All by myself…sort of

I did it!

I got back in the plane by myself (with Gizmo) and flew to Corvallis and then to Scappoose and then to Hillsboro, completing my FAA required solo time for cross-country flying. From this day forward I never have to venture more than a few miles from my home airport BY MYSELF again!

But here’s the thing: what got me in the plane this time was realizing that I wasn’t alone.

Over the course of the past year and a half of flight training I have picked up a small army of supporters along the way. First it was just a retired pilot that agreed to take me up a few times in exchange for a pool cue rack I was selling. Then I was invited to the pilots’ standing breakfast every Saturday morning at the Blue Hangar Cafe. It wasn’t long before friends and family jumped on board. Then I met the 99s. Supporters began commenting on my blog. Once my first solo flight was announced to the office I found other aviators and sailors and navigators in the woodwork at my workplace. Even my non-aviation minded friends ask how I’m doing and encourage me to keep at it.

I thought it was appropriate, since I was thinking of all of you, for you to come with me on this second cross-country solo. So sit back while I spin my yarn and enjoy the pictures.

Yesterday morning I felt nervous as usual as I got in the car to drive up to the airport. I turned on the radio,

“Good morning Portland, beautiful weather today on this 79th anniversary of the Hindenburg…”

Channel change. It was Tom Petty.

“…and I’m free! Free falling!…”

You’ve got to be kidding me. Channel change.

Classical radio was the only safe channel. So, it was Schubert all the way to the airport. When my brain wandered and began to think of all that could go wrong I heard Patty’s voice, my 99s scholarship mentor, in my head, “Whatever happens, you will find that your training will take over.”

I got to the plane, strapped Gizmo in and performed my preflight only calling my CFI over twice to double check why my radio wouldn’t work and why the flap rod didn’t move freely.

I took my time. I added oil to the engine even thought it had the minimum required. I ordered full tanks of gas even though I wouldn’t need all of it. I had the windshield cleaned. I ate a granola bar. When I felt good and ready, the 115 lbs me lugged the 1,405 lbs airplane down to the end of the row by myself. A sight that did indeed turn heads.

My 1,405 lbs bird.

At Colins’ recommendation I said all of my checklists out loud. I gave Gizmo the preflight briefing and instructed him in the requirement of the shoulder harness and the importance of a sterile cockpit during takeoff and landing.

Up and away we went into the clear blue sky, 700 feet per minute until we reached 3,000 feet. I didn’t request flight following this time, but decided to listen to each airport as I passed along the way.

As I approached the southern edge of the West Practice Area, I made a radio call that I was over the Newberg VOR. A familiar voice came back “sounds like you’re kicking ass and taking names.” It was CFI #5 out with another student.

Over the ridge, out of the [somewhat] familiar, and then boom, there it was – the Willamette Valley stretching onward as far as the eye could see. My first checkpoint was a particular crook in the Willamette River.

This particular crook in the Willamette River was my checkpoint.

I found all of my checkpoints along the way, and even some other stuff I saw on the map I decided to look for just for fun. There were airports everywhere – Newberg, McMinnville, Salem, Independence. Cross country solo #2 was going swimmingly well.

Bird’s eye view of Independence’s airport.

In no time at all I was crossing East of the large hills just North of Corvallis. Just over those hills was Beaver Stadium (Oregon State U’s unmistakable stadium with a beaver painted on the field) and just past that would be the airport.

Corvallis, Oregon State University and Beaver Stadium.

I didn’t spot the stadium at first, but fortunately I had once interviewed for a job at OSU and was familiar with the town and campus. I found the university, and I knew from my airport diagram that the airport was 4 miles SW of the town, so that’s where I headed. It took a minute, but eventually I spotted the airport.

The weather reported variable winds at 9 knots, mostly from the North. I set up for runway 35, called my turns and then about 30 feet off of the runway decided I didn’t like any of what was happening. The glide path would have worked but I couldn’t get the nose to line up with the runway and I was all over the place with my ailerons. Nope, it’s a go-around.

I hadn’t done a go-around in a while. I remembered the carb heat and the throttle go in, I forgot not to pick up all three notches of flaps at once and not before my airspeed picked up, so instead of climbing out I coasted just a bit lower and lower to the runway I didn’t want to land on. I caught what I had done the minute I did it and then had that panic moment when I heard Lee, my very first CFI’s voice “nothing happens fast in an airplane.” Right. Just hold it steady, it will climb.

Sure enough it did. I decided the winds were just a bit too much for me to try again and headed back out over the little town.

Ok, in two minutes I should see the airport in Independence, right when the Willamette River meanders over almost to the town. Two minutes came and went. I could still see Corvallis. I wasn’t even past the hills. Twelve minutes passed and I believed I was over Independence, only this town didn’t have an airport. The river turned across the valley just as it was supposed to, but no airport to be found.

I trekked on, I would see Salem to my right, it’s hard to miss, it’s a large city.

Much later than expected, I saw a large city to my right. Salem is Delta airspace and I was able to tune into their tower frequency. Only this time I couldn’t spot the airport in Salem either.

I studied the sectional, suddenly there were lots of features I didn’t recall seeing before. The sectional had multiple places where the river split, before I only knew of one on my route. I looked out the window and saw a large bridge crossing over the Willamette, but no such bridge on my sectional.

I had been flying for about 20 minutes, up ahead of me must be McMinnville, maybe Newberg? That large road below me must be I-5…but where are my checkpoints?

Baby bird. Lost. Again. Wishing I had Fred Noonan on board.

Then it happened all over again. Out of nowhere came the nausea, the lightheadedness, and the shaking. Only this time I was certain I was physically fine. This time I understood it better. This was panic.

At that moment I heard Monica, one of my Texas 99s in my head who admitted to experiencing the exact same thing on a few of her solo flights, “just remember, you’ve got a map and you’ve got a radio.”

Right. I looked at the map, got the frequency for the local FSS and tuned it in. A friendly man answered and asked how he could help. I explained I was a student pilot on a solo flight and I needed some help navigating.

You guys, he was amazing. He spoke to me calmly and checked in often. I’m certain he was a pilot because a number of the things he said to me gave me the distinct impression he knew exactly what I was going through.

He had me squawk 7700 (gulp!) because getting lost is an emergency. He contacted Portland Approach and said they showed me about a mile SW of Independence.

What?! How?! I was never supposed to be West of Independence! How has twenty-five minutes of flight not gotten me past a checkpoint I was supposed to pass five minutes into the flight?!

Then he gave me an option, “if you want I’ll stay with you and we’ll talk it out until you know where you are again or I could pass you to Portland Approach and they will guide you back on track.”

I opted for Portland Approach figuring he was just being nice to offer to stay with me. Portland Approach had a controller that was just as friendly and understanding. I admitted I was lost and he gave me a new transponder code to squawk and asked me to ident. Then he gave me a heading, asked a few things about my aircraft and affirmed that I was doing just fine.

Inside I was conflicted. On the one hand I was relieved to be in the hands of capable people that would hold my hand until I knew where I was again – the panic was gone. On the other hand I felt like a complete failure. Twice now I had ventured out on my own and twice I had gotten lost and bothered otherwise very busy controllers in Charlie airspace with my inability to navigate.

Then I heard it. Another of the pilots on the same frequency was repeating back an instruction the controller had given him and ended it with “…maintain 5,000, great job on the student pilot.”

That was for me. He just told me I was doing great.

I’m not alone up here. I’ve just added one more to my small army of supporters and I don’t even know his name.

The controller took me right back into the West Practice Area, flew me straight over KHIO (my home airport) and then, when I confirmed I had KSPB in sight, cleared me to change the frequency.

Can you spot KSPB? I can!


I took this picture for my folks, I knew they’d love the aerial view of the boats.

I came into Scappoose for a touch and go on 33, announcing each of my turns to the local traffic. Again, I didn’t like the landing and aborted it but this time I made quite literal the touching and going. I tip-toed the main wheels down, never touched the nose gear to the runway and jumped back up into the sky. On my way up a radio call came from the FBO “is there any traffic in the area, please report?”

[click] “Cessna 521 is on the upwind for 33.”

“Oh good! A man called over here from McMinnville FSS asking about you, how you doing up there?”

Pilots. They really are the coolest people.

On my way back over the ridge between KSPB and KHIO I called him up, assured him I was doing great and thanked him for being wonderful.

Can you spot KHIO? Me neither, but I know it should be on the left-hand side of this picture.

I used Rob’s trick of holding up my right hand when the tower cleared me to make right traffic for 31 Left (why can’t we just call it “the big runway” to reduce confusion?).

The last landing was just as botched as the first two. Some days you’ve got it, some days you don’t. I put it down hard. Hard enough to bounce a few times. Remembering as I did Rob’s comment that it is supposed to be messy now while I’m still new at this. Pretty landings will come later, right now just put it on the ground safely.

Snapped this picture of KHIO as I was flying over on my pass from Corvallis to Scappoose.

I taxied back in and the minute I started to beat myself up about getting lost flying a straight shot from South to North up a valley with a major freeway beneath me the whole time, I heard Ron’s voice (even though I’ve never actually heard it) when he told me to stop being so hard on myself. It’s way too soon in the game to expect 100% proficiency in navigating unfamiliar territory. I took a lot of people on that flight with me and all of them probably have similar stories worthy of a kick in the pants or two.

Finally, to all of you, those I named in this article, and the many many many many others that have been voices of support and encouragement along the way, thank you for seeing to it that I never fly alone.

Unabashed boldness…meh, not for me

Hello, my name is Valerie, and I’m a weenie.

It took me fifteen days to get back in a plane by myself after my last solo flight, and even that I only did after bursting into tears and having to sit in the plane for half an hour to deliberate on it.

Believe it or not, this was progress. The last solo flight I had scheduled I didn’t even make it to the plane.

The extreme weenieness began after my first cross country solo flight. Three specific thoughts occurred to me:

1) Every time I am alone in a plane, something new and unexpected seems to go wrong.

2) Most of the emergency situations I have trained for are things I can only read about, not actually experience (ex: How do I know I can land in a field with no engine since school policy prevents deliberately killing the engine or field landings? How do I know I can pull out of a spin when school policy prevents practical spin training?)

3) I don’t know enough to be doing this by myself. For the past few months I have been sprayed with a fire hose of information and caught what droplets I could believing that one day, I would have it all absorbed and understood. I thought that day would come before I had to be alone in an airplane, but it didn’t.

I still hold my breath when leaning the mixture (suppose I kill the engine by pulling too much), I discovered yesterday my gravity fed, not fuel injected system, does house a fuel pump, and don’t ask me how VORs work. Seriously, those things are magic.

Other contributing factors to my weenieness are that I’m new to Oregon and don’t know how to drive to most of the places I’m trying to fly to. I constantly feel lost up there. I look out the window and it’s all forest and rivers and mountains and little towns that look identical to the next little town. If I can pick out Hwy 26 or the Columbia River (I confuse it with the Willamette River all the time), it’s a really good day. If I can navigate back to my home airport without help, it’s a miracle.

Plus I still don’t have the experience to know what is a danger and what is normal. Flying over mountains, every time there’s even a hint of an updraft the first thing in my mind: “Oh no! IT’S WIND SHEAR, I’M GUNNA DIE!!! CLIMB! CLIMB! CLIMB!” When that right mag starts to bounce on the run-up, is it just carbon burning off from too much fuel or is the engine about to explode? I truly don’t know the difference yet. Which is why I came back to the parking lot on my last solo, burst into tears and refused to go up yesterday. A pilot that can’t even figure out what is wrong with her engine (or the fact that NOTHING is wrong with it) isn’t someone competent to go up there.

I am constantly out of my element. Out of my comfort zone. I do my best to stay calm and positive, and then something always seems to go wrong. Yesterday when I did finally make it up there for just a local flight instead of the cross country I had scheduled, I learned my transponder wasn’t reporting my altitude (this was bad because I had managed to fly myself right back into Delta airspace when the clouds that were supposed to be higher were not and I turned back).

The weenieness has not gone unnoticed by my CFI. Frankly, it’s hard to ignore a woman leaking Niagara Falls out of her face while conducting a preflight. He is trying lots of things to try to get me comfortable up there. First he got special permission from the flight chief to go to a little airport with a grass strip and practice (yes, actually do instead of just talk about) emergency field landings. Now I know I can land in a field and I know what to expect.

On our next flight I told him to deliberately make things go wrong with the plane without me noticing and let me figure it out and fix it. It was much more helpful from the way the flight school teaches it, “ok, now we’re going to pretend we’ve had an engine failure, but we’re not really going to do it.”

For the last part of the lesson he said, “ok, close your eyes, put your chin to your chest and when I tell you to look up, I want you to recover from whatever I have done to the plane” This proved the most valuable – and most nauseating – part of my training so far. He put the plane in strange attitudes, at strange speeds, sometimes almost to a stall when I looked up. Each time, I was able to pinpoint very quickly what to do to make it fly right again.

Yet, the next time I was supposed to go up by myself, I was in tears before I got to the plane.

I’ve tried everything I know to do.

Meet Gizmo, my copilot.

Gizmo is helpful, he holds my water bottle between his belly and his seat belt, I can tuck my map under his leg and it won’t fall between the seats, and he provides someone to talk to. (“Do those clouds look much lower than reported to you too, Giz?” and “I don’t like this turbulence either Gizmo, let’s get out of  here!”)

But to be truthful, even with Gizmo I’m still terrified to be all alone up there. There’s something about having another person in the plane. Another set of eyes to watch out or help you look for things on the ground. Even if they were in full panic mode, I could use them as a barometer. “Ok, you’ve got the panic covered, check, next we need to pitch for 60 knots…” Somehow the brain chemistry changes when it’s not just you up there. When you are responsible for getting someone else back safely.

I’m really not sure what to do. It has been explained to me that once I get my license I never have to fly alone again if I don’t want to. But I know to get to a license I have one more solo cross country flight I have to do before my check ride.

Anyone have a helpful tip or advice for how to get a weenie back in the plane by herself?

Building Confidence

Three nights ago I was plagued by nightmares.

In the first one my engine caught fire. In the second I lost my radio. In the third the door popped open and a rush of wind carried my sectional and navigation log out of the plane. In the fourth I lost my elevator.

I haven’t had aviation-related nightmares before. Truly, they didn’t begin until my CFI turned to me after three lovely cross-country flights and said, “you’ll be on your own for the next one.”

The nightmares continued the next night.

In the first my engine died and I executed an emergency landing on a freeway and killed a van full of children. In the second I was lost and nothing on my sectional looked anything like what I saw on the ground. In the third a gust of wind threw me into my first spin.

They continued the next night too. I saw the aftermath of my husband as a widow.

On the third morning I lied awake in the wee hours of the morning, bathed in sweat from the nightmares hours before, when it occurred to me: I had already had flights by myself where things had gone wrong and survived. What I should be afraid of was not an in flight emergency but losing my head. That was the real danger.

In all of the nightmares I lost my head. I couldn’t concentrate. I went hysterical. But in real life, though I wouldn’t say I kept my calm the whole time, I did exactly what I was trained to do and things turned out fine.

I have been trained in emergency landings, engine failures, engine fires and radio failure. My Cessna manual has an entire chapter on emergency procedures, including a section on what to do in the event of an elevator failure.

It might sound silly, but in all of my training no one has yet handed me a tiny pill and said “if all else fails, it’s swift and painless.” I will interpret that to mean as long as I keep my wits, this flight is going to be fine.

But better yet, it is foolish to say “it’ll be fine.” Why would it be?! I’m tremendously nervous and this will be my first time unsupervised more than three nautical miles from my home airport. So to prepare, I will plan for things to go wrong.

I will expect the climb out to be awkward and frighteningly fast because the plane will weigh less. I will expect to have to change my course for unpredictable weather. I will expect a gremlin to do something to my airplane. I will expect to not hit my checkpoints on time, maybe even miss a few. I will expect to bounce the first landing. I will expect to bounce the second. And I will practice my solo landings until I don’t bounce before I return back to home base (or my fuel allowance runs out). And when I get there, I will expect (as usual) to not be able to find the airport among the neighborhoods and factories and stadiums everyone else uses to guide them effortlessly to the tower. And when I get on the tower’s frequency (and ask them where the hell they are because my heading isn’t doing the trick), I will expect to have no idea what they are saying because it didn’t so much come at me as mumble as it ran past. I will expect them to change the runway on me.

And then, when ANY of these things goes right (or I deal with them without losing my cool because I saw them coming), bit by bit, I will gain the confidence I lack. And after my flight tomorrow, I will know what I don’t know tonight as I try to find peaceful sleep: that I can be a pilot, come what may.

No, not yet, but thanks for asking

Hello fellow aviators, well-wishers and vagrant blog browsers! I know what you’re thinking, “surely she has soloed by now, weeks have gone by.”

Perhaps my title was a dead giveaway but um, no, not yet, but thanks for asking.

After I learned I passed the progress check (and made a special request to NEVER work with the junior chipmunk again…perhaps more of a demand actually) I was instructed to be sure to wear a crappy shirt to my next lesson…[eek!!!].

The night before the big day I had my first 99s chapter meeting. You guys will never believe who the guest speaker was. Just when I was sure he would be permanently removed from all my future endeavors in aviation in waltzes the junior chipmunk. His introduction did in fact confirm he is not yet old enough to drink alcohol and somehow in roughly three years of flying he has secured his place in the upper echelon of the flight school. Suspecting a paternal connection with the flight chief, I politely endured his presentation while all of the women around me gawked and drooled over the handsome young man that was kind enough to charitably give of his time to teach a bunch of girls how to use the ForeFlight app. I’m beginning to suspect this chipmunk and I are going to have a long and winding road of engagements, specifically because I am making it my mission to avoid him. Isn’t that how life tends to go?

But I digress, this post is about my next few lessons. My next lesson was supposed to be the first solo but that morning something was off. I can’t put my finger on it, but the moment I woke up everything felt wrong. I still went through the motions. I wore the crappy shirt. I did a little chair flying to prepare. I arrived early to the airport so that when my flight time started my manifest was filled out and my pre-flight was knocked out.

Off we went to fly the pattern three times before the big event. Everything was executed exactly right. I rotated at 60 knots, I climbed at 70 knots, I turned crosswind to face Mt. St. Helens at 700 feet. I climbed to pattern altitude and turned downwind towards Mt. Hood. Just past the numbers I pulled my power back, pitched for 80 knots, pulled the carb heat, and pulled my first notch of flaps. I turned base at 900 feet, pulled my second notch of flaps and dropped it down to 500 feet to turn final. Turning final I pulled my last notch of flaps, aimed right at the runway and brought it down….safely but not so pretty. “Shake it off, Val, you haven’t flown in a week and a half.” Carb heat in, flaps up, full throttle, off we went again.

The second time around we caught some turbulence on the downwind leg that unsettled me. The clouds that morning looked ominous and bulges were forming across the ceiling. It looked as if the bottom would drop at any moment, but we kept flying in hopes it would hold out. The second landing was better, one might even say pretty.

The third time around the turbulence caught us on the downwind and the base leg. Then about twenty feet above the runway the plane was swept dramatically off to the right. I decided to execute a go around. It wasn’t a clean go around. It was a messy, ‘oh crap I forgot to put the throttle in all the way or pull my flaps up because I suddenly couldn’t hear myself on the radio’ go around. I announced my go around to the tower about four times before  my instructor clarified they had heard me and helped me recover. Then the tower sent us to the right pattern (we had been in the left) ending at a different runway. Now I was flustered and by the time I was turning to the downwind I had lost sight of the airport entirely. That’s when the turbulence began again. Frankly I was scared. I was doing the flying but if I were to be totally honest, I didn’t want my CFI to get out even if all he was doing was sitting and watching. The weather was changing by the minute and I was completely out of sorts.

I had one more pretty landing that day, then a not so pretty landing, and my final landing came with a warning from my CFI that if I put the plane down that crooked again I was in danger of flipping it. Needless to say, we taxied back to the parking area, tied the plane up and ended the lesson without me soloing. I was devastated, but I understood why. I have put a lot of time and effort into understanding what achieves the perfect landing since then.

Our next two lessons were ground school on account of the weather. I have begun cross-country plotting which has resulted in my E6-B flying across the room once about every ten minutes (if one more person preaches to me how easy it is to use and understand…). It is fair to say I am pretty frustrated with my aviation training right now. But I’m holding on because a legion of pilots assure me that it gets better and that someday this will all be worth it. So, I have three more lessons this week and hopefully one of them will see me soloing.

The Progress Check

Well folks, yesterday was a big day for me. I finally had the progress check my flight school requires before my CFI can approve me to solo.

It came in two stages, two hours of ground school and then a two hour block for the flight check.

I arrived to the ground school portion early enough to study my note cards. I felt prepared, excited even. 14:00 came and went, and with it, no progress check instructor.

At 14:10 (yes, I’m a stickler for being on time, it’s just good manners) a junior chipmunk wandered in, introduced himself as my progress check instructor, and excused himself to the bathroom for the next five minutes.

What exactly is a junior chipmunk? It is someone whose youth and exuberance for their position of authority is only outweighed by their inability to use common sense or people skills. The 18-year-old officer that gave you a ticket for going two mph above the posted speed limit on your wedding day is a junior chipmunk. The intern that sorts the office mail alphabetically and drafts a memo about the new office coffee mug organization system complete with meeting invite is a junior chipmunk.

This junior chipmunk, while unable to grow a single chest hair or empty his bladder before a scheduled meeting, began the progress check with the demeanor of Lord Voldemort.

Chipmunk: “What did you do today before you came here?”

Me: “I came straight from work.”

Chipmunk: “and what do you do?”

Me: “I am an interpreter.”

Chipmunk (somewhat deflated): “oh” [marks 10 out of 10 in the space for English proficiency] “What kind of engine does your airplane have?”

Me: “an air-cooled, four-stroke, naturally-aspirating Lycoming engine.”

Chipmunk: “you forgot horizontally-opposed” [takes point off]

Chipmunk: “how much horsepower does it have?”

Me (deflated): “I don’t know.”

Chipmunk: “108” [takes point off] “How does a four stroke engine work?”

Me: “four pistons pump up and down within four cylinders, each taking their turn with the gas and air mixed from the carburetor to intake, compress, combust, and exhaust, turning the crankshaft.”

Chipmunk: “and how does the electrical system work?”

Folks, this is where it gets murky. Jump ahead ten minutes to find both of us pouring over the POH diagram of the electrical system. He is convinced I have gotten it wrong, yet he cannot explain how it works or answer his own question. He resolves that “this diagram is oversimplified and I cannot explain how it works from this, let’s just drop that question.”

Chipmunk: “what is a stall?”

Me: “A stall occurs when you have exceeded the critical angle of attack.”

Chipmunk: “sort of, elaborate some more.”

Me: “when you no longer get enough wind beneath the wing, it will stall.”

He didn’t like this answer and spent the next few minutes making sure I understood he was brilliant using every big boy scout word he could come up with to explain that a stall was actually when the wind hits the wing at an angle that is not advantageous to lift.

Chipmunk: “What is a spin?”

Me: “An uncoordinated stall.”

Friends, he didn’t like this answer either and despite my elaboration that a spin had to do with one wing stalling slightly more than the other, he made sure to mark on my forms for my CFI that I needed more ground school review of stalls and spins.

After that he asked me things like “what are the IFR flight minimums?” to which I replied, “I don’t know, I’m training to be a VFR private pilot right now, that question hardly seems fair.”

Having never really been challenged before, this popped the acorns right out of his cheeks.


His expression looked something like this.

I’m not sure what got into me. It’s not like me to be so bold or outright rude to someone whose endorsement I need to get where I’m going. Or to another human in general. After all, I was once a junior chipmunk in my field too. Who did I think I was giving a CFI a hard time?! Something about this guy got under my skin and we butted heads the rest of the review. There were even a few questions that were so obscure he didn’t know the answers, which became apparent when I asked for clarification. At one point I even informed him he was mistaken about required airspace for mode C transponders. What was I thinking?!

Seriously, you guys. I was such an asshole to this kid and I still don’t know why.

Suffice it to say, the ground part didn’t go well. I was shooting daggers out of my eyes by the time we parted. Somehow this prepubescent with the fancy pilot shirt turned me from eager student to one of those I-eat-boys-like-you-for-breakfast she beasts in the span of two hours.

At the end he informed me “Fortunately now that you’re Part 61, it doesn’t really matter if you pass or fail this check. This was really just a conversation to see if you knew your stuff.” He never really confirmed if I did or didn’t. I suppose I will have to have a conversation with my CFI to find out. Gee I’m glad I studied so hard and paid so much for a progress check that “doesn’t really matter.”

I took a moment to douse the smoke coming out of my ears and proceeded to the pilot’s lounge for part two.

The flight portion of the progress check went much better. I didn’t do my best. Far from it! I was nervous and hadn’t flown in nearly two weeks. Fortunately the instructor was a young guy who managed to avoid a junior chipmunk complex and taught me some wonderful stuff along the way. We departed with him telling me he could confidently give a good report back to my CFI.


My next lesson isn’t scheduled until Friday. But if the weather cooperates, I’m hoping it will be a day to remember for the rest of my life.

The Fifth Time is the Charm

Hello again! I’ve told my negativity where to stick it, met CFI #5, and made it back up to the skies again this week.

I won’t lie, I was pretty determined to hate this new guy. In my mind I had it all worked out that he was a lousy instructor that was only using me to get to an airline career. I arrived at the airport with 10 minutes to spare and no manifest. Make no mistake, this was a last ditch effort from a student that was once again ready to quit.

I settled into a cushy chair in the pilot’s lounge and began checking the weather on my phone when a friendly voice emerged from the usual cloud of testosterone that permeates these places. A tall brunette stepped out of the crowd and identified himself as my new CFI. I’m not sure I even stood up to shake his hand.

I explained to him I hadn’t flown in three months and didn’t really remember how to fill out the weight and balance or density altitude on the manifest. When I told him my last instructor had shown me a shortcut on the computer for figuring these out, he patiently insisted I should do it myself and showed me how.

At the preflight he insisted I climb up to check the fuel in the wings and check the oil myself. Dear readers, close your mouths. I know the pilot is responsible for visually checking the fuel and oil levels in the plane before take off. I even agree with this notion. However, this particular flight school has a policy that the CFI has to check and verify those two things so it is often the case that the student is told to skip them and perform the rest of the preflight while the CFI climbs up there and checks under the cowling. I was impressed, even joyful, this new CFI felt it was just as important for me to do these two rather fundamental parts of the preflight as I did. I had already grown accustomed to skipping them. Shame on me!

He did this other thing I was not used to an instructor doing. He asked me questions. Things like, “what kind of oil does this plane use?” and “what are you looking for when you inspect the ailerons in the preflight?” You know, stuff a good CFI does but I had not been exposed to much before.

When we went up it was all about checklists and procedure. He was glad I knew what to do, he was not glad I didn’t know how to explain or talk about what I was doing. We did some emergency procedures and stalls, then practiced some touch and goes. I was rusty, but he was patient and encouraging. When I was lost, he helped me navigate. When I didn’t appreciate the beginning of a spin, he offered me a barf bag.

Folks, I think I might be onto something good here. This new CFI has a military background, so I should be obnoxiously skilled with checklists by the time I get to my check ride. I have about ten weeks before my scholarship runs out so we should be flying quite a bit this spring.  Today he is interviewing for the Air Force….let’s hope Uncle Sam can wait until I get my private before I lose another one!

Are We There Yet?

Runners often talk about a wall they have to push past when the training gets tough and their bodies want to give up. I know of no analogy in aviation training like a wall you have to push past, but it certainly seems there should be some common allegory for the frustration and bullshit you have to go through to get a pilot license.

Last night I spent a few hours on the phone with my 99s mentor divulging how angry I was that I haven’t soloed yet and I’m on my fifth CFI. Granted I’ve had many starts and stops, a cross-country move, and a bout of supposed tuberculosis. Fortunately I have not wasted many hours on bad instructors. My current total is 14.7 logged flight hours. Still I am angry at all of the red tape I will have to cut through to get another new CFI that statistically will use me as a means to and end to get an airline job.

We also spent a good deal of the conversation reassessing the Part 141 vs. Part 61 question. Under Part 141 it will be five more flight lessons before I get to the progress report flight with a person that will evaluate if I’m ready to solo. And that’s if I complete one lesson each time I go up…which I’ve learned depends upon your instructor. Some understand it is best to check every box you can every time you go up. Others are in no hurry and four or five boxes at a time are good even though the lesson requires 20 boxes to complete.

I’m thinking of switching to Part 61 because I fear if I stick with this school and Part 141 I’ll never get to the private. I’ll give up first. It doesn’t help that my scholarship deadline to get my private is roughly 12 weeks away. The only reason I decided to do 141 was because I like structure and I wanted to leave the door open for me to have an aviation career someday. Everyone told me full time careers in aviation typically go to folks from 141 programs.

My last instructor told me if I was Part 61 he would have soloed me already but he was stuck checking the boxes with 141. Now I have to win over the endorsement of a new instructor to get to where I should have been a few flights ago. Why do I keep going backwards?!

If I were to tell my true feelings, I’d say a great many of those boxes are not necessary. Do we really need a box that everyone has to check for “operation of a seat belt” and “location of the first aid kit” back at dispatch? The operation of an airplane seat belt is not that complicated. Do we really want people operating a plane if they can’t figure out how to slip the buckle into the clip? And where else would you look – other than the little building with everything in it – for the first aid kit? Are there really student pilots out there that experience a medical emergency and go looking down the runway or off into a field for some gauze? And again, do we really want those people flying?

When I learned I would need to find a new CFI again. It stalled me out for a couple months. I have been dreading the process. Fortunately my mentor is older and wiser and helped me to see something that really hadn’t occurred to me yet: My CFI is not the end all to my progress. My CFI is a tool, but I have to do the work. Hard words to swallow considering how much I loved my last CFI and how far I progressed with him compared to all the others. But she is right, and I need to get out of the mindset that my progress depends on which CFI I get. Sure there are bad ones out there, far too many I’m afraid, but part of becoming a competent pilot is navigating your way through one obstacle after another, whether it be uncertain weather, FAA regulations or lousy instructors.

Two things are responsible for me waking up this morning, selecting a new CFI and emailing the flight scheduler after two months of sulking on the ground. One is my mentor, who has once again saved the day by believing in me and convincing me this entire project is my responsibility and mine alone no matter who I encounter along the way, even a CFI. The other is a recent flight I took to Texas. My husband and I flew down to see family since we were quarantined for the holidays. The flight back to Portland was after dark. I had forgotten how beautiful DFW is from the air at night. From a distance the ground looks like the sky, both glittering with millions of lights. It was a clear night when we crossed over Colorado, Denver sparkling in the distance, the Rockies draped in moonlight. I couldn’t help but wonder what the view was like from the cockpit.


On Stalling and Stalls

Fall has arrived in Oregon.

 Every morning an enchanting fog wraps around the brightly colored trees. Above it layers of clouds sweep across the sky. The rain comes and goes leaving pilots to wager against Mother Nature in a guessing game that changes each hour, no, each minute.

For the past two weeks I had been awaiting a flight lesson on stalls. Each day I would optimistically head to the airport only to find once again my lesson on stalls had been stalled on account of weather.

On the bright side I have knocked out a ton of ground school.

But yesterday it finally happened. Somehow I managed to schedule a flight lesson during a time when the sky above the airport was blue. Granted, only the sky above the airport and a patch just a little south of the airport. Ever up for adventure, my CFI and I hopped in and went up…prompting everyone else who had been scratching their chins and staring at the sky to get in line behind us.

Going up on a day like yesterday with ever changing weather (some of those clouds had hail in them, others frost, others just rain) was actually a real treat. We steered clear of the more ominous looking weather and caught the little patches of blue that popped up here and there. I’m learning to make good calls. I was offered a chance to fly above the clouds and opted to stay beneath and between them. What would happen if we got up above them, and they all converged and we couldn’t get back down? Plus, how would a VFR pilot like myself have any shot at navigation with nothing but clouds below? And who is to say how high those clouds really go? The weather was morphing into a new configuration each minute. Do I really want my first formal lesson on stalls to be coupled with a bout of hypoxia?

And so, encircled by weather of every sort, with ephemeral rainbows flashing all around us, I finally had my lesson on stalls. We incorporated the types of stalls we did with the type of weather we were dodging to get from one patch of blue to another. Power on stalls. Power off stalls. Turning stalls…..the beginnings of spins! Recovering from spins. The “falling leaf” that results from not recovering a stall – that one was fun. My CFI had me open my window and stick my hand out to feel the effect of the wind as we fell 600 ft/min. For all of the hype and fear-mongering I’ve heard about the lesson on stalls, it was actually fun.

I left that day encouraged once again at how fun flying can be…and more queasy than I’ve felt in a long time. Next time, I’ll know to bring along some ginger ale.

The Winds of Change

I can say with every certainty now, a good instructor makes all the difference.  Yesterday while the rain poured down across greater Portland I met with my new CFI for a ground school lesson. It took all of my gumption to drive up to the airport and give it another go, but I left in better spirits.

It was a lesson on airplane systems. Instead of point to pictures in a book and talk shop somewhere ten feet above my head, we headed down to a hangar where mechanics had planes pulled apart for maintenance.

I got to understand the design of a propeller (chomping down and slicing up) by watching my instructor spin one slowly in front of me.

I saw a carburetor in pieces.

I spun a gyroscope in my hand.

I got to see some of the subtle differences between a Cessna 152 and 172 and a Piper Seminole.

I got to see with the cowling pulled off where many of the wires that normally disappear mysteriously under the hood connect.

This morning I awoke to more gray skies and light drizzle. Surely my flight lesson would be cancelled.

Nope. According to my new instructor, you can’t learn to fly in bad weather unless you get up there and do it. And so, up we went.

I learned the principles of slow flight and then we headed back to the airport to do touch and goes.

It’s a new world flying in Portland. For starters, there are mountains and volcanoes. Big ones. Then there’s the trees. So many really, really tall trees all the way up to the runway. And then there’s the airport itself. In Texas I flew from a privately-owned, non-towered, GA only airport. My new airport not only runs one of the busiest flight schools in the region for fixed wing and rotorcraft (everything up to ATP), the likes of Nike and Intel hangar their their jets there and there is an active FBO for general aviation.

Practicing touch and goes today was like learning an obstacle course. In the pattern there were helicopters hovering at 1,000 feet, jets coming in from the east, students coming in from the West practice area, both patterns (left and right) had traffic and each time around you had to get in line to land on one of three parallel runways simultaneously with other incoming traffic. That is not to mention the flocks of birds that were migrating across the runways. It was thrilling!

A new instructor made all the difference. Before I was ready to quit and everything flying-related made me want to burst into tears of frustration. Now, just like that [insert snap here] flying is fun again. My next lesson is Wednesday. I can’t wait to get back up there!!!!

The Road to Calcutta

Well folks, here is what has transpired since my last post:

My CFI and I talked and despite my request to have more control of the plane she explained that in a few more lessons we would be introducing the elements we talked about (taking off, using the radio, and taxiing) but landings would not be introduced until somewhere between lesson 6-10. We are currently STILL on lesson 3.

So I fired her.

She was unbelievably cool about it. She completely understood and even gave me the names and contact info for some other CFIs she thought would match my learning style better. She recalled having an instructor she didn’t mesh well with during her private and took no hard feelings from my decision.

I began making calls to these other CFIs. I also made a call to the admissions office to see if they could give me some more contacts, specifically asking for CFIs that were go-to folks for information and were known for taking on struggling students.

Instead of help from the admissions office, I have received a stream of random phone calls from people saying “hi, my name is _____ and I’m your new CFI.” I interviewed the first one and found he was new, I would be his first student, and he had the confidence of a turtle on a fence post. In more polite words I told him like hell he would be my new CFI but thanks for the call.

Meanwhile I interviewed one of the CFIs my previous instructor recommended and was very impressed. He offered to let me sit in on an IFR lesson with one of his students and I loved his laid back flying-should-be-fun attitude. It was an international student that struggled with English more than aviation and the CFI never lost his temper, never seemed annoyed and kept everything on track the whole lesson. He also gave me contact info for another student of his as a reference. After a glowing recommendation from this student (that had coincidentally also started out with the first CFI I had just fired) he was clearly the front-runner. He had a history of taking on struggling students and an average of soloing them somewhere between 20-30 hours.

I called admissions to ask for the procedure to switch to this other CFI. When I gave his name you could hear a clear switch in demeanor. Instead of getting information I was being interrogated. Did he approach me? How did we find each other?I sat in on a flight with him?! Preposterous!!!! By the end of it I was certain I had somehow gotten him in trouble. I was told I needed to meet with the chief flight instructor about all of this and that I probably wouldn’t get him as my new flight instructor because his schedule was full.

What just happened?!

This morning I was awoken by a call from an assistant chief instructor who had gotten my info from admissions and had a great instructor he wanted to recommend for….wait for it…these were his exact words…”problem students.”

I’m a problem student?! That’s the label I’ve gotten myself for trying to be an educated and proactive consumer? Without mentioning any names, I said I had already selected a CFI and I wasn’t sure why I was getting the run-around from admissions. The fellow on the phone had already been briefed, knew exactly who I had asked for and said his schedule was full and as a flight school they want to make sure all of their CFIs are getting a good load of students.

I explained to him this CFI that I wanted had already discussed availability with me and we are both wide open 9-11am most days. To placate him I agreed to call this other “problem student” instructor but I would be interviewing him, sitting in on a flight lesson and requiring a student recommendation before making a decision.

He said that would be fine, apologized for all of the trouble, and asked me to call him back after I spoke with the “problem student” instructor.

I have left a message with the newly recommended instructor and am waiting to hear back.

Now I am split 50/50. If this “problem student” instructor is good and I am happy with him, I’ll just go with him. It would make things easier. But the other half of me is furious. I’m already labeled a problem so why not get what I want? I’ve done all of the leg work and it’s not my problem a flight school wants to be sure all of their bad instructors have as many students as their good instructors.

Thanks to all of the fantastic pilots that have commented on my blog and helped steer me in the right direction. I’ll keep you guys posted, and would love to hear what you make of all this.

Below are pictures I took from the IFR flight I sat in on….my first IFR flight in a cockpit ever!