Learning to fly

High Flight



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May 3, 1999
It's my 42nd birthday today and I've made up my mind. I've wished and dreamt long enough. I have the time, my freelance cartooning has given me a bit of disposable income, and I'm certainly not getting any younger. I've spent countless hours of flying flight simulators on computers: a Commodore 64, then an IBM 12 Mhz 8088, and now a Macintosh and 266 Mhz PC. Mastering the programs, each one more complex and more realistic than the other, inevitably makes me wonder, could I climb in a real cockpit and master it too? In the simulations I set the realism as high as possible and try to land only on runways. I know the principles of how and why an airplane flies. I know the fundamentals of navigation and can easily find my way from one fix to another. I have books and books on flying. How easy would it be to transition from a virtual cockpit to the real thing? Why shouldn't I do it?

During the last few weeks at work, we've run a small advertisement for Randall's Flight School at Cherokee County Airport in Canton, just a short hop over the county line in Cherokee. I give them a call and make an appointment for this Saturday to take an introductory flight.

Flight #1
May 8, 1999, 12 noon
(.9 hrs) .9 total

Cherokee County airport is a 3,400' strip of asphalt located about 40 miles north of Atlanta, at the foot of the Smokey Mountains. It sits on top of a ridge at 1,219' MSL and promises a lot of crosswind practice when the wind picks up. A few hangers lie on the north side of the runway and at the west end of the airport property the general aviation parking holds a surprising number of aircraft for such a rural area. In 2004, construction is underway to lengthen the runway, provide a taxiway all the way to the end of runway 22, and to install an ILS.

My first flight would be in a clear blue sky dotted with occasional puffs of clouds. Those little clouds look harmless enough here on the ground, but they mean something to pilots as I’ll find out later. Leroy, the flight school mechanic showed me how to preflight the plane and what to look for. I’m a bit taken aback by just how lightweight and delicate these machines actually are when you look at them up close. With a checklist in hand, we circled the white and blue Cessna 172 and inspected each item in turn, making sure everything was in working order and safe flying condition. Move the flaps and ailerons to their stops and inspect the linkage, check the tires, make sure to check fuel and oil closely. Draining a bit of fuel into a clear plastic cup enables us to look for contaminants like water, dirt or rust and ensure it’s 100 LL blue, the proper color for a C-172.

We reached into the tiny luggage compartment in back and hauled out a short stepladder to peer into the wing tanks, then climbed down to pull out the dipstick and make sure there was plenty of oil. While we were at it, we made sure it was the right color and didn’t look like a chocolate milkshake. After we’d walked around the plane twice, once to check and once to double check, Karen had me to climb into the left seat and we went through the startup checklist. Measuring in near 5'4", Karen isn't the sterotypical Hollywood flight instructor. First of all, she's a she, not some gruff, half-shaven, retired fighter pilot. And being somewhat vertically challenged, the petite blonde would augment her seating with a booster pillow and backrest. Always confident, sure and in control, there would never come a moment in my training while we shared the same plane, that I felt any apprehension about what we were doing. After looking back and listening to many student pilots complain about their instructors teaching methods or temperments, I had inadvertently chosen one of the good ones.

After yelling a warning out the window for everyone in the area to clear the prop, I turned the key to start the engine that for the first time, consisted of more than just lines of computer code. After it came to life, I ran my finger down the laminated checklist as we went through the items together, and when we found nothing serious enough to keep us from flying, actually nothing wrong at all, we taxied to the end of runway 22 and turned around. Taxiing is much harder in real life than the simulator because the steering is done with the feet. The usual tendency is to steer with the yoke like a car's steering wheel, but on the gound, that’s useless and won’t turn the airplane one bit. Another quick check around the cockpit while Karen touched each of the items in turn, reciting a mantra I will soon hear in my sleep: “oil gauges in the green, primer in and locked, mags on both, carb heat cold, mixture rich, flaps up, gas on both, takeoff trim”...it was time to throttle up and fly.

A less than impressive acceleration gently pushed us back in our seats as we began our takeoff roll, but immediately things began to happen on the panel in front of me. Each of the gauges were starting to twitch and come alive as the plane desperately tried to veer left down the runway. We both danced on the rudders to steer it back onto the centerline although she was leading this tango, and as we neared 65 knots on the airspeed indicator, we eased back on the yoke. I could feel the nosewheel start to lift off the pavement, followed a moment later after by the main wheels. With a little help, ok a lot of help, I was flying a real airplane!

We steered straight ahead as I took a quick look out my side window and watched the hangers fall away. Thoughts about my mortality quickly flashed through my mind: Hmmm, quite a lot of trees around here. What would happen if the engine quit? Can we land on that freeway? Could we turn around and make it back to the runway? Once we reached 1700’ we turned left on the crosswind leg and she showed me how to do a quick scan by thirds, right to left, of the sky in front of us for any conflicting traffic. Another 90 degree left turn to join the downwind leg as we continued our climb to pattern altitude. From midfield on the downwind leg, Karen radioed to the traffic in the area that we were leaving the pattern and heading east.

Now it was time for me take sole possession of the controls. With one hand on the yoke and the other firmly clutching the throttle, I flew southeast toward Sawnee Mountain where we circled a few times over Rolling Oaks subdivision and my house. Surprisingly, I had no problems with holding a steady altitude or headings when we leveled our wings and got down to the practical business of familiarization with each of the controls and gauges as they responded to my tentative input. It turned out to be very gusty and bumpy at that altitude (remember those little puffy clouds?) and I began to feel the onset of motion sickness soon after three complete Turns Around A Point, the point in this instance, a red and white radio tower. As we started S-turns, I croaked that I felt too green to do much more maneuvering right now, so Karen handed me an airsick bag. To help combat the nausea, we opened the air vents and flew straight and level for a few minutes while she found something really interesting to look at out the right side of the plane. I was determined that I would not get sick and thankfully managed not to, but wondered in the back of my mind if this might be a problem in later lessons.

It was time to go home now, so we turned west toward Cherokee County, transitioning into the pattern at 2000’ behind traffic. We crabbed into the wind on a long slow final because the plane in front, probably another student on his first flight also, had taken his time flying a long downwind. Karen let me stay lightly on the controls with her all the way down, but just as on takeoff, she had control of the plane. Just above the runway in the flare, it was a bit unnerving not being able to see the runway as the instrument panel rose up to block the view, and I realized I will need to develop my peripheral vision to judge my alignment and altitude.

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