There are a few moments in life that are truly memorable. It might be the day you held your first driver’s license, a crazy party to celebrate your 21st birthday, your very first kiss or the birth of a child. For most pilots, the first flight lesson is an experience that will trigger the limbic system and be cemented within memory for a lifetime.
My first lesson came when I was 29 years old. Like most pilot candidates, learning to fly was a lifelong dream. But, for many reasons, I had dismissed my dream as unattainable until that day. As a result, I knew literally nothing about flying. Throttle, mixture, yoke, attitude indicator? I had never heard of even the most basic components of the cockpit.
Because of my complete ignorance, my first lesson took more than three hours. Even though it was a late afternoon in August—when the days are still long—my instructor, Jason Van Camp, and I didn’t climb out of the Cessna 152 until it was getting dark. Fortunately, Van Camp had the patience and commitment as an instructor to guide me through this challenging first step in a very positive way. Yet my most prominent memory was the feeling of being overwhelmed. What today feels almost as easy as driving a car seemed then to be nearly unachievable. Had it not been for my total focus and excitement at this new venture, and the incredible patience of Van Camp, the experience might have turned me off. To prevent this, I would recommend some homework before climbing into the left seat for the first time.
You might be aware that pilots use checklists during several segments of flight, such as preflight, pre-start, taxi, before takeoff, cruise, etc. The pilot’s operating handbook for a given airplane includes checklists specific to each aircraft’s make and model. Condensed, laminated, easier-to-use checklists are also available through various pilot shops. Once you know the type of airplane you’re going to fly for your first lesson, track down a checklist and go through each segment to get an idea of what you should look for. Make yourself familiar with the cockpit environment and the components listed in the checklists. Because Van Camp had to show me each component in the checklists, it must have taken us at least an hour and a half before we even got the propeller spinning. By comparison, an experienced Cessna 172 pilot can get through the preflight and pre-start checklists in about 15 minutes.
A basic understanding of the flight controls is also helpful for your first lesson. What does the yoke do? Which direction on the throttle gives you more or less power? What on earth is trim? A review of the instruments or primary flight display is also helpful. Where can I tell what speed I’m flying? Where is the altimeter? What does the attitude indicator tell me? You can refer to the FAA’s Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge to get familiar with the basic flight controls and instruments; you won’t be quite as overwhelmed, and you’ll save yourself some money on instruction time.
Some schools demand that you complete the ground school and written test before you even get inside an airplane. While some basic knowledge is helpful, I don’t recommend this. The written test expires after two years, and a lot of the information you need to learn for the written test won’t make sense before you start taking the controls. Just focus on the basics before the first lesson—then you can get to the written exam, and the two will make sense.
Be prepared to be amazed. Van Camp gently lifted the two-seater off Runway 21 at California’s Santa Monica Municipal Airport. I could not believe it when, shortly thereafter, he gave me the controls and allowed me to start maneuvering the airplane over the beautiful sand beaches of the Pacific coastline. That first lesson included very basic maneuvers: straight-and-level flight, the use of trim, turns at various degrees of bank angle, climbs, and descents. I was amazed that I was looking down at the mountains of Malibu while actually flying an airplane.
My first lesson also included a very important aspect that, in itself, made a lasting impression. The sun was starting to set, and there was a marine layer off the California shoreline. Van Camp told me to turn the airplane toward it. He made me close my eyes and, after opening them again, guess our attitude. Were we level, in a bank, climbing or descending? I don’t quite remember my guess, but I do remember being completely off. That first lesson made me realize I had to trust my instruments because my inner ear would fool me when the outside picture didn’t provide any reliable information.
Other than gaining some familiarity with the components of the airplane, it’s extremely important you know your flight school and your instructor. Here is one place I did the right thing. Before starting my first lesson, I visited all of the flight schools at the Santa Monica Airport. In 1999, there were at least five. The school that gave me the best feeling by far was Justice Aviation, a Part 61 school, which provides greater flexibility compared with a more structured Part 141 school. I was still working full time, so I needed flexibility. I also liked the fact that the school had a large fleet of airplanes and allowed overnight rentals.
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What really sold me on Justice, however, were the people. The owners, Sharon and Joe Justice, were warm and caring, and their personalities percolated down through the front-desk staff and instructors.
During my “research visit,” I spent a long time talking to a CFI candidate by the name of Andrew Sampson. He gave me some good advice and insight into what becoming a pilot would entail. Because he wasn’t certified yet, I was assigned to Van Camp for my first lesson.
Van Camp and I hit it off great, and he gave me a terrific start to my training. But after just a few lessons, he was hired by Mesa Airlines and went off on his way to flying jets. Fortunately, by then, Sampson had finished up his certificate and took over as my instructor.
Sampson was a great CFI with an amazing sense of humor, which made it even more enjoyable to come to the airport. And fortunately, because Sampson stayed with the school for some time, he was able to help me complete both my private pilot certificate and instrument rating.
Before that first lesson, make sure you meet with your instructor. Ask yourself: Can I see myself spending dozens of hours basically attached to this person in a small cockpit? Will the instructor stick around, or is he or she likely to take an airline job in the next month? Is the instructor professional, on time, courteous? Don’t allow your dreams to fade if you get a bad instructor on that first lesson. There are plenty of good ones out there who are passionate about helping you reach your goals.
You might be reluctant to fly with a newly minted instructor, but not only are new CFIs current on all of the regulations, they have just been tested by a designated examiner. Moreover, a new instructor could be more motivated to fly frequently than a more seasoned one. The ink on Sampson’s certificate hadn’t dried before I started flying with him, yet he gave me a fantastic start on my career.
There are several things you can do to help make your very first flight lesson a happy memory. While there is a lot to learn when it comes to getting a pilot’s certificate, your first lesson should be mostly about having fun. There is plenty of time for learning.
This story appeared in the Learn to Fly Special Issue of Flying Magazine