A 51-Year-Old, Newly Minted Pilot Shares His Story

Richard Donaldson always wanted to fly. A move to Arizona gave him the push he needed to fulfill that dream. He says you can do it, too.

Last week, I passed my FAA private pilot check ride with the designated pilot examiner, and I became a newly minted pilot. As a 51-year-old, I feel like the sky has opened up to me in so many unexpected ways that I just had to share my experiences.

Relocation Leads to Opportunity

I always wanted to learn to fly. My uncle, Paul Burger, was a lifelong private pilot and aviation safety advocate, and I flew in his airplane as a young lad and vividly remember the feeling of freedom and awe from the cockpit.

I knew at some point in life I’d have to give it a shot. When I relocated to Phoenix after 25 years in San Francisco, I started to take lessons.

While I didn’t know it at the time, Phoenix is a super popular area for domestic and international flight students. The weather is consistently good and clear, and while heat can get up into the triple digits easily, the weather remains stable for most of the year.

Phoenix also features busy airspace, so you learn quickly how to transition the class bravo airspace, practice good comms, and demonstrate attention to safety owing to the large volumes of traffic. So—no surprise—there are quite a few world-class CFIs and schools to choose from here.

I ended up at Leopard Aviation, a relatively new school that had opened up right before the pandemic—an inauspicious timing for sure, but things have worked out very well for them.

The Hardest Part? Landing!

Now, learning to fly or taking the controls for the first time is exhilarating, but then you gotta learn how to land. This is where training really comes in. Taking an airplane from 3D space to 2D space and putting it down onto the runway can be gut-wrenching. The airplane may feel like it’s bobbing and weaving during those 3-4 seconds as wheels touch down—and you stop steering the airplane with your hands (with the yoke or control wheel) and steer with your feet (using the rudder pedals to control the nose-wheel steering in most training aircraft).

It’s very counterintuitive to most all of us, especially after driving a car for so long. The steering wheel is how you steer, with your hands, but on the ground, an airplane goes left and right using the pedals to engage the nosewheel and brakes (generally speaking) to steer left or right (kinda like a boat).

It takes a bit to “unlearn” your instincts and relearn how to steer that airplane. So for me, beyond a ton you learn about flying, a new pilot has to learn that fundamental technique—what goes up, must come down.

That is not to say that there isn’t a ton more to learn, and there is, but for me, that is what I found to be the essence of my private piloting experience. Every pilot I have met so far along the way also says that the private pilot certificate is arguably the hardest, as everything is brand new.

There is a lot more to learn—from weather, communications, electronics, the airplane itself, the engine, regulations, and so much more. But it’s also a great time to be learning because of all the resources you have at your fingertips. You can find posts, blogs, videos, and apps to handle almost every conceivable step, or answer any question that you might have. Even as a career techie, I didn’t leverage this wealth of info as much as I should have.

Leading up to my check ride, I did watch a few videos of mock oral exams. That was a game changer.

Cessna 172
One of the Cessna 172s that Richard Donaldson learned to fly with. Contributed photo

Fight Off Intimidation

Pretty much everything you do throughout your private pilot training is a first—first time flying, first time landing, first time taking an FAA test, first time doing a check ride—so don’t get overwhelmed or anxious. You’re not alone. All pilots have been there, and thankfully these days, you can get a back-seat view of a lesson from a GoPro video on YouTube.

Another thing that jumps out at you is the community. There is a fantastic camaraderie amongst pilots of all ilks, too. That’s another cool aspect to learning to fly—meeting all the other students and pilots and discovering the bond you have. You’ve all been through the same stuff. Everyone has a story. Everyone had to do their first solo. Everyone had to do their first landing. There is an endless set of experiences you get to share with people who have gone through the same experience and training.

Learning to fly can be daunting, but if you jump in (do a discovery flight with an instructor) and give it a shot, you might surprise yourself.

What You Can Expect

For me, getting through that check ride took about six months and cost about $15,000 including materials, supplies, headsets, etc. Upon completion of my check ride, I’ve accumulated 96 hours of flying time, 14.5 of which is solo, and completed over 227 landings (11 at night).

I flew mostly in the early morning (to get it in before work) and on weekends. I definitely didn’t fly every week though.

Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like flying solo for your first time. I will never, ever, ever forget that first solo landing (amongst other things along the way).

The FAA requires only 40 hours of instruction time with 10 hours solo, but I’ve heard that most students seem to be at about 70 or 80 hours before getting signed off for the private pilot check ride. This makes sense, as the learning curve is steep.

Richard Donaldson doing what he loves most -- flying.
Richard Donaldson doing what he loves most—flying. Contributed photo

Listen to Yourself

I had a bit of the “machismo” in me though at first, but forget that. Flying is about being safe, and being safe is about being honest with yourself when you’re comfortable and proficient, not by any other yardstick.

If I learned one thing for sure, it’s to listen to yourself. You’re the pilot in command, you know yourself (or you should, hopefully), and there’s nothing wrong with admitting when you’re nervous or anxious or don’t feel comfortable flying.

Don’t get caught up competing with anyone—just listen to your gut, and it will work itself out.

Do you have a story from your aviation adventures that you’d like to share? E-mail us at editorial@flying.media.

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