hours for the IFR to-date& am enjoying the ride. You youngsters in your 40’s and 50’s have a truly enjoyable pastime for the many years ahead. Don’t blink.

  • Dear Jim: Exactly 34 years ago this month, at age 47, I began my flight training in a C152 Aerobat at a local airport that no longer exists and has been replaced by a housing development. I had put it off for too many years and my wife was not in favor of my pursuing a “very dangerous sport.” It took me eight months to pass the PPL check ride as I had to find time for the flying and work it into my busy schedule as an orthopedic surgeon.Several times enroute to the airport, I had to reschedule and return to the ER.
    I have never looked back at that decision, as taking off, interacting with ATC, checking the weather, filing flight plans, making bad, good and great landings, attending AirVenture in Oshkosh and exchanging stories with other pilots, (when the first liar doesn’t have a chance) has been the best therapy for me. I love being in the air and thinking I have the luxury of looking at the mountains, clouds and the terrain, that very few can experience.
    I encourage you to become instrument rated, as it will make you a much more exacting pilot. You mention flying twins. Unless you fly a twin at least 200 hours per year by yourself, always fly with an instructor. You can fly the left seat, but be fully aware you are not a professional pilot. Of utmost importance is to stay current, which means flying a minimum of 8-10 hours per month in all types of weather. However there is one exception. Never, never succumb to “get there itis.” There is no situation requiring your presence on Monday and dying on Sunday. I ascribe to Rod Machado’s maxim, “If it doesn’t feel right, don’t go.” I enjoyed your story and wish you hours of enjoyment as a pilot.

  • Another 57 year old Student Pilot here. I currently have about 70 hours of instruction and am very close to solo. I thoroughly enjoyed your article. Best of luck on your check ride!

  • Wow, just wow.

    When you have what seems like an unlimited amount of subject material to pick from on an interesting topic it just looks easy to find something to write about. (Or it’s just a gift. 😉 )

    Thanks for the stories. mjp

    ….I also enjoy reading the comments.

  • My flight training was started in the mid sixties, then put on hold for a few years because of many of the same things Jim talked about, family, funds, work, etc. and generally being a lower priority than all the rest of life. Finally retired, and the grandkids gone from our home and banks, the wife told me “Go and get your dream.”
    She had put up with that dream for nearly forty years, and had decided it was time for ME to do something I had always dreamed of doing. So, traveling an hour each way to a good instructor, and flying whatever was available, three times a week, off I would go. Finally, at fifty-six years and fifteen days, I got my hand shaken by two people, my instructor, and the D.F.E. that had just handed me my temporary PPL.

Leave a Reply

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