Wednesday, January 20, 2010

First Lesson

Spoiler: I have now "flown" an airplane.

I had my first lesson with East Coast Aero Club one late afternoon after work last week. I've been meaning to post about it but I've been busy reading textbooks and playing with flight simulators (more on that in a later post). Lauren just mentioned this blog on Will-the-Thrill, though, so it's time to update.

After getting to Hanscom a bit before sunset, I spent some time filling out paperwork and meeting with a senior certified flight instructor (CFI). My CFI has thousands of flight instruction hours under her belt, has been teaching at ECAC for over five years, and came well-recommended by the staff. We spent about 20 minutes waiting for a warm airplane to return to the field for my flight and talked about my reasons for wanting to fly (nothing deep here: it looks fun), my prior experience (countless hours of Microsoft Flight Simulator 4, back in 8th grade on the ol' 386; nothing since), and my plans for pursuing a license. Depending on funding and free time, some people will push through the licensing process in several months, often flying 2 or 3 times a week. Given the family commitments, full-time job, and part-time teaching gigs that eat up a lot of my free time, I am hoping to fly once a week, at which the whole process will probably take closer to a full year. Living less than 5 minutes from the airport makes fitting in lessons easier; so does having an amazing and extremely patient wife. (Thanks again, Laur! I owe you big time for this one)

Because of the late hour of the flight, this was more of an introduction to the aircraft than a very formal first lesson. My CFI led me through an initial tour of the aircraft that I'll likely be flying over the course of my lessons, a 1999 Piper Warrior 4-seater (PA28-161). We performed a pre-flight inspection of the aircraft and went over the basic controls and displays in the cockpit. After that, it was my turn to taxi us to the runway. For those who have never been, Hanscom is a relatively large airfield, with two intersecting runways, nestled under the western edge of Logan's airspace. All flights are under control of a tower, which means that each aircraft has to request clearance to perform take off and landing operations (as opposed to smaller fields where aircraft simply broadcast their intentions on a common frequency that everyone is monitoring). My CFI spoke with the tower and we were directed to runway 29, where we were next in line for takeoff.

Taxiing is a very interesting thing. Speed of the aircraft is regulated by increasing or decreasing the throttle lever, which isn't too different from driving (although done by hand, not by foot), but the similarities end there. During taxiing the throttle is left at a fixed position that puts the aircraft at the constant pace of a "brisk walk" and steering is controlled not by the use of the yoke--which sits there in front of you, like a steering wheel, SCREAMING to be turned--but through the rudder pedals on the floor. Let's just say that suppressing 15 years of driving experience is incredibly difficult in this situation. Before we started moving my CFI suggested I keep my hands firmly in my lap to resist the temptation to grab the flight controls and turn them to stay on course as we followed the yellow taxi lines across the airport. I did my best, but on several occasions my hands shot to the controls on their own accord, although to my credit I caught myself at the last second each time. ("No hands!" comments from my CFI probably didn't hurt).

Once we reached the area before the runway, we performed our run-up checklist to make sure everything was working properly and then pointed the plan down the long strip. After a check-in with the tower, my CFI told me to release the brakes and smoothly increase the throttle and we began traveling down the runway, picking up speed. With her coaching, I pulled gently back on the stabilator controls and we lifted smoothly off the runway - I was flying!!

We slowly climbed, maintaining the runway heading and traveling west from the airport, out towards 495. The highway is a nice visual landmark for the Boston airspace and ECAC's practice area is west of it, just north of what used to be the Ft. Devens army base. In a matter of minutes, we had flown to the practice area and an altitude of 3000 feet. During the transit, my CFI had me get a feel for the aileron (left/right roll), stabilator (up/down pitch), and rudder (left/right turn, or yaw) controls, as well as the elevator trim control, which is used to relive pressure from the yoke so you can maintain a constant airspeed without constantly pulling back or pushing forward on the controls. Once we were in the practice area, I spent a bit of time getting a feel for ascending and descending maneuvers, as well as "coordinated flight," where the left/right rudder pedal controls are used in conjunction with the ailerons to mitigate side-slipping. By this point, the sun had been down for a bit and it was beginning to get dark. We turned back for the airport, which my CFI helped me find (you'd think they would be easier to see from the air, even from a distance). We entered the airport pattern and my CFI took us in for a night landing on runway 29. We made an amazingly gently landing (I only have commercial airliners to compare this to and it is SO much slower in a small plane), taxied back to the terminal, performed our post-flight checklist, and covered the plane for the night. Once we were back in the office, I picked up the official student kit, which includes my very own flight log. I filled in the front page with owner information and proudly handed it to my CFI, who logged the flight time and the major maneuvers we practiced. All said and done, I now have 1.5 hours of logged flight time to my name and am one huge step closer towards earning that private pilot's license. Now the real training begins...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The First Step

After several years of thinking about it, I've finally made the decision to take flying lessons and earn my pilot's license (or "Private Pilot Certificate," as it is more mundanely labelled in the US). Several people have at least feigned interest when I've brought this topic up in discussion, so I thought it might be interesting to write a blog about the experience.

I've been reading up on FAA licensing requirements, flight schools, and aeronautics in general a bit more steadily over the past year, as several of my projects at work have brought me in closer contact with the aviation world (mostly helicopter pilots and unmanned aerial systems folks). Moving to our new house has piqued my interest as well: we're less than 2 miles from Hanscom Field (KBED) and Will and I have always enjoyed watching the small aircraft fly overhead. After realizing there might be a chance to leverage my employer's generous "continuing education" reimbursement program, I started to look into pilot certification a bit more seriously. Then, about a month ago, Lauren's father, Brad, loaned me several of the old flying textbooks and Cessna operator's manuals he had from the days when he earned his own license, back before we were born. Since then, I've spent many late hours trolling the internet and reading up on the requirements and processes involved in getting a license. Finally, I took the plunge yesterday and drove with Ben, my brother-in-law, out to Hanscom to check out the two local flight schools. We happened across East Coast Aero Club first and, after about 30 minutes of talking with one of the instructors about program logistics, I decided to take the next step: I've booked a first introductory flight for Tuesday AM, bright and early before the morning traffic picks up.

Here goes nothing...