One Small Step, One Giant Leap Skyward

Tips on becoming a pilot.

Andrew Rich

Every long journey begins with a single step. Once you've decided to go ahead and learn to fly-something you may have been dreaming about for years-and selected a flight school and an instructor, you've set out on the first leg of a satisfying lifelong journey.

You've committed your time and money to achieve your goal, so throughout the process, remember that you're the customer. If you're not satisfied with the service you're being provided, demand your due.

When you begin lessons it's important to try to schedule a lesson once a week or so. If you bunch the lessons together you don't have time to assimilate the information you've learned in previous lessons, and if you spread them out too much you'll forget what you've learned. A week or so between lessons will give you a chance to ruminate over what you did and absorb the lesson.

Today most instructors are pretty good about following a syllabus so that both of you know what to expect during the next lesson. If the instructor doesn't give you a heads-up, ask so you can review the material in your software or hardware references before the lesson.

The physical skills needed to manipulate an airplane are taught in segments that go together like building blocks to accomplish the desired maneuver. The blocks start with straight and level flight, turns and climbs and glides. Those few skills, in various combinations, allow you to perform any maneuver. Once you've caught on to the basics, the next building block is ground reference maneuvers. These exercises are designed to help you develop an understanding of the effects of the wind on your ground track.

The trick to successfully accomplishing ground reference maneuvers is to note where you want the airplane to be above the track on the ground and put it there. For example, when flying turns around a point, if you simply note landmarks equal distance from the reference point and do what's necessary to keep the airplane above those landmarks, you'll be compensating for the effect of the wind.

The method also works in the pattern. As you fly downwind you do what you have to in order to stay the same distance from the runway. Many students have a tendency to fly a converging downwind that angles in toward the runway. If you're having trouble keeping your distance while keeping an eye out for traffic, pick ground references that you can fly over to maintain a downwind leg equal distance from the runway. As you fly downwind, if you're having to hold a wind correction angle away from the runway, you'll know that when you turn on base you'll have a tailwind and need to be careful not to "rudder" around the turn to final and set up a cross-control condition.

If you realize you're going to have a tailwind on base, you can widen out the downwind to give yourself more room to make the turn to final. If you find yourself having to use a steeper bank than you're comfortable with and you've turned base with enough distance from the runway, you can use a shallower bank and fly through the final and back to it, or abort the approach and on the next approach fly a wider downwind leg.

Early on most of your flights will end with landing practice. Initially, your instructor should have you making full-stop landings and taxiing back for the next one. Eventually, in the interest of making the lesson more efficient, the instructor will introduce touch-and-goes. The first couple of lessons, the instructor might handle the radio calls for you, but soon you'll be expected to do them yourself. Another building block put in place. If your flight school offers the option, it's often helpful to ride in the backseat while another student is learning a maneuver or practicing landings. Watching, without having to do, makes it much easier to see what's supposed to happen and what can go wrong.

The tactic for consistently good landings-and you'll hear this for the rest of your aviation career-is a stable approach. Don't over control, and as tempting as it is to approach at a higher than recommended airspeed, fight the temptation. Trying to land with too much speed will have you floating down the runway and could lead to bouncing up and down on the nosewheel like a porpoise. If things don't look right, don't hesitate to abort the landing and start again. Even as you build your capability step-by-step from one skill to the next, there will be days when nothing seems to go right. One day you'll feel you're the ace of the base and everything will click, you'll feel confident and proud, but the next time you try something you'd thought you'd mastered, it just doesn't come together the way it should. It happens. You've reached a learning plateau, something that afflicts almost every student. Like a batter's slump, you'll start hitting again; you just have to hang in there and get over it. If you're really stuck, you can go back to be sure you've got the basics locked down, or you can ask the instructor to demonstrate the maneuver again.

One procedure that's often neglected during training is the go-around or aborted landing. If you learn that every approach ends with a landing, you're going to be pre-programmed to expect that outcome every time. Learn to do a go-around as a normal procedure and you won't be inclined to try to rescue an approach or landing that should be sacrificed. The need for a go-around isn't only to save a bad approach, but could be necessary if there's an airplane slow to exit the runway or something else is blocking the runway. If you do go around because of an airplane departing in front of you when you're on final, ease to the right of the runway as you climb back up to pattern altitude so you can keep the traffic in sight.

One day, when your instructor feels you're ready, he'll ask you to pull over to the ramp. He'll sign your logbook and student pilot's certificate and then get out. "Take it around for three takeoffs and landings." And you're on your own.

The idea of flying solo is to build confidence, as well as to improve your skills at handling the airplane and making it go where you want it to at the speed you choose. There are a couple of exercises that will help you develop a feel for the airplane. Dutch rolls, in which you hold the sight line in front of you on a point on the horizon and wag the wings up and down around the longitudinal axis, requires quick footwork on the rudder. Drawing circles or squares on the horizon with the stick and rudders is another way to sharpen your hand/foot coordination. And slow flight is an excellent way to get a feel for the airplane as it nibbles at the edge of a stall.

Another excellent exercise to learn rudder and airspeed control is the "Vertical S." The basic effort is to maintain the same speed in a climb and then in a descent to predetermined altitudes. As an example, level at 2,500 feet, you use climb power to climb to 3,000 feet at 70 knots. As you reach 3,000 feet you reduce power and lower the nose to maintain the 70-knot airspeed. As you descend to 2,500 feet you raise the nose and add climb power to again climb at 70 knots. As you get more comfortable, you can chop a hundred feet off each altitude. (Start at 2,000 feet, climb to 3,000 feet, descend to 2,100 feet, climb to 2,900 feet, etc.) Eventually, you can add turns in the climb and descent. If you use your normal approach speed as the target speed, the descent will ingrain the horizon picture that will let you maintain your approach path without having to rely on the airspeed indicator.

Although many students are reluctant to do them, stalls are also something to be practiced during solo practice. Have plenty of altitude and begin with simple power-off, straight-ahead stalls. What you're looking for are the aerodynamic indications of the stall. How do the controls feel just before the break? What does the burbling of the air over the wings and tail feel like? When you get more confident, you can add departure stalls and accelerated stalls. Again, it's a matter of building on skills.

Once you solo and log some time in the local practice area, you'll start on cross-country training. It's a good idea to have the written out of the way-or at least have booked some time learning cross-country flight planning-before you start the cross-country work.

If you're not learning at an airport with a control tower, you'll want to become comfortable with the radio and how to operate to and from an airport with an operating control tower. There are several interactive computer programs that will allow you to practice your radio procedures and a number of aviation-band receivers that will let you listen in on the professionals.

With check marks in all the boxes for the practical test standards (PTS) requirements, you'll have to log a couple of hours with your instructor in preparation for the flight test. It should be a review of everything that will be on the flight test. It's not a secret that examiners have their pet concerns, and your instructor should be aware of the specific things the examiner you've drawn will want to see you perform.

There are a number of things you can do to help make the practical flight test a success. It goes without saying that you should arrive for the flight test on time; be sure the airplane is airworthy and that required inspections have been accomplished; have all the paperwork for you and the airplane available for the examiner; and be sure you have all the endorsements you need.

If the examiner asks a question and you don't know the answer, don't fake it. Both the oral and the flight test are learning opportunities and examiners know a lot. Nothing wrong with taking the opportunity to learn from them. Although during the flight test you're technically the pilot in command, there's a good chance the examiner will take the opportunity to show you how he wants you to do a maneuver. Watch and learn.

You're paying for the ride, so try to enjoy it. If you and your instructor prepared properly, there's no reason you won't do well. It's become a cliché, but when the examiner hands you the temporary certificate it really is a "license to learn."

Remember, you're paying for the training and you can always take your business elsewhere. If you're not happy with the service you're being provided, ask for what you want. You're not required to stay with the same instructor or even the same flight school for your training.

Pilots are a breed apart. Becoming a pilot involves mastering a number of skills and psychological challenges. When you successfully conquer them you have every right to be proud of the accomplishment.