A New Pilot Gets an Accelerated Course in Flying

A Cessna 150 helps a pilot get his certificate – and then heads for STOL drag.

[Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

“Can you be there on the 16th at Tim Knutson’s farm? You don’t want to miss this story—we are finally teaching Carl [Costas] to fly in Tim’s 150, and then Tim is going to race it at the Mayday STOL competition in Wayne, Nebraska!”

That was Kyle Bushman on the phone. He is the most passionate general aviation advocate I know. At the young age of 28, he has achieved more aviation milestones than most people do in a lifetime. He’s a pilot, A&P, IA (technician with inspection authority), technical advisor for the STOL Drag series—and owner of a Navion (in which he learned to fly and solo at the age of 16), an N3N biplane, and a highly modified Aeronca Champ. His creativity in running his shop, Ragwood Refactory, and his “let’s make this happen” attitude has no limits. He is a force of nature in GA, and his passion is so infectious that anybody who talks with him gets the aviation bug.

A Cessna 150 turns from trainer to STOL competition. [Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

Friends, a farm with a grass runway, a Cessna 150 used as a trainer during the week and a racer during the weekend? Of course, I was in for this adventure!

You may be wondering, who are the other actors in this story? At the 2018 High Sierra Fly-In, Bushman and Jeff Whiteley (owner of The Beast, a highly modified, experimental Cessna 175) stood running and ready to go for an air-to-air photo shoot involving several airplanes. The photographer didn't show up. Seeing a guy pedaling on a bike around the playa with a big camera hanging from his neck, they called out: “Hey, have you ever done air-to-air photography?” The bicyclist replied, “No, but I will do it.” Next thing you know, Carl Costas drops his bike, gets strapped into Whiteley’s Piper Pacer, and up he goes for his first air-to-air photo shoot involving five airplanes flying through a geyser! He didn’t know it then, but he was making new friends for life, and they would later help him fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a pilot.

“It is not about the airplanes, why I have always been interested in aviation, it is about the people doing cool things,” Costas told me. He’s 54 years old and a retired Marine with an extensive career as a photojournalist. Originally from Illinois, he moved to Sacramento, California, in 1998. That same year, his wife bought him a discovery flight as a birthday present, and he got hooked. Then, the usual things in life got in the way of learning to fly: work, money, and kids. And if it wasn't for Kyle Bushman, Jeff Whiteley, and Tim Knutson, that wouldn’t have changed.

The First Part

In 2018, Costas was feeding his passion for aviation by following social media flyers—like Trent Palmer and Kevin Quinn—when he got word about this event in the middle of nowhere in the Nevada desert: the High Sierra Fly-In. With his wife’s blessing, he grabbed his camping gear and drove all the way to “Dead Cow,” the playa where hundreds of pilots gather every year to share their passion for aviation. That flight in formation with five other airplanes around Pyramid Lake would be just the first of many adventures with Bushman and Whiteley—including flying from Creswell, Oregon, to Wayne, Nebraska, in Bushman’s open-cockpit N3N biplane.

To say that High Sierra 2018 left an impression on Costas is an understatement, and no better than his own words to let you know how he felt. “Everybody knows I dig humans,” he said. “After a couple years of feeding my brain everything backcountry aviation-related, I showed up at Nevada's Dead Cow Lakebed for the High Sierra Fly-In. And I found some of the best humans I’ve ever met. They blew my wig back. It was unforgettable. The side-by-side drag race, no s—, was fun to watch.

The Cessna 150 in the story, competing in a STOL Drag competition in Nebraska. [Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

“But my biggest takeaway was how cool this community of people is. People you know damn well would do about anything for a fellow pilot and their collective family, or anybody else. And probably already have. That’s my kind of group. Hugging Earth in my kindergarten spaceship with these folks will definitely happen sometime in the near future. All I gotta do is figure out how to get GoFundMe to unblock my account.” He didn’t know at the time how accurate this forecast would be.

In 2019, Bushman was flying Ken Schmitt’s PiperL-4 from Creswell to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. A 60-hour trip at 70 mph is a long trip, indeed. Sharing his plans on social media, Bushman received a message from Knutson offering a place to sleep and a hangar in the Wisconsin area. Knutson, who soloed in a Piper Cub on his 16th birthday, is a farmer that pays his bills flying a fancy Airbus A320 for American Airlines. The farm features a grass runway, and has two big hangars that house a Cessna 150, 172, and an N3N. The N3N formed his first connection with Bushman. 

If you are passionate about aviation, Knutson is the kind of guy that becomes an instant friend from the moment you meet. After landing at his farm, I was still seated inside my Cessna 170 when Knutson came to welcome me to his home. We were immediately talking about aviation stuff. Ten minutes later, still in my airplane, I realized something was happening in one of his hangars. Bushman was giving an introduction to aviation to the local Boy Scouts. The young scouts had the opportunity to sit in the N3N, Navion, and the 150. You could see the excitement in their faces. More than one of these kids will earn their wings in the future.

The Countdown

Three months ago, Bushman decided it was time to make Costas's dreams of flying a reality. So he started a three month countdown on his phone for Costas’s first training flight. In his typical style and working behind the scenes, he recruited Knutson as the instructor, using his trusty straight-tail 1965 Cessna 150. With Knutson's blessing, a conference call was made, this time, including Costas, where he was notified that it was time to get his medical and logbook, and clear his schedule.

Jeff Whiteley flies the experimental Cessna 175, aka 'The Beast,' shadowed by Kyle Bushman piloting a Navion.  [Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

T-minus one day and Costas and Bushman made it in the Navion to Knutson’s farm—with only three days available at the farm before the 150 would be transformed into a racer. The training had him flying several times a day for a total of 12 hours. This was no joy ride, and Knutson took his role as an instructor seriously. “The training was intense and challenging; I knew Tim had my back, and whatever he told me, I did. It was fantastic,” Costas said.

Power-off/power-on stalls, steep turns, turns around a point, and multiple takeoffs and landings. Briefings and debriefings, Costas had his hands full, and after three days, it was time for a break. It was racing time! 

The next morning, we were going to fly to Wayne to participate in the STOL Drag series. This was going to be a first for Tim and the old trusty family 150. The night before, we added the number 56 on the tail (in memory of Knutson’s son, Owen, who tragically died in a Piper Cub accident five years ago). It was also a good opportunity for Costas to get cross-country experience on the way to the races. 

As a first-timer on the series, Knutson needed to perform mandatory training, including briefing, and later, several passes on the runway demonstrating the ability to control the airplane low and slow, sideslipping, and short takeoffs and landings. He completed the course like a seasoned pro and was cleared to participate the following day in the races. Unfortunately, the races were canceled because of an accident the next day. This was also a lesson for Costas about how unforgiving aviation can be when the limits are broken. 

Back at the RV, we shared some beers and stories well into the night. The seed was planted, and a new pilot was on his way—with a certificate completed after the event.

The most important thing? Our GA family obtained a new member. At the end of the day, flying is just an excuse for good friends to get together.

I am 48 years old, airline pilot since I was 23. My first airliner was the 737-200 Classic, and that happened when I had 252 hours of total flying time! Latest aircraft, Captain of the Airbus A330. 14,000 hours and not counting anymore! I have experience in 41 different airplanes, mostly vintage and tail-wheel airplanes. My favorite one is my own 1952 Cessna 170B! Based at Poplar Grove C77. And of course besides flying, I have been an aviation photographer (and occasionally writer) for the past eight years.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter