(March 2011) — I'M ONE OF THOSE people you might have heard about who've made their first certificate a Sport Pilot certificate. I wasn't new to flying either. I had taken a break from the beginnings of a passion that, as a teenager, I thought would blossom soon enough.
The day of my first solo has remained vividly etched into my mind. It was a chilly December morning, the sky shrouded with the white, winter pall of a high, overcast ceiling — and it was my 16th birthday — when I climbed into an Aeronca 7EC Champ. My dad, instructor and brother stood along the side of the grass strip watching as I taxied the short distance to 27. The nervousness that had set up camp in my psyche gave way to focus as I did my run-up. Ready and cleared for takeoff, I taxied onto the runway, swung the taildragger around and added full power. In that moment I experienced the freedom of flight under my own power — and it was like nothing I had felt before.
Alas, the "soon enough" turned into 30 years, thanks to something called life. However, that solo and the feeling I experienced that day have served as a beacon to finding my way back to something I thought I had lost — the joy of flight.
Before settling on the Sport Pilot route, though, I had encountered some turbulence along the way. When I began "retraining" last year, it was for the private license at a Part 141 school located out of town. It wasn't long before I discovered that life still gets in the way no matter your age. The realization hit me hard one day on the long, afternoon drive back home from the flight school after a flight lesson. I began taking mental stock of where I was in the process. The good news was that I had finished my ground school training and passed the private-pilot knowledge test. The bad news was that I had become overwhelmingly frustrated with my flight training progress. All told, it had been nearly six months since I had started flying again, and I had only 15 hours logged. It felt like I was getting nowhere fast. And with summer approaching, Florida's almost-daily convective activity would likely delay my training even more.
Finding the Right Fit
During that drive home, I began to devise a rescue plan, for I didn't want to lose what I had been lucky enough to find again. First, it was clear that I had to get my training moved closer to home. The obvious key difference in this case compared with training out of town would be that I'd have the flexibility to reschedule for the next day, or soon thereafter, thanks to proximity. Now, if I missed a lesson, I'd have to wait another week (or more) since I had been training mostly on weekend days.
Next was finding a school. A week later, as I investigated my options locally, I came in touch with First Landings Aviation, at the time a Sport Pilot-only school located at nearby Orlando-Apopka (X04). The more I learned about the school (it was the busiest Remos Pilot Center in the Southeast) and the Sport Pilot certificate, the more it seemed like a fit: I could get into the air sooner than I could working toward my private and fly in less congested airspace; and I would get back into a light-sport aircraft — a new Remos with a glass cockpit. The fact that as a sport pilot you can only fly LSA might be a turnoff for some, but I loved the idea. Light-sport aircraft were in my blood. Plus, it was comforting to learn that I could use the Sport Pilot training as a building block toward earning my private certificate later. The deal was sealed when my then-boss, Mac McClellan, suggested that it might be a good idea for me to go for the Sport Pilot first because we needed to begin covering it more in the magazine. What better way than to have a new pilot on staff to do it? I was back in the air that week.
Once the decision was made, there was little I had to do before being able to start training again. Though I already had my third-class medical in hand due to my original goal of a private license, a medical was not necessary — my U.S. driver's license would have been sufficient. This is a big advantage for many who are considering taking up flying, whether it be to avoid the hassle and extra cost (the medical is not included in flight school fees) or because of health-related issues that would prohibit passing a medical. Interestingly, during my training at First Landings I had expected to run into students who fit the latter description. After all, from the day the Sport Pilot/LSA rule came into being in 2004, the notion that it would attract mostly the "no-medical" crowd had become popular in the flying community. It seemed quite the opposite at FLA, and the overall diversity of the students was surprising to me. Yes, it had a few students who were restricted to the SP training due to medical limitations, but its students ranged from teenagers and college students to middle-age professionals and even young foreign couples on "working" vacations. There seemed to be quite a few women too.