Pilot Training I

   I hope these pages can educate or at least amuse you about my experiences learning to fly...

December, 2000. 0 Hours Flown

I had finally decided to take the plunge and learn how to fly. I'd toyed with the idea at various times in the past, and actually took an introductory "discovery" flight on at least three separate occasions. The first time was in high school, and I was really determined to learn my senior year--sort of a last accomplishment in the home town before heading off to college. I remember having the biggest fight I've ever had with my father over it. He was absolutely determined that this was far too dangerous and that I just was not going to be allowed to do it. To make that long story short, I went off to college haven had the discovery flight and the fever, but with no cure. I was sure I wouldn't be able to come back to it until after I'd finished school--too busy. Imagine my surprise when I came home for the summer my freshman year and discovered that in the intervening year my father had gone out and gotten his own pilot's license. Too dangerous indeed! I could have killed him, but I'm glad I didn't.

I took discovery flights on a couple of later occasions, and was forever keeping up to date on airplanes by reading the pilot's magazines and going to airshows. But somehow, I just never felt like I had the time to deal with it. I also had this nagging problem that the available General Aviation planes were somehow just too low tech. They'd been designed in the 40's and 50's, most were almost 20 years old, and they showed their age. If you haven't noticed from reading this web site, I'm a high tech kind of guy. This just didn't work for me. Eventually, I discovered the Lancair IV by reading an article in a magazine. This plane was the very picture of what I thought General Aviation planes ought to be. It was at once sleek, fast, and very high tech. Somehow, this helped me overcome the low tech blues, because I felt that there would be planes I could fly at some point that were actually cool. Of course what I didn't realize is that when you really have the bug, as I do now, even the low tech planes are cool and fun to fly.

The next big development for me was going to work with my current aviation mentor, Steve Elefant. Steve is a 1000 hour pilot who has been flying for many years. He owns a Cessna 172 that he used to commute to work when the weather was nice, and a Piper Navajo twin, which he uses to travel. I wound up taking some business trips in the Navajo with Steve, as well as flying for the occasional $100 hamburger in the 172, and it was Steve that I have to blame for really getting me the fever. I got a concentrated enough dose of flying in a short enough period of time that I finally decided to make it happen.

During the Christmas to New Year's season of 2000, I found that we had failed to plan any kind of trip, so decided to take the plunge and start lessons. Being the over-analytical kind of guy that I am (not really anal, just like to spend a lot of time planning before acting), I had a plan to go take a lesson with at least a half dozen instructors and sign up the best one to finish the job. Taking this raft of discovery/CFI evaluation flights was really what I had in mind for the Christmas to New Year's week I had off.

Along the way, my dad and brother decided they might like to try as well. We started by visiting each of the three flight schools at the local Watsonville airport. One was quickly eliminated by the first visit. They just seemed a little too shoddy; a fly-by-night operation if you'll pardon the expression. The other two looked good, and we resolved to each take some lessons from multiple instructors and compare notes.

For my first lesson, I was signed up to fly with Steve Blackwell of the Santa Cruz Flying Club.

December 26, 2000. 0 Hours Flown.

Because the three of us (my brother, dad, and me) wanted to fly together, I made the unusual decision to start out in a Cessna 182. This aircraft is not normally a primary trainer, as it is a high performance aircraft, making it somewhat more complex to fly, the plane has considerably heavier handling than the more common 152/172 class Cessnas that are used as trainers, and it costs quite a bit more to rent. Unfortunatley, you can't fit 4 guys into a 152 or 172. Steve Blackwell was very understanding and agreed to train in a 182 that was on the flight line. He cautioned me that it would take longer to learn to fly that plane, but that he was willing if I was. At the same time, I let him know that I expected to be one of the longest time to solo students he would ever see because I needed to wait on a special issuance medical and this would take a lot longer to obtain than a normal medical certificate. You have to get a medical before you can solo. Again, Steve was very understanding and had no problem with this. For my own part, I liked the idea of having no pressure to get to solo in a minimum number of hours. It freed me to really try to master the skills without worrying about how I was doing compared to others.

The first lesson was great. We started by learning how to preflight the aircraft. From there we took off. I was surprised that Steve wanted me to fly the take off on the very first lesson. This was my first opportunity to sample one of Steve's primary teaching characteristics: he often prefers to let the student take a crack at a manuever that he has explained verbally rather than demonstrating the manuever first. He's got no problem demonstrating if you ask, but seems to feel it is easier to guage what needs teaching if he sees how you screw up! At first this can be a little intimidating, but I've found it to be an excellent confidence builder once you get used to it. I think it also causes me to listen very carefully to what he says, because I know he won't show me the first time until after he's seen me try a couple of times.

Anyway, the take off was a piece of cake. We took the plane up to a reasonable altitude and then Steve wanted to practice some turns. The goal here is to be able to turn to a particular heading without gaining or losing to much altitude. Fortunately, I was familiar enough with airplanes to get this manuever right off the bat. I think my prior discovery lessons, time with Steve Elefant's planes, and radio controlled aircraft flying stood me in good stead here. My biggest problem had been to learn to be more gentle with the controls (you really yank and bank R/C planes and generally fly them in a very high performance manner compared to real planes), and Steve Elefant had mostly cured me of this tendency already. I was also aware that the primary goal of the exercise was to hit a particular heading without changing altitude.

Next we practiced descents, climbs, and flying in the landing configuration, which is to say flying more slowly. One thing I was missing was rudder control. My feet were basically asleep at the switch. This resulted in uncoordinated turns, which are a bad thing. They're bad from a couple of perspectives. First, an uncoordinated manuever is a good starter recipe for a spin if the plane stalls, and spins are never welcome unless you are flying aerobatics in a plane rated for them. Many pilots have been killed by inadvertantly spinning a plane at too low an altitude. Secondly, the plane just doesn't fly as smoothly because it is flying kind of sideways through the air. Things are just not as crisp unless you use a little rudder. Cessnas fly so gently that you can get away with it, but I needed to learn the right way.

After seeing how ham-handed (ham-footed?) I was with the rudder, Steve decided to try what he calls his rudder drills. Basically, this involves a shallow bank to the left, then to the right, then to the left, etc. You go back and forth and you need to use the rudder to keep the plane flying towards a fixed point on the horizon. It's great for improving your coordination of rudder until it almost becomes a reflex. Unfortunately, it is also great for provoking motion sickness. I'm not prone to motion sickness, in fact I flew along on the aerobatic routine of a MiG-29 jet fighter one time without getting the least bit sick, but I felt this. I really felt sorry for my dad and brother in the back seat who were going to be affected much worse. At this point, we all agreed it was time to end the lesson before something really ugly occured and we had to spend an hour cleaning the inside of the cockpit.

That first day we flew 1.2 hours. Despite the motion sickness, I was truly hooked. In fact, while driving home from the airport I decided that I thought Steve had intentionally flown the rudder drill in order to guage our propensity for motion sickness and to see whether we got scared easily by abrupt manuevers. It turns out he is also a dive master with over 4000 dives in his logbook, and I had seen a similar strategy among divemasters in my scuba diving experience. The better divemasters will look for an opportunity to apply a little stress so they can guage what they are really dealing with under controlled circumstances. It is usually only mildly unpleasant, and if done properly, the student never realizes they've just been evaluated in this way. I have to remember to ask Steve if that's what he was doing one of these days.

Somehow, along the way, I had also become convinced that Steve was going to be my CFI. His technique just meshed really well with my personality. Some instructors are too much like drill instructors, too serious, too pushy, too insistent that they always be in control. Others are too inexperienced or wishy washy to engender respect and confidence. Steve had all the right stuff. He was mature, he had left a high-paying job in computers for the love of aviation (i.e. he wasn't just building time to get a cushy airline job, he really wanted to do this), he was a perfectionist, but not to the point of being anal, he was articulate, we shared many of the same interests (Ham Radio and Scuba), and I knew from his accomplishments in these other areas (4000 dives !?!!) that he was dedicated to excelling at whatever he started.

So much for checking out 6 other instructors. I have never thought twice about this decision, Steve is great! My biggest worry is he'll decide he can't afford to live on what CFI's get paid and has to go back to computers before I can get enough instruction from him. Mind you, I plan to get multiple ratings, so I'll be wanting to train with Steve for a long time to come!

Pilot Training II

All material 2001-2006, Robert W. Warfield.