Taking Wing: Struggles and Rewards of Learning to Fly
When I set out to learn to fly at the age of 13, I did not actually want to learn to fly. I wanted to be a pilot, and if I could have snapped my fingers and instantly acquired all the necessary skills and knowledge, I would have. I am sure I am not alone in this; I have since met many would-be pilots entranced by the idea of flying their own shiny new Baron to the Bahamas but markedly less enthusiastic about the prospect of first guiding an aging Cessna to Duluth. To the uninitiated, flight training must seem an unnecessarily arduous and repetitive process, complete with thick textbooks and written exams. And then there are the vagaries of weather and maintenance and the frustration of lining up one’s schedule with that of the airplane and instructor.
As much as we’d like to tell prospective pilots differently, learning to fly is not a particularly easy undertaking. There are a great many new concepts to cram into one’s skull and often an equal number of mistaken notions to be discarded. In my case, I had read a great deal about flying beforehand, had logged hundreds of hours on Microsoft Flight Simulator, had gone aloft a few times and had even taken the controls for a few minutes. Based on these snippets, I thought that I had a solid grasp on the basics, and in my youthful ignorance, I figured that flight lessons would be an enjoyable lark, a time-building formality.
Reality came as a bit of a rude awakening. My primary memory of those first lessons is a discombobulated feeling of disorientation. It seemed that all my senses had conspired against me, that nothing was as it should be, that even the familiar terrain of my childhood was a foreign country passing beneath my wings. Furthermore, I discovered I was prone to airsickness. I became overwhelmed with nausea shortly after landing during the first six or seven lessons, making a beeline for the restroom as soon as the prop stopped turning. And just when I seemed to be making progress, I hit a frustrating plateau. I could get the airplane down to the flare reasonably well, but many of my landings resulted in bounces, thuds and awkward gyrations down the runway, especially if any crosswind was involved. After one particularly difficult lesson, I tearfully proclaimed that I was throwing in the towel. My mother, God bless her, convinced me that things would get better.
And of course, they did. The initial spark came from an unexpected source: Sporty’s Pilot Shop sent out a promotional video that contained a segment by Barry Schiff on crosswind landings. He likely didn’t explain it much differently than my instructor, but it suddenly clicked for me. I made much better landings during my next lesson and barely got airsick to boot. This was a terribly exciting development. Other things began to click: making control effortless by trimming every time I changed power or airspeed, staying coordinated by feel without constant reference to the ball or keying the mic without tripping over my tongue. Each new discovery, each formerly difficult thing that now made sense, became immensely satisfying. My initial difficulties long forgotten, I found that I was actually pretty good at flying. As a socially awkward teenage boy, this boost in confidence was a godsend, but it proved a double-edged sword. An adolescent ego is a dangerous thing to inflame, and by the time I turned 15, I had become downright cocky.
Over the years, I have found time and time again that when one is feeling pretty confident aloft, aviation has a way of exposing one’s weaknesses, destroying hubris and enforcing respect. My introduction to this principle was a dramatic one. My instructor, Jerry Graham, and I were flying to Rush City, Minnesota, a short 20-minute jaunt from my home airport in Cambridge. I was in a hurry to get airborne and had rushed the flight planning, turning down Jerry’s offer of a kneeboard on my way out the door. Confident in my dead-reckoning calculations, I left the sectional chart folded on my lap. Right on cue, a small town appeared ahead, though, to my consternation, the airport was not where it should be. In fact, the name on the water tower was not even Rush City. I belatedly attempted to unfold the chart and divine my position as my formerly smooth aircraft control went to hell. By the time I found Rush City, I was flustered and seething — not at myself but at my instructor for not telling me I was going the wrong way. Of course, Jerry knew exactly what he was doing.