Wednesday, December 29, 2004


Introductory Flight Lesson

I had an introductory flight lesson this morning, and it was a blast.

I showed up at the flight school at about 9:15 AM, 15 minutes before my scheduled time. The instructor met with me and we talked about the general process of flight training for a while. Then, when I had no more questions, he explained what we'd be doing in the air. He made it sound very simple; all I had to do was remember three numbers:

  1. 55 knots is the speed at which to start pulling back on the yoke during takeoff
  2. 79 knots is the speed of best climb rate
  3. 65 knots is the speed for approaching the runway for landing

Then we went out to the airplane. We were going to be flying a Piper Warrior II. I had been expecting a Cessna 172, but was happy to be flying a low-wing airplane instead, because it looks a lot cooler.

At first, I was taken aback by how small the Warrior is. It didn't look big enough for two people to sit comfortably side-by-side. Seeing how tight the fit would be, and all the instruments clustered together in such a small space, I started getting a little concerned that this wouldn't be as much fun as I had hoped.

The instructor did the pre-flight check, walking around the plan and checking various things. He went through it without explaining too much - the lesson where a student learns all about the pre-flight check takes a couple of hours, and we didn't have time for that today. Then he told me to climb in. The Warrior only has one door, on the right side of the aircraft, so I had to climb over the right seat to get into the left seat. Then I fastened my seat belt and shoulder belt, and connected the radio/intercom headset. He climbed in on the right, buckled up, and then flipped a bunch of switches and turned a bunch of knobs.

He gave me the key, and told me to start the airplane. That seemed like a lot of responsibility, but it turned out to be just like starting a car. Once the prop was spinning, he flipped a few more switches to get the rest of the instruments to come to life. Then he turned on the radio to listen to the weather forecast. I listened in, and understood some of it due to my last few weeks of studying aviation texts.

He taxied us out of the crowded parking area, then had me do the taxiing to the run-up area. This is a place where we ran the engines up to full speed to get them warmed up. After the run-up, he radioed for clearance, and then we taxied to the runway. One steers an airplane using the rudder pedals, but there were a couple of times I reflexively grabbed the yoke and tried (ineffectually) to steer it like a car.

Once aimed down the runway, he told me to give it full throttle, which I did, and we started rolling down the runway. When we reached an airspeed of a little over 60 knots, I started pulling back on the yoke, and pretty soon we were off the ground. It was all very easy, but the instructor was taking care of the rudder pedals.

I did my best to fly by just looking outside, instead of by looking at the instruments - staying "head down" is a bad habit that people develop by learning on flight simulators, and I wanted to avoid that. We passed through some low-level turbulence, which made it difficult to keep flying straight but wasn't too bad. We climbed to about 3,000 ft, where there was no turbulence, and he had me level off. For the next few minutes, we experimented with the trim control, which is used to relieve pressure on the yoke. He gave it full down trim, and I had to keep the plane level with a lot of back pressure, then he had me turn it to full back trim, requiring a lot of pushing on the yoke to keep the plane level. Then he had be trim it properly, so that I could fly practically hands-off.

Then we did some turns. He asked me to bank 20 degrees, but I was too timid and my banks were really about 10-15 degrees. Then we did a few 30-degree turns, and I got more comfortable with banking. He also had me use the rudder pedals to get nice coordinated turns. I had heard before about the left-turning tendency of airplanes, but this was my first experience of seeing how strong the tendency is.

We had been flying generally north, and were over North Point Mall. He asked me if I wanted to fly over my home in Alpharetta, but I didn't think I'd be able to find it. "Yeah, things look a lot different from the air," he said. We started flying toward Stone Mountain, but there was a lot of haze in that direction, so we turned back south to go back to the airport. The buildings of downtown Atlanta were just barely visible through the haze. As landmarks, I used the Concourse buildings, also known as the "King and Queen" due to the decorative structures on their tops.

I had assumed that as we got back toward the airport, the instructor would take over for the approach and landing. But no, he let me handle the controls for the downwind leg, base leg, and lining up with the runway. The only difficulty here was that I had assumed we'd be landing on the right runway (which is where we had taken off), and so I lined up with that, but he reminded me that he had told me to line up with the left runway, so I had to make a couple of turns. As the runway got bigger and bigger, I kept waiting for him to say "OK, I have the controls," but instead he said "Just watch the far end of the runway, and try to keep us level." Things happened very fast after that, and I don't know to what extent he was guiding the controls for me, but we ended up with a smooth landing.

The whole process of flying was a lot easier than I expected. I was a little nervous when I first got into the plane, but after we started moving, I never felt uncomfortable or overwhelmed. Sure, it helped a lot that the instructor was taking care of all the details, but I was left with the feeling that this flying thing is very do-able.

So I've signed up for the ground school classes, which start next week, and plan to start flying lessons in a few weeks.

Congratulations! The first step is the hardest. The challenge, excitement, and fun will be like nothing you have experienced. Now that you've started, don't stop!
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