For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return. — Leonardo da Vinci
That quote, while debatably attributed to da Vinci, most accurately describes the way I feel about flying. When I was a kid, we used to go to airshows and hang around the airport terminal watching planes, but that was pretty much the extent of my understanding of aviation. I could name a lot of airlines, I had a spectacular collection of little plastic wings, and I had a family of aviation enthusiasts, but I wouldn’t say I grew up in aviation. I guess near aviation would be a better way to describe the way I grew up.
If you’d like to read more about my aviation experiences in detail, please check out my flight training blog. If you’d like a semi-brief overview of how I came to be a pilot, read on.
2004: planting the seed
It wasn’t until 2004 that I actually even left the ground. My aunt took me to Alaska when I graduated high school. Since we were looking to get there in under a month, we flew. I really wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was excited. It turned out to be pretty standard, I looked out the window and tried to track the flight on a map. Honestly, it wasn’t much different from driving.
It was something we did on a lark our last day in Alaska that really planted the seed. We had stayed in a hotel right on the shore of Lake Spenard, which is connected to Lake Hood, the massive seaplane base. All along the water behind our hotel was this amazing collection of seaplanes. I spent several evenings watching the comings and goings of these planes and in so doing, learned that there was a small air taxi service that offered sightseeing flights. As it turned out, they were very affordable, so we opted to take a short seaplane tour of the area. This was my first introduction to real flying. Unfortunately, I have no pictures or video, because I was too busy enjoying the flight.
2009: the first sprout
In the mid 2000s, my family went to Washington, D.C. on a couple of vacations. On one of these trips I found myself in the gift shop of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center looking at a book about getting a private pilot certificate. I read several pages and attempted to persuade my parents, who were actively paying for my university education, that they should pay for flight training. This didn’t go as expected.
In fact, it wasn’t until my wife gifted me a discovery flight from Smoky Mountain Flight Center that I actually managed to start flight training. Like many things, I spent the better part of 2 years studying it, and finally in 2008 after effectively recreating the movie A Christmas Story, I got my wish. I suspect if she knew then what she knows now, she might not have bought it.
Anyway, it wasn’t until my birthday that I actually took the flight. For some reason I was nervous, so I kept putting it off. After probably 5 months, I told myself it was time and I called and scheduled the flight for a couple of days later.
The closer it got, the more nervous I got. I didn’t know what the deal was, after all I had been in a small plane before. Thinking back I’m convinced I was actually afraid I wouldn’t like it. Unusually, I went anyway; I didn’t reschedule or make excuses, I just went.
2010: private pilot
After about an hour of white-knuckling the plane around the area, I didn’t think twice about asking about the next step. Before I knew it, I had a third-class medical. Not long after that I had soloed and passed the written exam. Then after only 40 hours of flying and six months of studying, I was signed off to take my check-ride.
I had heard tales of the pilot examiner and, frankly, he scared the living crap out of me. A lot of the stories were true, he certainly doesn’t pull any punches and he doesn’t give anything away. I really thought I had bungled the oral exam, but I was delighted when he passed me and we headed for the plane. Here again I thought I’d failed. See, I scheduled my check-ride on New Year’s Day and the flight school was closed. The examiner has a key, but I only had about half the documents I needed on the plane. I played it cool, but I was certain I was going to get a pink slip.
Luckily, thanks to a phone call and quick action on my flight instructor’s part, I was able to find the requisite documents and we were ready to fly. From my perspective, things got steadily worse from there. I forgot to switch on the transponder and got the call, “21693, check transponder on.” I sheepishly switched it on. Then I bounced a short, soft field landing and I thought that was it. Strangely, the examiner was a little more forgiving. He told me to relax that he wasn’t there to fail me and not to fight it. I stayed within the PTS on everything, but barely on some stuff and that wasn’t how I usually fly.
Anyway, sometime on our way back to the airport, the examiner coached me through the falling leaf maneuver and for the next 10 or 15 minutes he wouldn’t let me use anything but the rudder to control the plane. This wasn’t part of the test, it was part of me learning to be a better pilot and getting calm. Calm enough that the last 5 minutes of my check-ride featured some of the best flying I had done to date. After we had taxied back in, all the examiner said was, “Let me out over there. Can you secure the plane on your own? I’ll get started on the paperwork” I stated that I could and he stopped in the FBO for coffee. After the longest and quietest 10 minutes of my life, during which I was sure I had failed, he came over and congratulated me on passing. I couldn’t believe I had done it; I was a pilot. I think I checked the FAA website every hour for a week until it cleared the Airmen Registry.
2012 to present: hitting pause
Sadly, I didn’t progress much beyond that point. I got a few more hours and another aircraft type in my log book, but I ran out of money and stopped flying while I figured out what to do next. As of last year I renewed my medical and started working on a flight review, but I paused again a little before my wife gave birth to our second son. My end goal is to get all the medical bills paid and then buy something relatively cheap and fly the wings off of it to complete my instrument, commercial, and flight instructor ratings. I just feel like that is a better path than loans for flight school and, since I don’t really aspire to ever fly for the airlines, I’d like to do some instructing on the side.
So, that’s my dream. Now for the hard part–chasing it down and conquering it. Who knows, maybe I’ll have some kind of financial windfall and even learn to fly helicopters. I loved riding along and I actually understand how they work, but they are crazy expensive compared to fixed wing aircraft.