LTFH

Several years ago, when I was walking the winding road of time-building to become a professional pilot, some of us who were already licensed would find reward for our dedication by flying as a safety pilot for others. Sometimes flight schools in the US (where I did my flight training) would require to some of its pupils to fly certain hours with another student, mostly because of technical English proficiency issues or because it is simply allowed by regulations.

Some other times, the academy would ask their pilots to fly sick airplanes to nearby airports to have their radios checked or to receive a new coat of paint. The most exciting of all the opportunities came when taking prospective students for introductory flights which, for a lower fee, had the purpose of drugging them with the narcotic smell of aviation gas, the music of the engine, and the overall precision and romance of flight.

Whatever the situation was, those were excellent opportunities to have somebody else to pay for a few flight hours, especially when they were so expensive and our bank accounts where thinner than today’s celebrities.

One beautiful April morning, a young guy of about 18 came to the school’s office, having just arrived from Mexico City a couple hours before. He was accompanied by his father in search of aviation academies. The kid was all excited and showed a fascination for the posters on the wall and the old, broken flight instruments that in a vintage fashion decorated the lobby. He explained to his dad what they were for and how to read them while waiting for Jeannette, our receptionist.

My school was famous in San Antonio for being one of the few that had the governmental approval to recruit foreign students and issue immigration permits or student visas. At one time, out of the perhaps 100 students, 50 of us were from Mexico, 30 from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Saudi Arabia, and the remainder from a bunch of other countries. It was like a little United Nations there, quite complicated to understand each other and to accommodate for religious diet restrictions on the barbeques we would often cook.

LTFH

That first flight is sometimes where dreams meet reality.

As I was doing nothing I kind of toured our visitors and chit-chatted with the kid about his inbound flight, of how bad he wanted to become an airline pilot, of how beautiful the Airbuses were and how much he was going to miss the sound of the DC-9s. A few minutes later Jeannette arrived, and after a small briefing and $50 in the register I was elected to go take him for an introductory flight. I swear that on the way to the hangar others could see us almost leaping, one for the excitement of what was about to happen and the other for the “free” flight hour to write in the logbook.

I remember asking him if he had ever flown in a general aviation airplane before. He said no, his family had avocado fields and although the business was good (we all know how expensive avocados are) he had never ridden in a Cessna. His interest in aviation was there since he was a little kid and grew stronger with him, almost to the point of obsession. He finished high school with great grades so that his family would allow him to become a pilot… Or at least try to.

We did the preflight inspection and I explained a little about checklists, fastening the seat belt, and what to do if something were to go wrong. He got everything in a snap and I realized this guy was really serious about his knowledge, asking tricky questions I wasn’t even ready to answer and putting in evidence his hundreds of hours in Microsoft Flight Simulator. We started the engine, talked on the radio, and a few minutes later we taxied and sped up along the runway.

Just then, the kid who wouldn’t stop asking technical questions went silent; the only noise out of him was his breathing over the headset. He turned pale and wiped his permanent smile off of his face. He leaned his head back and after a while could just mumble that he was okay and that he was just feeling a little nervous.

He leaned forward again and, thinking about getting relief, looked outside. I guess someone from the observatory of the Tower of the Americas clearly saw his face, realizing that looking out had been a bad idea. The flight—a short circuit over the city, land at a small nearby airport, and back to base—was nothing but the opposite of enjoyable for him.

Perhaps he needed to control the cascade of his emotions, I thought, so I told him to grab the yoke with me and feel empowered by the illusion of being “a pilot.” It didn’t work. He kept saying “no mames, no mames” (sorry, no proper translation for that) and “no puedo, no puedo” (I can’t, I can’t).

For a moment he got a grip, when we started our descent into Stinson Field. Knowing that the experience was time-limited made him calm, but when we were in short final, you know when the airplane is slow yet the little houses below kept getting bigger and bigger and running quickly past us, he went back to his state of agitation, nervousness, and fright—like a scared chihuahua.

We landed and parked the airplane. We got out and went to the small café facing the runways, where I bought two Cokes. Sipping his drink and talking quietly, aware of the other students and instructors around us, he told me that he didn’t like it, that he was scared, and that felt fragile and minuscule. If I would have pinched his nose he would have burst into tears. His eyes were stuck on the table, and it made me realize that for him, the romantic eclipse of passion and profession was in another moon.

On the flight back to base we barely talked. I tried to give him the best ride that my meager experience back then could offer. Even though I was the pilot, I was more like a passenger—exactly in the purest meaning of the that word. I was transitory, part of a temporary moment; I was a piece of a teenage dream that, for him, was not going to become a reality.

24 replies
  1. Sailing Eric
    Sailing Eric says:

    I love sailing and I always wanted to experience what it would be like sailing over the horizon away from land. I did my first trip about 15 years ago from Ft Lauderdale to the Bahamas. I figured if it was too scary for me I could suck it up for a few hours until I saw land again. It was then I realized that open ocean sailing was the greatest and I felt so alive and have since done several thousand miles of ocean sailing . My next thing I want to try is to fly in a small Cessna or similar plane. Like the kid in the story, it will either be the scariest hour in my life or the greatest, but you just don’t know until you try it.

    Reply
  2. Keith Smith
    Keith Smith says:

    Beautifully written, but I’m scratching my head and wondering why nobody did a deeper dive to find out what was going on. I loved aviation as a kid, but I threw up the first SIX times I tried flying in an old, clapped out Skyhawk (often as a pax in the back).

    I figured GA just wasn’t for me (despite my love for it). It wasn’t until nearly 7 years later that a CFI did a deeper dive and introduced me to a DA-20 Katana, only a cool winter day (not a bump in the sky). It took just a few minutes to fall in love, and eventually pick up my PPL. Now I can fly through turbulence without issue, but it took some time to get to that point. Perhaps there was something that could’ve been done for this kid as well?

    Reply
  3. Jerry Fraser
    Jerry Fraser says:

    It’s been my observation that the first few hours at sea or aloft have zero predictive value on where a guy or girl will come out. A good friend of mine similarly walked away from aviation in his teens. A few years later he tried again and eventually made his way to UAL. For my money, this kid is but a mentor, friend, or savvy CFI away from embarking on a great ride.

    Reply
    • Barry
      Barry says:

      Exactly, my first flight on a hot summer day in the back of a Cessna 177, was a horrible experience . My story sounds just like that excited teenager in the story. And just like the person in the story, I was heartbroken, I thought I would never be able to fly. But meeting the right CFI, at a small aviation school made all the difference. I just hope the person in the article doesn’t give up.

      Reply
  4. Gordon L. Dilmore
    Gordon L. Dilmore says:

    Interesting story and insightful comments. I have always found piloting a form of relaxation and escape even to the point that when offered the opportunity to fly professionally, I turned it down, a decision I never regretted.

    BTW: “No memes = Are you kidding?

    Reply
  5. Ernie Kelly
    Ernie Kelly says:

    Well told. FWIW, Chuck Yeager got airsick on all his early flights, but was so committed, he forced his way through it. He learned to be incredibly smooth and precise to avoid the sensation, something that paid off a thousand times over in his career.

    Reply
  6. Kevin P.
    Kevin P. says:

    When I took my first lesson, I went from excited to terrified the moment the instructor asked me to take hold of the yoke. I white-knuckled it for what seemed like an hour, though it could only have been for maybe half that, at most. I left the flight school feeling like I had tried it and had no desire to do it again. Then, the morning after, I woke up telling myself I really did want to do it again. As a way to keep that feeling from changing again, I immediately called the school and scheduled another lesson. The day approached, I was nervous, but I did it. And now I’m a private pilot working toward instrument and, hopefully at some point, commercial. (I have spoken Spain Spanish for most of my life, but I have lots of Mexican friends. From the many times I’ve heard them say, “No mames,” I have come to think that it’s something like “You’ve got to be sh****ng me!”)

    Reply
  7. Gus
    Gus says:

    Great story, I myself had the same fear, learning to fly was very challenging. I couldn’t picture myself flying solo. Eventually the more I went up, the fear of soloing went away. Its too bad this kid couldn’t overcome it.

    Reply
  8. Gene Oakes
    Gene Oakes says:

    Reading this article reminded me of the preparation for my first solo flight. I could not sleep the night before, my mind raced with “why am I doing this” questions. Once I got into the Cessna and started the engine, those thought were replaced with the miracle of flight, I can do this! I watched the sun dip below the mountains as I made my final approach into the Salt Lake City airport, orange clouds in an amazing sunset to the west, airport fully lit with early evening lights down the runway and taxi. A welcome back sight I will always remember. So glad I didn’t let my fears take me away from something I have grown to love and appreciate. Can’t wait to go again. 🙂

    Reply
  9. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    If there was ever a perfect illustration of Msft Flight Simulator’s limitations in preparation for real flying, this is it. See my article, “Barf,” published here a few years ago. I agree 100% that an experience of anxiety and/or motion sickness during early flights is not predictive of inability to become comfortable with the sensations of flight. It seems to me this young man needed some supportive reassurance and some very short flights on cool, smooth days, so he could gradually acclimate to the sensations of flight, and discover the joy most of us get from flying.

    Reply
  10. MICHAEL A CROGNALE
    MICHAEL A CROGNALE says:

    When I was a lot younger CFI this tall lanky kid walked into my office and asked about learning to fly. I gave him the usual sales pitch and signed him up. Fast forward to “THE DAY” ready for his first solo. As I signed his student certificate and rambled on about doing 3 full stops he grabbed my arm and said “I’m not ready”. I assured him that he was and he said “No, if you get out I’ll shut it down and walk back.” So we taxied back in and in my office I demanded an explanation.He said, “I’m afraid of flying”. So I calmed down and helped him explore his fears. I told him to go home and think about it and come back tomorrow and see how he did. Long story short he soloed the next day. Last time I heard from him he was flying 757s for United. I hope the young man was able to overcome his fears.

    Reply
    • Roca
      Roca says:

      I had one student tell me he wasn’t ready and I insisted, so he did one landing but came back and said he was too nervous. A week later he had a do-over solo and did just fine. A second student I tried to push to solo and he strongly insisted he wasn’t ready, so I didn’t make him. After that day I never saw or heard from him again. I guess it’s a fine line when to push and when not to! These days I ask if they want to solo before I make them. I don’t think it does any good to push them beyond what they feel ready to do. If they want to get their rating, they eventually will. I’m just there to encourage them.

      Reply
  11. William Campbell
    William Campbell says:

    For $5.00/hr, I took a few introductory flights in the mid-60s, they were all in a Mooney at a local FBO. Later, when I decided to really get my certificate it was in a completely different environment. This was an Air Force Aero Club and expectations were different. We took off in a C-150, I was following along on the controls. At about 50 feet on climb out the instructor said, “Your airplane.” I said “What?!” and started the wobbly steering climb. That was as close to flight fright as I came. It was more a matter of surprise than anything else. In my training I only got “airsick” once, doing what were called “Dutch rolls” though they were not true “Dutch Rolls” on a day which was very hot. Now 50 plus years and an instrument rating later, those are fond memories.

    Reply
  12. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    The well known aerobatic pilot Sean Tucker has shared that he would lose his lunch each time he flew early on, but he made up his mind that he would conquer the nausea and anxiety. Having watched him perform multiple times I’d have to say he more than conquered those misgivings, but mastered his art form. I hope that young man in this story has had an opportunity somehow to conquer his fears and had the true opportunity to enjoy flight.

    Reply
  13. John
    John says:

    I have been obsessed with flying my whole life, got my PPL almost 25 years ago but flown very on/off over those years. For my early flights I was extremely eager, not having much spare money at the time I took the winter off and came back in the spring. On my first flight back, doing stalls with my instructor I was not using sufficient rudder and was dropping the wing. I over corrected and spun the airplane the next time around. I was considerably less eager and that spin haunted me but I still managed to get my license but was never at ease resulting in my sporadic flying. My instructor recommended I face the demon and take some acro lessons. May years later a aerobatic school opened in Nashua NH where I lived. Without having flown in about 6 years I signed up for a basic aerobatics course. On the first flight I recall doing my first stall and completely froze and responded with you want me to do that when the instructor performed a loop. Interestingly while in Navy ROTC (before I started my PPL) I had the opportunity to get a demo flight in a T2 Buckeye and primary jet school and loved every crazy minute but that’s another story. On about the fourth flight I recall getting very frightened and just wanted out of the plane, for no reason that I can recall. When I got back the owner of the school asked how was it and I responded terrible, he replied it supposed to be fun. I have until this time been flying with the other CFI. I took a few weeks off and scheduled another lesson, telling myself this was it, if I didn’t like it I would walk away. This time the owner, Rob when up with me. The other CFI was perfectly fine but not what I needed at the time. I only had about 80 hours when starting the course. We talked before the flight, when we flew he said I’ve got radios you just fly. It was an amazing flight. I would go on to finish the course, including spins which I no longer fear, though I do understand and respect. It still took me until about the 200 hour mark to start getting over my nerves while flying which took along time to get to since a family came along but I met yet another CFI and now a close friend in a flying club I joined who got me back up to speed and now I fly quite regularly. As I work towards my commercial, maybe I’ll get to be the person who helps someone realize their dream despite the fears.

    Reply
  14. Royce
    Royce says:

    So here’s a female story. I was terrified the first time I was a passenger in a C152 on a half-hour flight. Although my husband was very good about telling me “there will be a few bumps as we go over some hills” and “don’t worry about the engine sound – I’m pulling it back so we can land”, I held onto my seat, mouth dry, and unable to move.
    When we landed back at our airport, his instructor laughed and told me I should take lessons for “spouses who are afraid to fly.” Knowing it was important to my my husband, I went up a few times. Every time I screamed in terror, the instructor would laugh. After a few hours of this, the instructor told me, “you know, you’re scared, but you’re doing all the right things, you’re a natural, you should just take this as far as you want to in the regular pilot’s course. You don’t have to solo if you don’t want do.”
    So after about 12 hours of lessons, on a bright, sunny day, after a few take-offs and bounces, he looked at me and said, “I’m getting out of the airplane, just take it around a few times.” Before I knew it, I was up in the air, thinking, how am I going to get this thing down. Terrified once again, I landed high a few times, bounced, and finally got the 152 back on the ground, surprisingly intact. Then, at some point, flying over the desert in my first long-cross country, I looked around, and said, “wow, this is where I want to be.” It took that long.
    I went on to get my license, joined the US Navy, became a flight surgeon, flew in F18’s, F16’s, and F15’s, and was one of a handful of women who served as Senior Medical Officer on an Aircraft Carrier. My last flight in the Navy before retirement was at the controls of a C130 descending to land in Jordan in the Middle East. Got the pictures to prove it.

    Reply
    • Roca
      Roca says:

      Love your story! I’d also say it helps to have the right instructor who is patient and understanding. I am still a cautious pilot but I flew with one former fighter pilot CFI and he seemed to take joy in terrifying me on each lesson. I finally switched to someone else and today I’m a CFII/MEI.

      Reply
  15. Victor C
    Victor C says:

    First, I’d like to thank everyone who is responding to this article. All great stories/ancedotes. I too have a story about this. I am 16 hrs into my training with a newly minted CFI, his personality makes things a lot better to understand though even thoguh he lacks the polished skills of someone with several years of experience. On my 10th hr we were doing Ground Reference Maneuvers (GRMs) on a really bumpy day. He advised that a windy day can ruin my day if I don’t know what its doing to my plane. I got really sick after about 30 minutes of flight, I could not stomach it. He flew back to the airport and assured me not to feel bad and to keep on going because its normal, he assured me that I can get over it and get used to it as long as I keep pressing. I am now very proficient in GRMs and spin recovery without an issue. It just took time and a determined mindset. I hope the kid in this story found his way into the sky again. Its worth it.

    Reply
  16. mach37
    mach37 says:

    When I was five years old I had been crazy about horses; Gene Autry was my ideal (singing cowboy, for this generation who probably doesn’t know of him), and I couldn’t wait to get on a pony at the county fair. As soon as I found that my legs didn’t fit well on the wide, rounded back of the pony, I felt much like the kid in this story. I am really thankful that my dreams of flying matched the waking experience of real flight, from the first moment of the engine starting til the engine shut down at the end of the flight. It’s been a great ride, these last 70+ years.

    Reply
  17. Frank Merrill
    Frank Merrill says:

    Here’s to you, Dave Carmody, for having the foresight and willingness to help me, a kid who always wanted to fly but got terrified because of an earlier CFI who was more of a demonstrator than a teacher. Because you were a master teacher, I overcame my fear enough that my original passion to fly might flower.

    Reply
  18. Brian
    Brian says:

    It took me a while to get over the nervousness of flying post-solo but before I got my PPL license. I’d do it, but I wasn’t really enjoying it. A couple things helped me, which maybe sound silly.
    1) I started recording my flights with a GoPro inside the cockpit. Not only was it great because I could re-cap my solo and (especially) instructional flights and see what I was doing right & wrong, but it also helped my nervousness. In the days between my weekly flights I would review the video. Just watching it calmed my nerves. It was like “if I did it that time I can do it this time”. Took some of the anxiety away.

    2) My CFI showed me some ‘advanced’ maneuvers. He flew the little C172 pretty crafty to show me what it can do. Pretty fun maneuvers with way more and less G’s than typical. Was scary, but it also showed me that the planes aren’t as fragile as we’re made to think. So even though I wasn’t going to go hotdog it, it showed me that there’s a lot more margin out there and you’re not going to rip the tail off if you don’t do everything just perfectly. You don’t have to feel like you’re always on a knife’s edge. Helped psychologically.

    Reply
  19. Merv
    Merv says:

    I was eight years old during WWII when the planes from the nearby Naval Air Station (now KSHN) would fly low over our house in formation and peel off to enter the pattern for landing. Oh boy, did I want to fly one of those airplanes. Add to this, my uncle was as Mustang pilot flying missions over Germany. My desire to be a pilot was a passion. At age 15 (in 1949), I got my chance when I was ‘hired’ by the owner of the FBO at the now given-to-the-county NAS to be the line boy, payment to be flight lessons in his Aeronca 7AC. Tiff, the FBO owner, flew C-46s over The Hump in Burma during the war, and was a quintessential WWII pilot, i.e., he played the macho pilot-hero role to the hilt. He told me before my first lesson that not everybody was a pilot. Pilots were born to fly, and he would have to see if I had the stuff. On the first flight, he took it up to maybe 3500 feet, hollered to me as he put the plane into a spin, “Let’s see if you’re a pilot.” When we pulled out after about three turns, he asked, “What do you think?” I said, “Do it again!” Now, age 87, after quite a few hours as a PP, with my own Skyhawk, I still have the passion.

    My story is, of course, quite the opposite of the young fellow you gave his first ride to. I hope, like others who have commented, the young man tried again, for he showed he had the passion to begin with. There is nothing like flying from the heart!

    Reply

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