Just once, could everything go right?

Today I was able to take my second solo flight.

This time it started as a dual flight, my instructor and I went to the west practice area, did some maneuvers, then came back in. I showed him three perfect landings, and he got out and sent me on my way to the west practice area by myself.

At first it was a great flight. Everything happened according to plan. Somewhat surprisingly, I did not jump straight into the sky like I had the last time but climbed very comfortably at 70 knots.

At 900 feet I departed west, crossed over into the west practice area, switched the radio over and then I played around. I turned around “the turning tree,” I crossed over an adorable creek, I did everything by the book, making radio calls for every turn. For a brief moment, flying was actually fun.

Right on target I made my call back to the tower to enter Delta airspace, reporting position, altitude and weather info. They told me to report on the downwind and I was good to come in, so in I went.

Just a few minutes later it occurred to me I was going incredibly fast. I looked over at my RPMs, normal range, I looked at my altitude and wasn’t climbing or descending so I figured I was just enjoying a tail wind and would be there in no time. Whew! This flight was going swimmingly better than the last solo.

Still, I was nervous about Delta airspace. The tower was busy. I could hear it all the way in. Every communication sounded like a take-out order read back and happened as fast as an auctioneer speaks. I was breathing deeply and reminding myself I had trained for this.

Then it happened.

Suddenly everything sounded a little different. I frantically scanned all of my engine instruments. They all reported in normal range. I checked my headset plug ins. Secure. Then a rush of wind came into the cabin…out of the corner of my eye I caught it. The passenger door had popped wide open and was now swinging wildly in the wind – the 130 knot relative wind!

At that moment – the moment my jaw dropped right out of the plane – I heard the tower call my tail number and ask my position.

What?! When do they ever do that?! Why?! Can’t they see me from their window?! Don’t they have my transponder?!

I have been taught in cases of emergency the rule is to aviate, navigate, THEN communicate. I wasn’t to the airport yet, and I was wrangling a derelict door back to the side of the plane…the tower could wait.

Still not yet able to grab the door on one of it’s passes closer to me, the tower came back with my tail number and asked if I was over TV Highway.

Fun fact, kids, I have lived in Oregon less than a year and believe it or not, I don’t have every single road memorized yet, especially considering I bike to and from work less than 5 miles from my apartment. So while my panic level was at about a 4 with the loose door, the tower thinking I was potentially somewhere else entirely from where I believed I was brought me up to about an 8. (Where the hell is TV Highway?!)

It was beautiful in Portland today. There were planes everywhere routing in and out of Delta airspace, not to mention nearby PDX.

So I gave up on the door for a minute and got on the radio and this was about how it came out: [click] “Cessna 64942!…I think I’m over Baseline Road [click] I think over Hillsboro????! I’ve got an [DON’T SAY EMERGENCY! DON’T SAY EMERGENCY! DON’T DECLARE AN EMERGENCY OVER A FLIPPING DOOR!] open door!” [click]

The tower came back: “ok.”

That was it.

Back to the rogue door before any number of random things students have lost under these seats find a way to drop on an innocent jogger below.

Finally I caught the door and wrangled it back to the side of the plane, but no matter how hard I pulled, it didn’t latch shut, it just stuck to where I could see a sliver of light through it and there it remained the rest of the flight, taunting me with the notion it could randomly depart again at any given second.

Then the tower said what I thought was my tail number and told me to report on base. Maybe it was my tail number. Maybe it wasn’t. I still have no idea. I was shaking like a leaf from head to toe. So I radioed back that I would report on base (completely forgetting to include that I was a student pilot soloing like I’m supposed to tell them).

Then I heard my tail number over and over again. I would ask the tower to repeat, but the tower was unresponsive. “Hmmm….must not have been for me. I feel like an idiot.” Thinking on it as I write this tonight, I’m pretty sure I was so panicked I responded to everything that had a “9er” in it as if it was for me.

With the confidence of a turtle on a fence post, I entered the downwind. Still asking the tower to repeat their last instruction….that wasn’t probably for me, but I sure thought it was.

The tower did not respond to me.

Was my radio transmitter out too?!

I reported my base turn, just in case. The tower then responded that someone was clear to land, but I wasn’t 100% sure who – apparently you can get tunnel hearing when your panic level leaves the charts. I was scanning the sky like a hawk for anyone else coming in to land.

The passenger door began to squeak at me as I turned final.

I executed the approach as best I could, still shaking uncontrollably. The PAPI told me I was high, now low, now high, now low, now good, now low….full flaps, airspeed 60 knots.

“I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.”

I held the flare for what felt like forever. Then, once again, I started climbing. I released just a little pressure and waited and instead of gently touching down on the ground it bounced. Again! Then it started to turn sideways. I aggressively gave opposite rudder but it just wasn’t working out, I was bouncing and turning more and more with each bounce. “Ok, go around. Full throttle.”

Nope.

I got on the radio to announce a go around, but the plane would not leave the ground. Instead of climbing and trying again, I was going full speed and accelerating right off the runway into nearby obstructions. I couldn’t get it back to the center line to save my life no matter how aggressively I pressed on the rudder. But it did occur to me at that moment I was no longer bouncing. So I killed the power and applied full brakes.

Now during this near death experience, my thumb was on the radio the whole time. So instead of the go around I was planning to announce, the tower (and everyone else on that frequency) got to hear an assortment of very high pitched expletives. When I finally released my thumb, the guy in the tower, with the calmest voice I’ve ever heard told me: “It’s ok, just land on the runway in front of you, pull off whenever you can.”

So I did. It took a while to slow down….many many taxi ramps later I turned off of the runway, thanked the controller, and switched over to ground.

I pulled past the hold short line and stopped. And for the next little while, the only movement in the plane were the tears streaming down my cheeks.

I contacted Hillsboro ground with my best attempt at a non-quivering voice, followed their instructions back to the tie down area and saw my instructor standing at the end of the lot.

My stomach sank. I had let him down again. He trusted me with his credentials and reputation as an instructor, and I botched the landing a second time.

Once again he was really cool about it. He said it wasn’t so bad and neither of us were in any trouble. The plane was fine and other than my pride and nerves, everything was in tact.

It was a few hours before the shaking stopped. I still cry a little when I think about it. How it was equal parts humiliating and terrifying. How at one point I was certain I was going to crash.

Fun fact, my previous post where I had a mechanical problem with a plane during the run-up was this exact same plane. This is actually the third time I’ve had a problem with this particular plane. I can comfortably declare Cessna 64942 dead to me. I will NEVER agree to fly it again.

My next lesson is Tuesday. If I try to pilot a plane again. Ever. Right now I’m not so sure.

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.

chip2

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.

Whew!

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.

So Low

Yes, that was indeed a play on the word solo.

Friends, two Saturdays ago I had it in my mind I would get to solo an airplane for the first time. My CFI had dropped hints that I was ready for my progress check (required before you are allowed to solo), the sun was out, the sky was blue, the winds were calm. I’m not going to say I was 100% certain it would happen that day, but let’s just say I wore a shirt I didn’t care about and packed my own scissors…just in case.

I sang in the car all the way up to the airport. I arrived thirty minutes early and when 9am struck, my manifest was filled out to perfection and my pre-flight was complete. According to my mental state (and perhaps not reality) my instructor was dropping lots of hints that today was the day.

We headed over to the run-up area and all was great until [insert large clanging noise and blood-curdling scream here] we checked the left mag and the RPM plummeted to the bottom of the scale. Nevermind that this was the plane we had last time that I asked my instructor to report needed maintenance since it had been acting funny on the downwind. He didn’t. He said, “it’s only 5 hours from it’s next major overhaul, it’ll be fine.”

Friends, it wasn’t fine.

By the time we taxied back to dispatch, reported the problem, requested another plane, filled out another manifest, conducted another pre-flight and gone back to the run-up area not only had we lost an hour, the weather conditions had deteriorated considerably. The skies were dark, the winds were variable, the clouds were low. My instructor said I needed to work on my landings so we would do touch-and-goes and stay in the pattern. Choking back tears that today was not the day, I flew the pattern. Again. For the hundred and fifty-first time. At least I could get some work done on cross-wind landings.

Then the situation changed entirely, while we were on the downwind leg the tower made an announcement I had never heard before. My instructor took over the radio and told me to bank left out of the pattern. They were changing runways on us. All eight of us that were flying the pattern, not to mention the helicopters below us and other traffic coming in to escape the weather rerouted from runway 31 to 02.

We were coming in for our final landing, just about to catch ground effect when a burst of wind swept us clear off of the runway. My right hand reached for the throttle and my left thumb tapped the mic to announce a go-around.

But I was too late.

My instructor had taken over the controls and landed the plane, informing me “see, you aren’t ready yet, you’ve got to learn to be aggressive with your ailerons in crosswinds.”

I drove home in tears that day convinced I would never get to solo.

The following lesson we practiced landings. Again. These were the best landings I’d ever had and still it wasn’t good enough.

The next lesson we flew in the pattern again and practiced landings. Again. I was finally getting comments like “that was perfect!” repeatedly. Inside I thought, “ok, so today is the day?!!!”

Negative. I finally told my CFI something I’m told students NEVER say out loud. I looked him in the eyes and said “I’m ready to solo, what do I need to do to make this happen?”

He agreed. He said he looked for three perfect landings in a row before clearing a student to solo and I had done that. The next step was a quiz.

I took the ten page quiz that asked me everything from what medical certificate a private pilot must hold to what to do if I found myself in inadvertent IMC to what airspace my home airport was.

The following lesson was ground school where we took two hours…excuse me, that didn’t have the proper emphasis…TWO WHOLE FLIPPING HOURS!!!!!!!!!!! to review my test answers, find that the vast majority of them were correct and discuss that I thoroughly knew my stuff and wasn’t having lucky guesses.

Did I solo after that?

Negative.

The next step in the process is a progress check. Yes. It’s not enough that I am now having perfect landings with my instructor, flying the pattern perfectly, and passing my knowledge test with flying colors. No. Now I have to schedule (and of course pay dearly for) another flight lesson with a total stranger they call a “progress check instructor” and convince him I am able to solo a Cessna 152. Is he available before a week from now?

Negative.

So now I’m doing ground school for cross-country flying and this Saturday, having not flown once in a week and a half, I will hop in the plane with a stranger and hope he agrees I can fly a plane by myself. We will do stalls and emergency procedures and fly the pattern a few times. Then will I solo?

Negative.

No, then I will have my next lesson with my CFI where we will fly the pattern again and if he feels I’m having a good day and my landings are perfection, THEN. FINALLY. He will get out of the plane and let me solo….or so he says. I’m beginning to doubt it will ever happen.

I’m all for safety and making sure a student is really ready before you stick them 1,200 feet above the runway in an airplane by themselves, but this is just beginning to feel like overkill. I feel strangled by red tape instead of encouraged to progress. Amelia Earhart didn’t have to suffer this kind of bureaucracy!

Wish me luck…should I ever actually get there!

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!

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!


  
  

The Next Hiccup

Well, folks, I can’t seem to win at this flying thing.

I enrolled at an aviation school, got a flight instructor and began again. Now I’m a few more lessons in, a few hundred more dollars spent, and have somehow managed to go backwards.

As my mentor helped me to understand, my instructor is afraid to let go of the plane and its costing me time and money. I am at about 10 flight hours now and I have an instructor that won’t let me taxi, takeoff, land or get on the radio for even a second. It’s pretty frustrating considering with other pilots and other instructors I have done all of these things before.

Our lessons are simple, she takes me up, I put on foggles and do very basic maneuvers or simply go up and down, left and right without foggles, and then she lands the plane, taxis it back to a parking spot and the lesson is over. I thought I was getting somewhere because I have begun filling out the flight manifest and doing the preflight by myself. It has been brought to my attention I am mistaken. At this rate I’ll never solo.

Our next ground lesson is on the four forces of flight. Oh goody. The one after that is on aircraft systems. I am bored out of my mind and have already done all of these lessons before on my own time.

When I enrolled I was told my five logged flight hours and other not-so-logged flight hours would be taken into consideration. In reality, I’m barely flying the plane during any of my lessons and I’m paying dearly at a fancy flight school to review ground lessons I already know.

How do I feel about flying these days? Frustrated. Bored. Depressed. Angry. Ready to give up and quit.

It doesn’t help that it’s so ridiculously expensive. I feel like I am throwing hundred dollar bills in the trash. And I feel incredibly guilty because this is money that could be going to other ambitions my husband and I have. We work so hard lately and barely see each other. We’re trying to save up for a house and to send my husband back to school. Every time I shell out hundreds of dollars for one lesson and don’t actually learn anything new I feel like I’m failing my family. I feel like I am letting a bad instructor take advantage of us. I ask lots of questions and I study everything she tells me to but I still feel like I’m spinning my wheels and the guilt of how much I’m spending to get nowhere is crushing. It keeps me up at night. Exibit A: It’s after midnight now and instead of sleeping, I’m writing this post.

My flight instructor hasn’t been on time to one of our lessons. She chats with other pilots passing by in the hall during time I’m being charged for ground school. I’m hearing a lot of “we’ll get to that later” when I ask questions. Frankly, I’d like to fire her.

But on the other side of that coin is the realization that the aviation world is small, the female aviation world is smaller and I’m really not sure I want to piss off one of the few allies I have in a town I just moved to.

My mentor and I talked it over and came to a decision. I’m going to talk to my CFI and explain that I am disappointed with my progress so far and starting with our next lesson I will be in control of the plane the whole flight unless there is a life threatening situation where she needs to take it from me. If she agrees, I’ll give her another shot. If not, I’m switching instructors. Again.

More than anything I am brokenhearted. I wanted so badly for this plan to work out better. So far it doesn’t seem to be working out at all….except for my instructor, who is banking.

The club trainer

A few weeks ago I joined an airplane club so I would have a plane for training. What I did not know until after I had joined and was allowed in the club hangar for the first time was that their trainer Cessna was…well…terrifying.

The club has two planes: a Cessna 172B for training and short ventures, and another one…I don’t know much about that one. It is bigger and shinier. I think it’s a Piper ____ and as I understand it, I may look at it, and maybe someday if my training goes well they’ll let me crawl inside it but for now, no touchsies.

Now about the one I can touch, let me paint you a picture: The Cessna 172B was made in the early 1960s. I’m not sure the apholstery has been changed on this model. Ever. Did you catch that? The sweat from the men that flew this thing when JFK was president is probably still on that seat cushion somewhere. On the outside the paint is chipped all over and rivets are missing. It has to be parked on a large, shallow tray because it ceaselessly leaks a steady trickle of dark brown oil. The hangar floor betrays two blue circles under each wing from where the fuel occasionally leaks. The windshield is covered in bugs, some of which were extinct a decade ago. Each tire is just a little flat. Sticking out sorely is the shiny powerplant at the front. The prop was recently replaced when someone ran it into something while taxiing. It is 200 hours past the due date from its LMOH.

My first time to rent it, it was still out with the person who checked it out before me. This was a comfort because it was proof that it could fly. When it came taxiing up to my instructor and I as we waited at the hangar, all of its age and ill repair showed in the bright sunlight. The moment it was parked an oil puddle began to develop beneath it.

When the pilot and student before us jumped out, my CFI asked, “How does she handle?” The other instructor replied, “Someone should put her out of her misery.”

We did the pre-flight with a margin of “good enough” and “that’ll hold” for most of the items on our checklist. I stopped at one point and explained I did not wish to widow my partner and was willing to park it in the hangar and leave if it truly wasn’t safe to fly. My instructor made a joke and told me to hop in. So, grabbing all of the courage I could muster, we hopped in and spent the next few minutes banging the doors repeatedly into the fuselage, a little harder each time, until they finally clicked shut. There were no shoulder harnasses. Of course not!

Reports of how flying is one of the safest modes of transportation and that “I  have confidence…” song from The Sound of Music took turns in my  head as we taxiied out to the runway and did the run-up. I heard the Ride of the Valkyries as we lifted off. Frightening situations always trigger theme music to start playing in my head. I just hope I don’t break into a chorus of “Come Josephine, in my flying machine” on my check-ride.

From a student’s perspective, the plane flew as well as any other I’ve flown (my grand total is up to 4 different planes). It taxiied like all of the other planes. It dripped oil on me when I grounded it at the fuel station, but others have done that too.

Still, I’ve never so desperately wanted to give a plane a makeover, stroke it gently, and let it know someone loves it. How could anyone let such an amazing piece of machinery fall to this deplorable state?!

Here’s the answer. The owner of the aircraft lives in another state and is looking to have it back by the end of the month to sell it and be rid of it. The club, knowing we only have this plane a few more weeks, is letting a lot of stuff go because there’s no point in putting a lot of money into a craft that is leaving in a few weeks. As long as it is fine to fly, who cares if it leaks a little oil? I looked into the maintenance records of the plane with the club and they have made some repairs to some important items, the most recent of which was the stall warning that at one point wasn’t working some six months ago.

A new training plane joins the club at the end of the month as this one exits. It is slightly more expensive to rent, but hopefully it will be less terrifying to fly.

The first steps to becoming a pilot

For students training to be pilots outside of a formal school or military setting, the path of study is often unclear. I know it was for me. As I meet more of the piloting community I’m finding it is often a long and winding road for many of us.

If you are as lost as I was, this post is for you.

Typically beginning aviators take something called a “discovery flight” where a pilot takes them up and gives them control of the plane for a little while and the student gets a feel for flying.
From there a student wishing to continue must decide what kind of pilot they will be. It goes something like this:

-Sport Pilot License (similar to recreation pilot) – requires a drivers license, 7-20 hours of flight training plus FAA exam, you can fly yourself and one other person
-Private Pilot License – requires a 3rd class medical certificate, 40-60 hours of flight training plus FAA exam, you can fly yourself and other people, but you cannot charge for your services, only fuel costs
-Commercial Pilot License – requires a 2nd class medical certificate, 120-250 hours of flight training plus FAA exam, you can fly people and cargo and get paid to do it
-Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) – requires a 1st class medical certificate, 1,500 hours of flight training plus FAA exam, you can fly for an airline

In addition to these licenses there are ratings – instrument ratings, multi-engine ratings, and so forth that allow you to fly in different airplanes and weather conditions.

I decided to shoot for a commercial pilot license with an instrument rating (this means I will be able to fly at night, through clouds, and in other conditions and rely on my instruments and not my visual cues to navigate). To do this, one must first obtain a private pilot license, which you can do concurrently with your instrument rating. To gain the training you need to get a private license, you must first get a 3rd class medical certificate and a student pilot license. Sigh. One step forward, two steps back.

The 3rd Class medical certificate is the least rigorous of the three medical exams and [depending on how connected you are] can cost anywhere from $40 to $150. Luckily for me, the CFI (certified flight instructor) I bartered my first two flights with gave me the contact info to one that would do it for $40. According to the FAA there are roughly 3,400 doctors qualified to do your FAA medical exam so if you are not made of money and want to call around, you could probably find a number of different pricing options. It’s a fairly simple exam. You fill out your medical history and the doctor asks you about any surgeries, scars, or birthmarks you may have. They want to know about any doctor’s visits during the past three years. During the exam the doctor will take your blood pressure, listen to your breathing and heartbeat, look at your feet, knees, stomach and back, check your eyes apart from any corrective lenses or glasses as you would do at an optometrists office, measure your height and weight and take a urine sample. If you pass, you obtain your 3rd class medical certificate and student pilot license on the same form all in the same day!

As an official student pilot with a certificate to prove it, you gain your first step in eligibility for a number of scholarships to aid you in your training.

So, I have my student pilot license, 1.7 hours of flying in my log book, a student private pilot manual I found at the library, and a CFI open to working with me again. Now, it’s just that pesky matter of a plane…it is the student’s responsibility to come up with the plane you train on.