First Flights and Fast Times

Well, I can say I have officially flown an airplane now. I have taken off, flown to a different airfield, conducted appropriate aerial maneuvers along the way (like spinning out the airplane), and successfully landed, many times. The great adventure is well begun indeed.

It isn’t really all that glamorous, actually. Well, it is, but that glamor is coupled with long hours of work before, during, and after my time at the cockpit. Each flight is a specific event on the syllabus here, and requires that the student be familiar with and demonstrate specific material. In this regard each flight is like a test. The “material” consists of sets of procedures for flying the aircraft, Emergency Procedures in case something goes wrong, and general knowledge of aircraft systems. This knowledge is what the student is graded on, not the actual flying of the aircraft. This is different, of course, than pilot training – there the student is graded very much on how he or she flies the aircraft. But for us backseater types, planning and knowledge are priorities.

So these past several weeks I have been studying hard, memorizing procedures step by step. It is stressful work – before each flight the instructor spends about an hour and a half with the student, examining him or her to see if they know what they are supposed to know for that flight. Instructors can grill a student on anything specific to that particular flight, or any material they choose covered in previous flights. It is much like having an oral examination, actually (though I’m embarrassed to say that I have to study harder in flight school than I ever did in college) – except when you fail, you receive a “pink sheet,” which is a disciplinary file that usually leads to the student being reviewed by a board of instructors, and more often than not kicked out of the program. But – and not to sound cliche or anything – it is all worth it to be in the air.

I won’t bore you with too many reflections or details on flying. It is remarkably peaceful in the air, and since we wear two sets of hearing protection the aircraft itself is quiet. When you are not desperately struggling with the controls to the (often) obscenity-filled exhortations of your instructors, the view is wonderful. The small windows of commercial airliners just don’t do it justice. Underneath the professionalism and discipline of the aviation community lies a genuine joy of flying – something I have to remind myself of during difficult briefs. And the ride quickly becomes exciting (though in a good way) when you put the aircraft into a spin or flip upside down. Unlike some of my peers, I have had no problem so far with airsickness – I dare say I am having more fun with it than they are.

I have completed my flights fairly quickly. I had two on Tuesday, one on Thursday, and I was supposed to have my last today, but the approaching Tropical Storm sent enough clouds that we couldn’t complete our event (which required good visibility). Cancellations are nothing new: it is warm and moist enough around here that we often contend with afternoon thunderstorms. We (the students) joke often, in fact, that much of the glamour of flying is actually sitting in a ready room waiting for a break in the weather. That is what I did Monday and Wednesday.

In retrospect, I guess flight school is different than I expected. I don’t think I had many expectations in the first place, but I am both surprised at the extent to which I enjoy flying and the interminable waiting and studying that goes in to it. That’s why, I guess, flight school is regarded as difficult – in fact, that’s the only thing that isn’t surprising. But I’d rather be doing something interesting and hard than boring and easy, so I guess I can’t complain.

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