Have you been wondering what life would be like with a new tool in your toolbox – one that you didn’t even know was missing? How about a pilot license? If you want to stay engage with your life, you need to keep adding new experiences, expanding horizons, learning new skills.
What about learning to fly an airplane?
Simply put: You cannot imagine the experience. Nobody could explain it fully; you just need to try it. You can see pictures of Sedona, the coast of California or the Grand Canyon from a small plane, but that doesn’t do justice to what it’s really like in a plane 500-1000 feet above the ground.
I did it at age 67. My story is atypical in many ways. While some students wanted to learn from an early age, I never planned to learn to fly… never looked up as a small plane flew over. I fell into learning to fly by accident. It was a completely serendipitous event that opened a curtain and let me look out that window at a different place in the world.
“The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands
in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.” — Orville Wright, 1915 I was in a small town in Colorado and was talking to a friend. I told him that my wife and I were flying commercial back to Phoenix a few days later. He was also in that town and said he was flying his small plane (4 seater) alone back to Scottsdale airport the day after our flight. I said, “Why don’t we just cancel our flight and go with you?” I never guessed what I was about to experience. I had flown in small airplanes before on business to tour an area from overhead and just cover much more ground in an afternoon. But, I’d never flown one from point “A” to point “B” just because I needed to get there. And, never over scenery like Meteor Crater, Monument Valley, or Flagstaff…. feeling the plane go this way or that. That flight made me think, “Am I missing something here?”
The experience of flying over parts of Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona 2,000-4,000 feet above the ground was not at all like flying on United or American Airlines. In a private plane flying so low, you can see the ground clearly – not looking from some obscure distance. Another difference is the sensation of space. Flying commercial is more like being in a building – flying private is more like being in a car. Flying in a private plane is like flying under your own power – a feeling that must be much closer to what a bird feels. As we landed, I asked my friend, “How’d you learn how to do this?”
His instructor was in the building where we parked. I met him and I took a lesson the next day. I took the controls and banked the plane, climbing and descending. It was exhilarating, a bit scary, totally different from anything I’d done before. I’d ridden motorcycles, snowmobiles, wave runners, and bicycles my whole life. This was a whole ‘nother thing. It took a few months of lessons before I was scheduled to fly solo for the first time. I was apprehensive but, by that
time, I wanted to experience that different level. I wanted to do it myself with no help, putting my training to work. It was another level of exhilaration lifting off, bank right into the crosswind, then into the downwind. I looked at the empty seat next to me and saw I was truly alone. It felt good. I wanted more. I came in for my first landing and it was not a great one, but it was safe. Next time around, I calmed down and got closer to being “one with the machine”
and the landing was better. Third time, it was a great landing. My first solo was done.
Life is Different as a Pilot
Yes, of course you can travel when and where you wish when you can fly a private airplane. And, yes, it is more convenient and more expensive – most things that give us the freedom of convenience are more pricey. A car is more expensive than a motorcycle. A 3-car garage home costs more than one with a carport. But, for many, the value of these conveniences can far outweigh the expense. And, the expense and convenience are only half of the equation. Flying an airplane is an experience that: (a) never gets old, (b) wholly changes your perspective on traveling, and (c) happens on your schedule or in response to your personal needs. You have dogs? You have a cat that misses you when you leave? You sometimes travel with valuables or guns? You need to leave a day early or two hours later? It all comes when you know how to fly. You can fly charter for much more expense than flying yourself – but flying yourself is an
occurrence that cannot ever be replaced by sitting in a passenger seat. And, nobody ever will miss waiting in line at TSA and putting their laptop in a separate bin.
Still today, after 5 years of flying, I get the same thrill out of flying each time I go. When I did my “check ride” with the FAA examiner for my Private Pilot License, I was exhilarated. I called my wife and was looking for a way to tell here that I’d passed. “Hey, baby. How’d you like to sleep with a PILOT tonight?”
Since then, I’ve gotten better and better. I now have over 1000 hours in flying and I’ve landed in over 45 different airports from Seattle to Houston, from San Diego to Champaign, Illinois. I’m now a “PFL” – Pilot For Life. I expect that it will be true for nearly every person that tries it. Isn’t it wonderful that there can be something we have not yet done that, after we do, will become a big positive addition to our lives? Makes you wonder what else you are missing.
Learning to fly is also intellectually stimulating – you will learn new things. You will learn some things about air pressures, engine mechanics, avionic instruments, and the importance of oil analysis. Did you know that a plane does not stay airborne because of wind pressure under the wing? It stays aloft due to the shape of the wing. The wing is an “airfoil” and the airflow over the wing causes a partial vacuum on the top of the wing that pulls the wing upward. The engine pushes air backward, pushing the aircraft forward and the resultant airflow over the wing creates a low vacuum – less pressure on top of the wing than under the wing. This causes “lift” – the wing being sucked up into that partial vacuum. What does it say about any activity that so many of its participants then become avid advocates?
Another thing that is true about learning to fly: You will be forever an advocate of flying. It’s unavoidable. What one person can do for himself is a good thing; he can then say he has accomplished something. If, however he can stir up ten others to take up the task he has accomplished much more.
Whether you fly for a career – or own a plane – or a fractional ownership – or just rent, you are a pilot for life. They can never take that away from you and you will miss it if you don’t do it often enough.
“Once we have tasted flight, we will forever walk the earth with our eyes turned skyward, for there we have been, and there we will always long to return.”