Experiencing a day at flight school

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 26, 2004

For centuries, man yearned to be able to soar like the eagle. It’s been just under a century since the Wright Brothers took that first brief, exhilarating flight at Kitty Hawk.

Otto Lilienthal once said, &uot;To invent an airplane is nothing. To build one is something. To fly one is everything.&uot;

Many people have probably gazed up into an azure sky at a small plane flying overhead or watched a program about Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart or the pilots in &uot;The Right Stuff&uot;, and wistfully wondered – what if that were me?

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What would it feel like to take the controls of a plane, and take to the skies? And how much of an investment of money and time would it require?

A considerable investment

If you want to learn how to do something, you need some hands-on experience. Learning how to fly means flight school – and yes, that can be a considerable investment in time and money.

To earn a private pilot’s certificate, a minimum of 40 flight hours is required, including at least ten hours of solo time. The average person, however, takes at least 55 – 65 hours of flight time to prepare for their test. There is also ground school to be completed.

Ultimately, you have to pass a written test, a simple medical exam and practical flight test to obtain a pilot’s certificate.

On average, nationwide, it costs the person pursuing a private pilot’s certificate (which allows you to fly family and friends to and from any airport in the country) between $4,500 and $6,500. (Costs vary from region to region, and by the type of plane used for training.) Here in Alabama, the cost averages around $5,000.

Take a discovery flight

But what if you simply want to get your feet wet in the world of aviation?

There is a way to get an introductory flight lesson – a so-called &uot;Discovery Flight&uot; – at a very affordable price.

BE A PILOT, a national aviation-community program that seeks to educate the public about the benefits, fun and adventure of flying, has 2,000 participating flight schools across the country. Each of the participating schools (there are 24 in Alabama) will take a student on a &uot;Discovery Flight&uot; for just $49 (approximately half the cost of a typical lesson).

All one has to do is present an Introductory Flight Certificate courtesy of BE A PILOT. (You can call 1-888-BE A PILOT to get a certificate or register online at www.beapilot.com.)

SouthStar Aviation Services, located at Montgomery Regional Airport, was the site of just such an introductory flight recently offered to staff members of The Greenville Advocate. The Montgomery flight school has been in operation since 1992, and offers certification levels from private pilot to airline transport.

No ceiling on opportunities

An introductory flight begins with a meeting with the pilot and a quick lesson on the benefits of learning to fly.

&uot;There are a lot of opportunities out there for people interested in getting into aviation,&uot; said Cole Simon, the young commercial pilot who served as the instructor for the day. &uot;In the next ten years, there will be something like 40,000 commercial pilots retiring – and most of their jobs will be filled by civilian-trained pilots,&uot; Simon, whose father is a recently retired airline pilot, explained.

Even for those who have no aspirations to become a commercial pilot, flying, Simon said, can be great therapy.

&uot;It’s a really good way to get away from the everyday pressures,&uot; the full-time Auburn student explained.

Simon, who frequently flies his friends on trips, added flying is a &uot;great way&uot; to travel. &uot;You can split the cost of the airplane rental – you are only charged for the time the engines are running – and save a lot of money and time.&uot;

&uot;Flying is very safe,&uot; Simon commented, adding, &uot;Most people who are afraid of flying are really afraid of the unknown. Once you know the facts, you realize it is one of the safest forms of transportation.&uot;

Safety is key

An introductory flight lesson typically involves a 15-minute pre-flight check, a 30-40 minute lesson in the plane and a brief session to discuss the flight after touchdown.

Pre-flight, Simon went over the plane – a four-seater, single-engine Piper Cherokee 180 – with a fine-toothed comb. &uot;I basically start with the right wing and go completely around the aircraft…checking rivets, flaps, hinges, looking underneath, checking tires…making sure everything is intact and as it should be,&uot; the pilot explained.

The plane’s fuel is checked to make sure there is no contamination that could cause flight problems and – just as your dad always told you to do before that long car trip – the oil is checked.

&uot;You always want to check your propeller – if there is a nick in it large enough you can insert a dime into, you need to have it filed down. Also, make sure that prop is on good and tight,&uot; Simon explained.

The commercial pilot and flight instructor, who has logged in several hundred hours of flight time, says he still has his checklist in hand before each and every flight.

&uot;It’s easy to let things become routine in your mind and then overlook something you really should have checked – having the checklist in front of you is the safest way to do things.&uot;

Safety is the reason there are several redundant systems in place on the aircraft, Simon said. &uot;For example, you check your fuel once and you check it again – it’s all about keeping things as safe as possible and lessening the chance something is going to go wrong in flight.&uot;

Simon said each aircraft is required to undergo a full inspection after every 100 hours of flight time. &uot;There is a lot of work that goes into every one of these inspections – that’s why we routinely see planes in the air that are 20 to 30 years old or more and still in good condition. How many vehicles do you still see on the road after that amount of time?&uot;

Taking to the skies

Once the check was completed on the exterior of the plane, it was time to climb in, take your seat and check out the interior dials, gauges and controls. Student and instructor (and passengers) stay in communication during the flight via headphones fitted with microphones.

(Remember, trainers are small planes, the engine is right in front of you and the noise level will be high.)

Just as your parents cautioned you to look both ways before crossing the street, student pilots are constantly reminded to be aware of what’s going on around them, from taxiing to touchdown. &uot;Always be aware of anything potentially crossing your path on the runway or invading your airspace when you are in flight,&uot; Simon stressed.

After the control tower cleared the little Piper for takeoff, the student got the first taste of really taking the controls as she put her hand to the throttle and eased it forward. The plane’s nose rose, the wheels left the runway and the aircraft was aloft.

On an introductory flight, Simon explained, the plane typically climbs to an altitude of 2,500 to 3,000 feet.

One word of caution: In a small plane like the Piper Cherokee and other trainers, any crosswinds buffeting the aircraft will be felt much more keenly than in a large commercial airliner. It can be an unsettling experience for the novice pilot.

&uot;I have flown so many times now, I don’t even really notice the sensation anymore – but it does take some getting used to,&uot; Simon admitted. He also explained a longer flight, with its higher cruising altitude, typically translates into a smoother flight.

Taking the controls

During the introductory flight, a student is given several opportunities to take the controls and actually fly the plane.

Redundancy is an important part of the training, just as it is for the flight check. Each time Simon turned over the controls to his student, he stated, &uot;You have control of the plane,&uot; to which she responded, &uot;I have control of the plane&uot;, after which Simon again stated, &uot;You have control of the plane.&uot;

&uot;I always do this to be sure there is no confusion over who is piloting the plane at any given time,&uot; the instructor explained.

Simon gives each of his fledgling pilots a few flying pointers as they enjoy their bird’s-eye view of the Capitol City.

&uot;Look at the nose of the plane and look at the horizon in the distance…you want to try to keep the nose positioned just above the horizon,&uot; Simon explained.

While the student pilot made several simple maneuvers during the flight, nothing amounting to aerial acrobatics was attempted, or would even be allowed. Trainer aircraft like the Piper are not certified for such stunt flying.

The lesson (no pun intended) flew by. After nearly 45 minutes in the air, it was time to head back to the airport.

Once is all it takes

One lesson is often all it takes, Simon explained, for someone to decide if flying is – or isn’t – their cup of tea.

&uot;Some people learn how to fly simply because it’s a good move for their business – it’s a faster way to get wherever they need to go. It’s a different experience with every person, but most people love flying because it is something they have always wanted to do,&uot; commented the pilot.

&uot;A lot of people want to experience the freedom, the adventure of flight – and they like the fact they can set their own schedule. Nowadays, you can often get to a destination faster on a private plane than on a commercial flight,&uot; he explained.

The least enthusiastic novice pilots, he said, are the ones who got their introductory lesson as a gift from a well-meaning friend or relative – the one who didn’t realize their nephew or grandchild actually have no interest in learning to fly.

&uot;They are the ones who would just as soon be in a car listening to their CDs,&uot; Simon laughed, adding, &uot;Occasionally someone discovers they just don’t like the experience.&uot;

A broader, more affordable experience

According to Simon, SouthStar draws student pilots from across the state.

&uot;They like coming to Montgomery to train – it’s less busy than big airports where you eat up a lot of time taxiing and waiting, but it’s also still large enough you get experience dealing with an air traffic control tower – which you don’t get in most smaller airports. I’d say we provide a broader experience here.&uot;

Simon also emphasized the affordability of the training offered there.

&uot;Depending on what plane you train on and how many hours you put in, it runs about $3,500 to $5,000 at SouthStar to get your private pilot’s certificate. That is certainly more affordable than many places,&uot; said Simon (who was himself trained at SouthStar). Most lessons are based on a one-hour flight, with an additional hour spent in pre-flight and post-flight instruction.

Buy or rent?

Once you have obtained a pilot’s certificate, does it mean you’ll have to invest thousands of additional dollars in your own plane? Not necessarily, says Simon.

&uot;While we train a lot of people who eventually end up buying their own plane, renting a plane like this is also very affordable way to build up airtime,&uot; he explained.

The rental cost, including fuel, for the Piper is $84.50 per hour (i.e., time engine is running). South Star’s other rental aircraft run $63 per hour for a Cessna two-seater, $84 per hour for a four-seater Piper Warrior and $100 per hour for a four-seater Piper Arrow III. (In comparison, MC Aviation in Mobile charges from $132 to $187 per hour for their Pipers and Cessnas; at Huntsville Flight Center hourly rates range from $115 to $175 an hour.)

&uot;The advantages of renting also includes having all the maintenance work on the planes taken care of by the aviation company,&uot; Simon added.

Who can fly?

There is no minimum age to start taking flight lessons, but you must be at least 16 years of age to solo and 17 to obtain a Private Pilot’s Certificate. You must speak English. You need to have 20/50 vision without glasses or 20/30 vision with corrective lenses and be able to distinguish the colors red and green.

You also need to have good balance, no nose or throat conditions aggravated by flying, and be able to hear a whispered voice at three feet. Having chronic heart disease, certain types of diabetes, epilepsy and certain types of mental and neurological conditions would disqualify a person from the running to pursue a pilot’s certificate.

However, as long you stay in good health, you can keep flying, says Simon.

&uot;I know a pilot who is 90 years old. He’s been a pilot since the mid-1930s and he is still flying,&uot; Simon said.

As for the 20-year-old Simon, he claims to be learning something new about the world of aviation every time he climbs into the cockpit.

&uot;Every flight is a lesson, whether I’m the pilot or the instructor…I love it,&uot; he said with a smile.

To learn more about the BE A PILOT Program, go to the program’s website at www.beapilot.com or call their toll-free number at 1-888- BE A PILOT. To find out more about SouthStar Aviation, call 334-281-9005 or e-mail them at southstarav@mindspring.com.