Taking Wing: Struggles and Rewards of Learning to Fly

April 17, 1997, my 16th birthday: My instructor,
Jerry Graham, congratulates me on surviving
my first solo and an equally harrowing case of
headset hair.
Sam Weigel

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.

I landed on Runway 16, taxied back to the threshold and shoved the throttle in for takeoff. The run seemed to take forever, and when I glanced to the right, I caught a bemused expression on Jerry’s face. I realized that I had left the carb heat on and the flaps at 40. These oversights rectified, the little C-150 was much more amenable to flight, but now I was really steaming, and the trap was set. On the next landing, I was utterly distracted and simply forgot to flare. The nosewheel hit hard; the Cessna bounded skyward, and a textbook pilot-induced oscillation ensued. The third bounce was the highest yet, and the pneumatic reed stall horn wailed in protest. At this point, I made my only good decision of the day and poured on the coals; had I not gone around, I am certain I would have ripped the nose gear off the firewall. Jerry calmly requested that I make a full-stop landing and taxi to the pilot lounge. I was sure he was about to ban me from flying his airplanes for life.

Instead, Jerry bought me a Coke from the old vending machine and explained that flying accidents are seldom the result of one solitary screw-up and are usually caused by a chain of errors. A good pilot, he told me, is one who can recognize a chain being built and break it before it results in an accident. In my case, Jerry said, breaking the chain meant accepting that I am human and will make mistakes and should simply correct my mistakes when they happen and not dwell on them or assign blame. This was an amazing insight to someone who tended to obsess over flying mistakes for weeks on end, given that my whole identity was tied up in my newfound skills as a pilot. Learning to let go of my mistakes that day in Rush City was a major milestone both in learning to fly and in the process of growing up.

Other milestones followed. I had nightmares for weeks before my first solo; the actual event was perfectly smooth, though the empty right seat seemed like an impossible apparition. Likewise, solo cross countries that once seemed like herculean undertakings turned out to be perfectly manageable compilations of small, familiar tasks. Each of these events went far better than expected, but I tended to find trouble when I least expected it. Thus it was on a beautiful summer evening shortly after my checkride that I loaded the C-172 to max gross weight with myself and three friends, took off from a soft grass strip and forgot to accelerate in ground effect, very nearly stalling into the tall pines alongside the runway. I’ll never forget bracing for impact as branches flashed past the wingtips, shaking violently as soon as I’d gingerly nursed the airplane back to flying speed and the dead feeling in the pit of my stomach that lingered for days afterward.

No, learning to fly is not easy, despite what the flight school brochures say. It is hard; it is expensive; it is occasionally uncomfortable, even frightening. And yet, it is immensely rewarding in ways no sales pitch can explain, in ways that go far beyond a mere certificate or even the lifelong skills that one acquires. The reward is in the challenge itself and how, in the process of rising to meet it, you discover things within yourself that you didn’t even know existed. This illumination changes you forever, turns you into a pilot — not because you possess a certain skill set or knowledge base but because you were there. You sweated it out in the noisy cockpit of an old Cessna that smelled of damp and avgas as you nervously picked your way from lake to highway to river. Finally Duluth came into view, and the chirp of your tires on its beautifully long runway was the sweetest sound in the world. At the FBO, you climbed out, stretched and patted the old girl’s cowling as you thanked her for keeping you safe on your first solo cross country. In that moment, you realized that all the pain and frustration of learning to fly was worth every second. Heck, you wouldn’t even trade it for a Beechcraft to Bimini.

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Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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