Ding! You Are Now Free to Move About the Country

Anyone following my journey for the last year has probably noticed my lack of traveling the past few months. Well, that is about to change! The reason for my stationary status was due to one reason, and one reason alone: flying lessons. On my 35th birthday, I passed my check ride and officially became a licensed pilot. Legally it is a certificate and not a license, but I won’t get into semantics. Anyway, with my flying lessons complete, I will finally be leaving the San Diego area to explore the rest of the US and Canada. Before I get back on the road, I thought I would share my experience of learning to fly.

Airplanes and I go way back. In the 1970s, my dad and grandpa carved out an airstrip in our backyard in Montana. It is still very active: Ferndale Airfield (53U). As far back as I can remember, summer nights often included a quick flight around the Flathead Valley with my dad in our Cessna 150. I took a few lessons in high school, tried again while living in Chicago, took some more at a small airport in Indiana, and then decided to do this whole Airstream adventure. With the peace and solitude of Airstream living came the opportunity to really take flying lessons seriously. And as time had passed, aviation caught up with technology: finally, GPS was available in the cockpit; digital instruments were common; and fuel-efficient engines actually made the cost a little more reasonable.

I found a flight school just outside San Diego. Appropriately named San Diego Sport Flyers, it had the Sport Cruiser airplane I wanted to fly. I flew a couple dozen hours, studied night after night, and eventually summoned the courage to test my skills out in front of a Designated Pilot Examiner. This is my story.

The day began at 6:30 AM with a check of the weather and the realization that all my previous night’s calculations were a little off because the winds aloft had switched a complete 180 degrees in direction. Let me back up. The whole process has two parts: an oral knowledge exam, and a practical flying check ride in the air (if the previous knowledge exam goes well). The first part includes a mock flight plan to a pre-determined airport in the area. This flight plan is old school and literally includes getting out a ruler, plotting points, computing routes, headings, and distances — all with wind correction angles and variations with isogonic lines. Yeah, fun stuff, let me tell you! The whole point is to figure out how much fuel it takes to get from Point A to Point B. After all, there are no rest areas up in the air!

After I redid all my calculations, it was off to the flight school to meet with the examiner and hopefully go flying in a couple of hours. Little did I know those couple of hours turned into four hours. That’s right. Four hours. In a closed room. With no bathroom or food break. Talking about everything imaginable: from the scientific effects of density altitude to flash cards of airport markings. Those of you who know me, know that four hours without food is a feat in and of itself! With the knowledge portion over, it was now time to take to the skies.

The first beautiful Saturday in weeks, Gillespie Field Airport was overflowing with air traffic. We took off Runway 27R with a right downwind departure towards El Capitan Reservoir. The next hour and half was a blur of steep turns, power on stalls, power off stalls, emergency descents, turns around a point, slow flight; you name it. I managed to do all the maneuvers, so we flew over to Ramona Airport to practice various types of landings.

My most memorable part of the day was over at Ramona. After making a somewhat pathetic short field landing (trying to land within 200 feet of the numbers on the runway), my examiner made me go around and attempt the same thing again — but without power. On the downwind leg, I pulled the throttle and started the all-important glide towards the ground. I made the turns back to the airport, applied flaps, eased it down, and landed directly on the numbers with the two main wheels first — just as the doctor ordered. The examiner looked at me, punched my shoulder, and said it was an absolutely beautiful landing. I think they were my first, and only, words of encouragement all day! We flew back to Gillespie, made one last landing, and I got two thumbs up — apparently universal pilot examiner speak for “You passed!”

So, the next step is for me to graduate from a safe pilot to a good, safe pilot. I will be going to various airports around the country to practice my flying skills. In fact, the next stop I have planned is to a little town in northern Vermont to get my float plane rating. I am now free to move about the country, and I can’t wait!