“Slipping the surly bonds of Earth” has been a dream of mine ever since I was five, when my parents took me to my first airshow.
Also around then I flew for the first time (in a commuter prop plane from Connecticut to Pennsylvania). It was a thrilling adventure, although I remember that the buzzing propellers were a bit scary.
Alas, I would not repeat that experience until I turned sixteen and flew to Huntsville, AL to attend Space Academy. The following year I discovered that my high school’s adult education program included pilot ground school. How cool! Attending that class, I learned a lot about the theory of flying over the course of several weeks, but I could not afford to complement it with the practical component of flight training in a real airplane. A part-time job as a short-order cook only goes so far!
Fast forward to last year, when we decided to invest almost half of our retirement savings in ourselves right now, rather than sitting on it and waiting for some distant, uncertain future. It started out as a decision for both of us to take a break from our respective careers and to spend a few years exploring the world and thinking about what we wanted to do next. Although we needed to wait many months before we could embark on our trip due to prior commitments, we immediately began focusing our time and energy on some of our smaller dreams. We created 6-month dreamlines for ourselves, and mine included such goals as running the San Jose half marathon and preparing for the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, the first step toward a Professional Engineer license. Around September of last year, after a few months of working toward those dreams, Kate booked an introductory flight lesson for my 35th birthday. I was hooked on flying once again! I gave myself permission to add a Private Pilot license to my dreamline, and in late October, after I passed the engineering exam and set a personal record in the half marathon, I began my flight training in earnest.
There is a lot of material for a student pilot to study, practice, and master before the FAA will issue them a license. To avoid overwhelming new students, the first half (or more) of a typical flight training program focuses on the relatively simple scenario of flying from your home airport to a practice area (somewhere away from congested population areas) during the daytime with excellent weather conditions. Nevertheless, even this simple scenario involves learning a lot of new skills. For example, a car has only two primary controls: the steering wheel and the gas/brake pedals. I am lumping the gas and brakes together, since they do the opposite of each other and you never use both at the same time. A car also has one primary driving instrument: the speedometer. By comparison, an airplane has four primary controls (roll, pitch, yaw, and power) and six flight instruments (airspeed, vertical speed, altimeter, attitude, heading, and turn coordinator). A pilot must know how to use all of them to perform a variety of maneuvers, including takeoffs, landings, and flying the plane straight and level (initially this is a little harder than it looks). If that’s not enough to learn, a new pilot also has to talk on the radio with air traffic control and be prepared to handle a number of emergency procedures, such as engine failures and fires. Once a student demonstrates that they can safely perform this simple flight without needing help, then their instructor endorses them to solo, which means that the student is legally permitted to fly alone to the practice area and back. Soloing is a significant milestone!
Early on, I intended to finish my flight training before we embarked on our world tour. To ensure that I stayed on track toward this goal, I wanted to solo before Christmas. However, it took me a bit longer than expected to master landings, and the holidays came and went before I was ready to take to the skies by myself. By that time winter weather had arrived in full force, which in Northern California means torrential rain, low clouds, and poor visibility. Not exactly weather conditions that I can handle anytime soon! On top of that, I had to schedule a phase check with a very popular flight instructor. The flying club from which I rent airplanes requires that I demonstrate my safe flying skills to a flight instructor of their choice before they’ll let me solo in one of their planes, and the phase check instructor to whom they assigned me had a jam-packed calendar. It took several weeks to coordinate his schedule with mine and Mother Nature’s, but I eventually got my chance to prove to him that I have the “right stuff.”
Now I’m just waiting for a good day to actually do my first solo. I expected the big day to be last Wednesday, but as fate would have it, there was a tragic accident that morning at my home airport (very rare). An airplane crashed in heavy fog shortly after takeoff, taking out a power transmission line along with it. The fog cleared up later in the day, so I flew with my instructor once again. It was interesting. The control tower lost power, and we used “nontowered” procedures for coordinating with other aircraft near the airport. I had only done this once before, at an airport out in the sticks, where I was the only pilot in the traffic pattern. A nontowered airport in the San Francisco Bay Area is a completely different story! By the end of the lesson, I got pretty good at spitting out what I needed to say when I needed to say it (e.g., “Palo Alto Traffic, Cessna Niner Tango Whiskey turning final for runway 31, Palo Alto”), but I was not yet ready to solo in that situation. Then winter weather returned. That was last week; I’ll catch my elusive solo soon…