People sometimes ask how I got interested in flying. The only answer I can offer is that I think I was simply born this way. My first memory is an Eastern Air Lines Boeing 727 WhisperJet trip to New York City when I was three. I was enthralled. From then on, I wore pilot wings that I cut from my mom’s stocking cardboard. I pretended to fly the glider on the backyard swing set. I counted contrails from the jets climbing out of the nearest “big” airport, North Carolina’s Asheville Regional (KAVL). A high point of my childhood was a solo trip from Philadelphia (KPHL) to Charlotte (KCLT) when I was 13, on local-service airlines – Allegheny and Piedmont – that no longer exist. I wanted nothing more than to be in the sky.
A combination of fear (“do I have the right stuff?”) and finances (or, more accurately, lack thereof) kept me ground-bound until I was 28. Then, one day I took a step that profoundly changed – and defined – the course of both my life and my career. I signed up for a private pilot ground school offered by my county’s adult education program.
For the next six weeks, I was never far from my newly acquired copy of the FAA Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (PHAK). My instructor, a crusty old fellow whose favorite expression was “piece o’ cake,” quickly grew to expect my “let’s-try-that-again” questions when his stock explanation didn’t produce an ah-hah moment of understanding. I struggled to master the concept of different kinds of altitude (density altitude?!) and airspeed (is “false” the opposite of “true” airspeed?!).
Truly baffling was the dark art of interpreting that mysterious instrument known as the Vee-Oh-Are, or the Very High Frequency Omni-directional Range (VOR). I still remember sitting on my living room floor, PHAK open in front of me, a test question study guide beside me, and scraps of paper everywhere with my scrawled attempts to visualize my position relative to the VOR station or, even more challenging, the non-directional beacon (NDB). For a math-o-phobe like me, it was a great triumph to get through the multiple interpolations required to answer some of the aircraft performance questions. But, I am nothing if not extremely stubborn, and once embarked upon the ground school path I was wholly determined to persevere.
Perseverance was certainly a handy habit when it came to the actual flight training. I was fortunate to have an excellent instructor and I loved the humble little Cessna 152s that carried me through the private pilot flight training curriculum. It wasn’t always easy. I struggled to land without my efforts being registered as seismic activity on the Richter Scale and, embarrassingly, I still sometimes struggle with that.
I gritted my teeth through stall entries and, until the day my instructor dedicated an entire lesson to intensive emergency approach and landing procedures, I frittered away my altitude by endlessly searching for the perfect field. I stammered through radio calls, especially when making forays from my non-towered home airport to a field with an operating control tower. On my first solo cross country, I almost immediately became unsure of my position (the pilot’s perennial euphemism for lost) and hastily beat a retreat to home base. To his credit, my instructor made me talk through my mistake and then sent me right back out to finish the trip. And I did.
Ups and Downs
As my own experience suggests, flight training is full of ups and downs – both the literal ones involving the aircraft and the emotional ones involving the acquisition of any new skill. But take it from me: It’s well worth the effort. Persevere, enjoy the process, and welcome to the wonderful world of aviation! (FAA Safety Briefing – JanFeb 2012)