## Flying lessons
I don’t have a pilots license; but I have flown a plane. Quite a few times actually. I was getting my license, but I crashed a couple times, and relocated before I completed my license, and have never gone back to finish it.
I remember the first times I flew an airplane. One of the earliest was going to a bordello outside of Las Vegas. What I was doing there, and what went on there is a totally different story. I was 18, so you can probably guess the basics: it was a couple hours by car, or 45 minutes by small plane. So they flew us out there. Four of us packed in a little Cessna, and I rode in the copilots seat. After we got off the ground, the pilot says to me, "you want to fly?" That was like asking if a kid wants some candy. "Sure".
He showed me the controls, and it is pretty basic, pull back to go up, push down to go down; left and right, and a throttle. Yeah, I got it; a little sky-car (which could plummet to your death if you were really stupid), it wasn’t that hard. Cessna’s are real easy to fly; and basically you follow your headings and make a few turns.
He let me circle it around, and do a few things, and we headed off to our destination; with my two friends in the back turning green, not only with nervousness over the destination – but also it seems a little nervous over the flying, and none too happy with the concept of me flying them there, especially after being the designated driver to Vegas.
Note: We’d done car rally’s, and I’d ran a "school for offensive driving". I was an insane driver that should have never been allowed on public roads – but that too, is another set of stories.
The Pilot let me do some simple acrobatics; turns, some dives and stalls and things, nothing major at all; but my friends were threatening to throw up, and they wouldn’t let me fly us back. But I did get to fly the plane there, and it was easy and fun. I always liked planes. I always kept that fond memory of the flight from that trip. And my friends complaints about flying weren’t the most memorable thing from that trip: one of them got a case of Gonorrhea (but most likely not from the Bordello, but a street hooker he’d picked up later). He kept telling us in excruciating detail about nasty burning, two big horse shots of penicillin, and something to do with a Q-Tip up his urethra, that I don’t even like to think about.
A few years later, at most, another friend I knew was a Pilot, and he wanted to go out acrobatic flying one day. Would I be up for splitting the rental? Sure – sounded like fun. Now we had a light acrobatic rated plane; not a full stunt-plane. And my friend wasn’t going to go crazy. But still we went out and flew around, and did some semi-roll-overs, and stalls, and dives, and swooped, and circled, and just had a good time. It was like a rollercoaster without tracks.
I flew a few more times with other friends. I was in Aerospace Consulting at the time, and there were a few pilots. And we’d hope in light planes and go to Catalina Island or just little hops. It wasn’t a common occurrence; nor really uncommon either. I also sky-dove and did some other things like that.. But I liked it. And it always stuck in my craw; I should really learn how to do this.
Actually, flying is expensive, but it can vary dramatically by area and school. I’d looked around (back in the early 90s) and it was always like $4000-$5000 or so to get a license – and that was just out of what I was willing to spend. But I found a local airport (Pomona) that was doing it for a lot cheaper. It would basically be about $2000-$2500 or so, and they just charged by flight-time and other things as I went. This was doable, so I did it.
I got a book, a flight bag, a log, and was taken up the same day. It was the same as my vegas trip, except I had to do everything; take off, fly around and land. There wasn’t much prep work; the IP (Instructor Pilot) was like, "here’s how it works, and I’ll take over if you do anything wrong". And that was it.
I got the plane up to speed, pulled up, we flew around, and I did a couple touch-and-go’s (landings and then taking-off without stopping), just to practice, and flew us around. It was only an hour, but it was great; and this guy was very hands-off.
I kept going, reading chapters, taking pre-tests or progress tests, and so on. It is interesting how much old sea-navigation there is with piloting an airplane; calculating wind direction and speed, and where you’re going to each leg (and how much off course there is), issues with barometric pressure and altitude, and so on, but most of it just takes patience. There’s also flight rules, like rules of the road; who has the right-of way, what altitudes you fly, landing patterns, and so forth. And lastly there was a ton of radio work; learning frequencies, what to say and when, and that stuff. It is easy, but there’s a lot to know, and it does take some time. Each flight, I’d work on something new, and I was flying like every other week or so for a few months. If you have interest in airplanes or learning, you should really go through it.
It sounds so dramatic; "I crashed an airplane"… twice. While kinda true, the whole truth is a lot more benign.
The first time was pretty early in the training. I was coming in for some landings (touch-and-go’s) at Riverside airport. We were descending for our landing and down to a hundred feet or a little higher and it felt like the plane stalled or the wings had just broke off; we dropped like a stone. It is amazing how fast reflex kicks in; I pushed the nose down, slammed on the throttle, and was too busy to see my life flash before my eyes. We kept dropping, and at about 30 feet, we caught some lift, and we landed hard and fast – and we didn’t break anything on the plane, but it was rough, to say the least.
I cut the engine, taxi’ed us off the runway, and am wide eyed and desperately in need of new underwear, and I’m asking Mr. Cool (the Instructor) what the hell was that? He said, "Just a microburst/downburst/windsheer or something like that". I said, "why didn’t you do anything?" He replied, "what can I do about it? Sometimes the wind does funky things. You were doing everything right, so I didn’t need to take the controls. We totally a plane last year in one of those – so any landing you can walk away from is a good one". This guy had liquid nitrogen running through his veins; this was like my 3rd or 4th time at the controls and he hadn’t touched them once.
He puffed up my confidence by telling me I’d done good, had the right reflexes. Most people pull back on the controls; but that seemed silly to me, since it would stall the plane more – I’d needed speed for lift. He was like, "yup. If you do something wrong, I’ll let you know". I was a little tense after that, but still I went out the next week. Technically, since there was no damage to the plane, this was not a "crash"; but to me, I was not in control of the elements or the plane – and any landing that is out of my control is a crash to me.
My second crash was probably even less dramatic than the first. The instructor confidence in my flying was growing at a rate faster than my own. So our next flight out, we’re out in the middle of nowhere (near some lake), and he touched the controls for the first time; he turned off the throttle.
I gave him my best "what in the hell are you doing" look, and he replied, "what would you do if you suddenly lost power".
I replied that since we were going down, I’d look for a place to land. He said, "do it". I did. There was a small dirt road or something out there. And he said, "practice your emergency procedures". Earlier in the same flight, he’d made me practice stalling the airplane, and recovering control.
Cessna’s are easy to fly, so it wasn’t’ that hard – but without power, you don’t exactly have a great glide ratio. We were high over the strip, which was good, because you can’t exactly flap your arms if you’re going to come up short. So I circled the plane around and came in high. You can kind of pitch the plane sideways. Now it doesn’t fly particularly aerodynamically when your side-slipping, so you drop like a stone and bleed off speed quickly. But I liked it, I actually have a better view, and felt like more control than when I was doing powered landings. I’d heard about the technique, or he’d mentioned it once; but basically I was impressed with how well it worked.
When we were lined up, and everything was right (altitude, speed, etc.) I straightened us up. We were down to 100′ or so, and I’m thinking this whole time; this is a test, he’ll give me power any time now. I kept saying that; 75′, 50′, 25’… and then we got a little ground effect, and bump – we were down. It was actually smoother than most powered landings. Was that a crash? Any time I’m landing a plane without engine power, I consider it a crash.
Right after we touched down, I asked him (in my "are you insane" voice), "Are we supposed to be doing touch-and-go’s in the middle of nowhere".
He replied, "probably not, so don’t tell anyone. But, hey, now you know what it is like to crash land an airplane, so you don’t need to be worried about it".
He’d given me power as soon as we touched, and we took off again and flew back home.
I had another "moment" once while flying; the least of my flying stories. I was flying around Southern California – which is very crowded. It is so crowded that you are often on the radio, telling people where you are, and getting clearances to go where you want to go, and them telling you how to get there. All while looking around, scanning for other planes, and trying to fly a not-completely-familiar vehicle. It can get interesting.
I was on a heading into one of the busiest airports around (at that time), and they told me to go on this heading and altitude, and change frequencies, and then get a request to go somewhere else. Geesh. I did all that, but this new frequency was very chatty, and I was having trouble breaking into the conversation. Finally I just talked over someone because I was tired of waiting. Somethings like Cessna 128NZ (November-Zulu) on this heading, requesting clearance to go over here.
What I got back was something like, "Goddam it 128NZ you’re flying over restricted El-Toro Marine Base airspace… what the hell are you doing there".
To which I replied, "following the heading I was given by the previous radio operators". I got the feeling they were none too impressed with my explanation, but what were they going to say? We weren’t going to argue over the radio, and I was exactly on the course and heading they had given me.
They came back with, "we got you clearance to over-fly the airbase, go ahead". That was good since I was already over it. Hey, no big deal. I continued on my way, and got to see the airbase from the air… something not that many people get to do. I’d been there on the ground for an Air-show a few times, but it was fun seeing it from the air; and fortunately no F-18’s or Harriers came screaming up to intercept me, so things worked out fine. Now days, I might not be so lucky.
I flew about ten or twenty more times after that. I took my wife out once, and did some small acrobatics for her. While she enjoys rollercoasters, she too was not nearly as enthused when we did it in an airplane, even with an instructor by my side. But it was a beautiful clear night, and there’s nothing like flying a small airplane over a city like Los Angeles with all the lights below. So it was still a nice experience.
I basically only had a few flights more to go before I’d get my license; and they were boring cross-country flights. But we were relocating, and I didn’t really want to drive up to continue lessons. And there was no need for me to get the license; I was in it for the learning and experience, not really the piece of paper that said I knew what I knew that I knew. And in Southern California it is a pain to be on the radio all the time; it isn’t really better to get from one place to the other by plane there – it is still too congested.
Someday, I’ll probably go back and do it again, and finish it this time. But for me, it was about learning, and playing rather than a burn need to go out and fly on my own. Planes are fun; but they can be dangerous – and like anything to be good, you really need to be "in shape", meaning in practice. In Ohio, it is also quite different. In California the weather doesn’t change quickly; so you can fly around with a VFR license (Visual Flight Rules; meaning you don’t know all the flying blind instruments). In the Midwest, you’d have to be insane not to get instrument ratings; the weather can change so quickly and dramatically. So as an on-my-own sorta thing, I don’t have much interest, unless I’m going to do it regularly; and I don’t have the time to do it regularly, or anywhere that far away that I need to go, but still not so far away that I won’t just leave it to the pros and ride in the back of the sky-bus, where I can eat pretzels and write on my laptop.
Flying is something that anyone with a curiosity should try. Life is to short not to go out and take a few risks and to not try things you want to try. Do them sanely and safely, of course; but if you want to try it, then do so. There’s a lot to learn, and it will probably leave you with some fond memories.