The purpose of this blog is not just to document and share my adventures, but also to motivate myself to experience new adventures. Most of the things I have posted so far have been low key experiences: visiting new parks, restaurants, and events happening around me. These don’t necessarily fit into the classic definition of “adventure”. But at the beginning of my blog I defined adventure as simply something that pushes me out of my comfort zone and allows me to grow and develop as a person. By that definition, everything I’ve posted so far has been an adventurous step out of my comfort zone; a positive step out of the rut I had found myself so deeply entrenched in. And so far this blog has done a great job of encouraging me to experience just a little bit more of the world around me.
However there are small steps out of ruts, and very giant leaps out of them. And unlike my other posts, this entry is about a much bigger experience, something that I consider a true adventure. Something that will be consuming a lot of my time, energy, and money over the course of this summer.
Learning to fly an airplane!
What an awesome activity to blog about, right?!? Unfortunately, I am not starting this blog from the very beginning of the journey. I’ll admit how cool it would have been to start with my first introductory flight, and chronicle the entire adventure from intro flight to private pilot’s certificate. However, that first flight happened years ago, long before I ever even considered starting a blog. What I can do however is start from where I am now, halfway through the journey, and continue going forward. Maybe someone, somewhere, can read what I post about and relate it to their own experiences. Or just live vicariously through mine!
I am just returning to flying after a long time away. I am now more determined than ever to finish this license. I had gotten all the way up to completing my first solo flight when I stopped flying. This is probably the worst point I possibly could have stopped. There have been many different challenges along the way, which I will elaborate on. But that’s ok, all that matters is that I’ve started again, and now have a blog to write about my accomplishments and frustrations. A blog to keep me motivated!
In a way, flying airplanes is the king of adventures. The sky is a huge, vast, amazing place. I have a very romanticized notion of the sky, of the big blue uncharted world above us. For all of mankind’s history, humans watched birds fly up into the air, watched them explore a world that we never had access to, a beautiful dimension just out of our reach, forbidden to us landbound humans. It was only the bravest and most adventurous spirits that first began to find ways to explore that world above. First came hot air balloons, then the rudimentary airplanes. Nowadays air travel is a routine fact of life and people forget that, until recently, the sky was always this wonderful world out of reach. In the long history of mankind, it is only the last 100 years or so that we have been lucky enough to explore that great blue world above us. That’s how I try to feel when I’m flying. Lucky. A person lucky enough to be able to exist in a time where the sky is finally open to explore for even average people like me!
I have spoken a lot about stepping past comfort zones in the past. Learning to fly an airplane takes me as far from comfort as possible. There is nothing like looking at the world a mile below me and realizing that I am the one completely controlling this aircraft. It offers me such a fresh perspective on the world to see how small everything is from the sky, and to see how vast the world truly is. But at the same time it makes my world smaller, as airplanes can make distant places suddenly seem so much closer. Learning to fly is amazing, but it is also stressful and scary. There are whole new dimensions of fear I’ve experienced during this process, and even when I’m not scared, I’m usually not comfortable. That’s why learning to fly is such an amazing catalyst for personal growth.
I didn’t ever want to be a pilot growing up. Life takes you on weird turns sometimes. This adventure began very naturally of it’s own accord. I remember I was at a Halloween party in 2010. I was talking to my skydiving instructor (yes, that is a story for a different day I suppose) about flying airplanes. My skydiving instructor, Troy, was learning to fly from another skydiver. After spending so much time jumping out of airplanes, flying them became a natural curiosity for me as well. I mentioned to Troy that I had an interest in learning to fly. Troy eventually wandered away into the party crowd and I forgot about the whole conversation. Until a while later when he came back to me with somebody and said “I want you to meet Scott, your new flight instructor!”
And that is how this journey all began. It grew very naturally from adventures I was already having at the time. Unfortunately, at that time in my life, I had just began working endless overtime. I was working every day, 7 days a week, and flying became a vague notion. It wasn’t until months later, when I finally finished my overwhelming workload, that my flight instructor Scott reached out to me and said “Lets Fly!”
I will never forget that first flight. It was a very cold day in February. There was snow everywhere, and the airport was cold and deserted. I met Scott inside and he went over a lot of basics before leading us to the hangar. I remember it well, Hangar 11. Eleven is my lucky number, and so I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. He opened the garage door to the hangar, revealing a little Cessna 152. That “little airplane” seemed big and intimidating to me. Scott walked us both around the airplane slowly, explaining all the parts, and doing a lot of different checks on it. This was what he called the “Preflight Inspection”.
“One day, you’ll be able to do this inspection on your own before we fly,” he said to me.
I couldn’t imagine ever being able to inspect this big airplane on my own. The responsibility of it seemed enourmous and complex. It’s funny to look back on that moment now. Flying still seems so big and complicated to me, but I can definitely do the preflight on my own with no hesitation.
Scott pulled the airplane out of the hangar and we got in. He had a little notebook with a checklist of things we were going over as we started the airplane. It was mindboggling and overwhelming to me. I didn’t understand what anything on the list even meant. Mixture? What the hell was that? Carb heat? Huh? Flaps? What??
He started up the airplane and my nerves were high, but so was my excitement. We began to taxi the airplane to the runway, as he tried to explain the steering to me. I was completely baffled to learn that you steer an airplane with your feet. It was counter intuitive and terrifying to me.
And suddenly on a cold February morning, the Cessna 152 sat at the edge of a long black runway which stretched ahead of us and up into the gray winter skies above. Piles of white snow lined either side of the road.
Full throttle and with a loud roar the Cessna began to race down the runway. It felt fast and furious, and upon his instruction, I pulled back on the controls. Suddenly the airplane lifted off the earth and up into the air. We were flying!!! WOW!!!!
The flight did not get easier from there, but it was still amazing. He flew us to a practice area, and had me try and practice straight and level flight. It seemed impossible to me. There were so many ways the airplane could get unbalanced. It could pitch up or down. It could roll from side to side. It could yaw left or right. This was much more complicated than driving a car. I felt like I was trying to walk and chew bubblegum at the same time.
“This is not the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” I said to him as I struggled to balance the airplane.
“Yea but it’s not the hardest either, is it?” He asked. I laughed in agreement. He tried to show me how to stall an airplane, and I was completely terrified. When we finally landed, the flight had ended but the journey of this new adventure had just begun.
Scott and I became friends quickly. We both had similar interests, I liked the way he taught, and I was really excited to learn from him. I was still really busy with work, and the weather was bad this time of year, so I wasn’t flying often. We had a lot of ground sessions, which I enjoyed. We made a lot of fun plans for flying and jumping in the summer, and I was really excited about the months to come as I learned to fly with him.
And then it happened. At the start of June 2011, just a few days after our last flight, Scott suddenly died in a plane crash. My world exploded. We were just texting a couple days ago, planning our next flight and some other fun adventures. To the best of my knowledge, he had been shuttling some type of kit airplane from Florida when something went terribly wrong and it fell apart in the air. Needless to say, I was crushed and terrified. If my experienced instructor just died in a plane crash, what was I of all people doing trying to fly? Just as soon as my adventures in aviation had begun, they ended. I put away my log book and didn’t even think about flying for a long time.
It was well over a year before the idea even occurred to me again. I’m not even sure what got me thinking about flying again. Perhaps it was fear. I was tired of being terrified, and wanted to go back up to conquer the fear and face what had happened. Or maybe boredom, and that relentless urge deep inside that pushes me towards new adventures.
And one day in 2012, I went to a different airport and decided to sign up. I don’t know what my goals were at this point. It was the end of the summer, and I was still extremely distrustful of aviation. Getting a pilot license wasn’t even on my radar. I think I just wanted to fly, to get back up in the air, and not feel haunted by my fears anymore. It initially felt weird to even consider flying with anybody else. But I met a great instructor named Joe, and we began to fly.
It was the end of the summer, and so I didn’t get to fly for too long in 2012. But it was enough for me to feel overwhelmed. Flying straight and level had become easy enough, but learning the maneuvers, stalls, slow flight, all seemed beyond me. We started doing a lot of pattern work as he tried to teach me how to land. I can’t even begin to describe the mountains of frustration I felt learning to land an airplane. There were a million things to simultaneously remember and keep track of, and I was remembering none of them. I felt like an idiot, my brain felt full and stretched to the max, and I was never able to do more than 3 or 4 landings before I mentally couldn’t even process it anymore.
Learning to land is complicated. I was processing absurd amounts of information in challenging new ways. My brain was growing, even though it felt the opposite at the time. I would finish flights feeling stressed, tired, and incompetent. My instructor was still great despite all of this, and very patient with me, which made a huge difference. I’m lucky for that. But I wasn’t too disappointed when October hit and the weather became pretty much a nightmare. I was out of money anyway, and so I put flying down.
Spring 2013 came around, and flying was still on my brain. This would be my third year interested in flying, but as you can see, consistency was not one of my strengths. I realized by this point that I needed to fly at least twice a week. Any less meant I forget everything I just learned, and spend much of the next flight just trying to remember. So in the Spring of 2013, we flew and flew and flew.
And I sucked and sucked and sucked.
Learning to land was still a nightmare for me, and I felt thoroughly incompetent. I would have fleeting moments where it all came together and clicked, and then they would get lost in an ocean of awful landings again. I was waiting for the day they told me I was never getting it and that I should stop coming. But while I was sucking at learning to land, other skills had improved without me realizing it. My radio communication skills were much smoother. My slow flight and stalls had become better too. Joe commented that I changed over the winter. I went from being nervous and terrified, to developing some confidence. Soon my landings got better and better, and while I never really felt okay or consistent, my instructor seemed to think I was. More and more he started to mention that my time to make a solo flight was coming. I’ll admit that I was horrified every time he mentioned it.
And then one warm summer day, it was here. Joe jumped out of the plane, and told me to go fly, and do some take offs and landings in the pattern. He stayed on the ground on the radio.
Suddenly there I was, alone, staring down the long black runway ahead of me. And then there I went, I was racing down that runway, pulling back the controls. And suddenly I was in the air. I was surprised how much easier the airplane took off with nobody in that passenger seat. But I had no time to be nervous or scared. There was too much going on, too much to pay attention to. My training had kicked in. It wasn’t until I was almost on base of my landing pattern that I looked over and really realized that I had an empty right seat. And then I remember the strangest sensation, the memory of my first flight with Scott years ago, and smiling and imagining that he was still there in that plane with me, sitting in that empty right seat and encouraging me.
Soloing was a big accomplishment. Huge. Something I absolutely thought I could never do. I felt incredibly excited and empowered. I did a couple more flight lessons after that exciting day, as Joe began to teach me short and soft field takeoff/landings.
But I had started a new job that summer. And that job quickly became overwhelmingly stressful. I completely regret it, but I became so busy and stressed with work that I let flying slide away for the rest of the summer. And then… Joe quit and found a new job. My instructor was gone, my workload was way too stressful, my finances still sucked, and the bad winter weather had arrived. The thought of flying with a new instructor in these stressful times became too much, and I let my dream slide away once again.
2014 was year 4, and while I had great intentions to get back in the sky, the truth is that I never even tried. My job was still destroying my life. This is the same job I complain about now. My instructor was gone. But I also had an extreme student loan problem, and flying is unbelievably expensive. Even flying the 152, the smallest and cheapest airplane, I still was burning through money. And so in 2014, I spent all my money on student loans and stopped pursuing adventures.
Except once. In August 2014, I finally did something that I had been wanting to do for many years, and signed up for an acrobatic flight. Acro flights are expensive, and I could never justify spending money on that when I had a normal pilots license to work on. But I wasn’t flying anymore, so I eagerly signed up for a fun acrobatics airplane flight. Before we went up, the instructor asked me if I had any experience with flying. I told him that I had soloed an airplane last year, and he got an excited gleam in his eye. Since I had already soloed, he let me do a lot of the flying. And the flight was amazing. We did barrel roles, loops, and even upside down inverted flight. I was completely pumped with adrenaline by the time we landed It was incredible and at the end, he told me “You need to keep flying, you are good at acro.”
And that is when I decided to come back. I knew it wouldn’t be that summer, but I knew I would start again. I decided to take a Helicopter lesson at my old flight school, just for fun. And I was amazed to find out that my old instructor Joe had come back. I was very excited, and with that, my dreams of flying were back and within reach.
And that brings us up to 2015. This year is year 5. It’s embarrassing and ridiculous that I’ve spent this much time on this. Clearly flying has been my Everest. There have been many challenges that I have let stand in my way. Fear. Grief. Money. Time. Apathy. Did I mention money? But in 1 year my medical expires. And I need to have my pilots license by then. I have invested way too much time and money into this experience to give up. So instead, I am going to start and keep flying this summer and get as far as I can. Flying may be my Everest, but mountains can be climbed, obstacles surmounted, and goals achieved. I will become a pilot.
Herein lies the true value of this blog. These entries will be great adventures and a lot of fun to write about. But I will also be able to chart my progress, vent my frustrations, and ultimately keep myself focused on my goal. To become a pilot. I will keep flying. I wont stop. Blog entries will help keep me accountable. Blog entries will help keep me focused.
I’ve already started flying again. I went up a few weeks ago in May, shortly after the Days of New experiment. Joe is still my instructor, but we are flying out of a different airport now. I am actually relieved, as this new one is a lot easier to land at. My first flight back I was nervous. It had been a while, but I was surprised that I could still do everything. Joe confirmed that I was still able to fly the airplane fine, and that I hadn’t lost my abilities over the long hiatus. Landings were still scary though. He started mentioning how we need to get me soloing quickly. Yikes.
Flight two just happened last week. The forecast was showing thunderstorms, but it was a beautiful day and the radar showed nothing. The sky looked blue and unbelievable. Normally I’m nervous and unmotivated, but on that gorgeous day I suddenly wanted nothing more than to launch that airplane into the beautiful skies above me.
When we started, the clouds were big and fluffy and the sky was warm and inviting. It was very hot and humid on the ground, so it felt great to get that airplane into the cooler air above. Joe said that it was too windy to solo (eek, why does he keep mentioning me soloing again?) and so we got to fly to two different airports with control towers, one of which I had never been to.
It was pretty exciting, until we were flying back and suddenly there were thunderstorms all over. I thought I saw lightning. We were able to dodge the storms by flying directly in between them. Isolated thunderstorms had a new meaning to me after viewing them from the sky. I remember though, suspending my terror for a moment, and looking out the window in awe. Flying an airplane between two storms is an adventure most people will never get to experience. The world suddenly seemed so big and incredible, and possibilities seemed endless. I was happy Joe was able to land us safe, as I felt lost and disoriented in the weather. But let’s be honest, I feel a bit lost and disoriented in an airplane even on sunny days.
That’s where I’m at now. We landed from that second flight, and Joe was immediately talking about soloing me again. I feel less confident. My landings on the last flight were pretty terrible. It was also extremely windy and the heat created issues with me getting the plane down. But Joe is still confident in my abilities, and I should probably trust him. The first time I soloed I had been flying very regularly and consistently for a while, so I was confident. But now it has been a long time since I was flying consistently. My skills may not have regressed too much, but my general comfort and confidence has.
Big challenges on the way, and I feel completely uncomfortable as I look ahead. Good. That is the goal right? Step out of the comfort zone? Well, I’m already quite far out of my comfort zone, and will only go further out with future flights. Here we go. Let the learning, growth, and adventure begin!!!