August 26, 2010
By Dave Hirschman
Few things focus the mind better than an approaching deadline. Writers know this, and apparently, so do Marines.
When I informed Sgt. Michael “Bulldog” Blair in early June that I had scheduled his FAA sport pilot checkride 10 days hence, he took to the books with vigor. The irrepressible Blair had always been an enthusiastic flier and quickly learned to handle the AOPA 2010 Sweepstakes Fun to Fly Remos GX with confidence and aplomb.
But getting the manically busy, married father of a 4-year-old daughter to sit down and memorize aviation regulations, decode METARs, and recite cloud-separation requirements wasn’t easy. At least, not until his test date had been set—and then you couldn’t tear him away from his study materials.
On a steamy summer Saturday, 48 hours before his scheduled checkride, Blair called me at home with a long list of detailed questions about airspace, weather, regulations, and radio procedures. He was spending his weekend hitting the books, and that made me feel good about his prospects for passing his upcoming checkride.
Blair had overcome unimaginable obstacles on his long journey to becoming a flight student. A veteran of some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq, Blair, 35, was grievously wounded during his second combat tour there in 2006. He has undergone scores of orthopedic surgeries on two severely damaged legs, and he deals with chronic pain every hour of every day.
He was recommended to AOPA by Walt Fricke, founder of the Veterans Airlift Command, and began flight training in the AOPA 2010 Sweepstakes Fun to Fly Remos GX just in time for the heaviest snowfall the region had experienced in a century. An exceptionally windy spring, the airplane’s busy travel schedule, and Blair’s military obligations made flight-training time extremely hard to come by.
But Blair persisted, fellow AOPA staff CFI Alton Marsh pitched in, and by June, Blair had logged nearly 30 hours of dual and solo flight training—more than meeting the requirements for a sport pilot certificate.
The big day was going to be June 14. We would take the Remos 78 nm northeast to Chester County, Pennsylvania, and Blair would fly with Bill Nelson, a veteran examiner based there at Chester County/G.O. Carlson Airport ( MQS).
As I drove to Frederick Municipal Airport early that morning to meet Blair and travel to our destination, the weather report made my heart sink. Fog and low clouds were blanketing Pennsylvania’s Amish country, and conditions weren’t likely to improve until noon. Once the low ceilings lifted, the wind was forecast to kick up to 15 knots or more, making it a challenging day for a checkride.
Blair and I met at AOPA headquarters, reviewed our options, and used the downtime to go over his new favorite subjects: FAA regulations and airspace. Nelson was sympathetic and understanding about our delay, and he kept his afternoon clear to accommodate our revised schedule.
A few hours later, the weather had improved enough to allow an easy VFR flight to Pennsylvania, and we touched down a few minutes before noon. Nelson took us to his office, made us feel at ease, and ran Blair’s application through the FAA’s paperless IACRA system.
About 90 minutes after the oral exam began, Blair and Nelson made their way to the Remos for the flight portion of the practical test. The normally cocky Marine said he had been humbled by the gaps in his knowledge that Nelson’s commonsense, open-ended questioning revealed. But now that they were finally headed outdoors to the airplane, Blair was back in his element.
“I’m wearing my lucky boots,” he said with a wink. “I feel good about my chances.”
The wind was kicking up out of the west and gusting to 20 knots, but Blair took off and climbed smoothly, and soon the diminutive airplane was out of sight. When they returned about 90 minutes later, I watched the Remos land like a feather and taxi to the tie-down area. Nelson reached over and shook Blair’s hand. He was a sport pilot, and the look of relief on Blair’s face was unmistakable. He grinned broadly and touched the lucky charm from New Zealand he had strapped around his neck.
Blair had hoped and planned for his daughter Bella to be his first passenger, but he was stuck with me in the right seat as we made our way back to Frederick. We flew about 1,200 feet agl over the farms of southeastern Pennsylvania and watched in astonishment as an Amish farmer used a team of five horses to harvest a hay field. We circled a horse-drawn buggy making its way down a narrow country road.
During the hour-long flight, Blair was already thinking about what might lay ahead for him in aviation. A private pilot certificate seemed easily within reach, and I urged him to seek it while the hard-won knowledge he’d gained was fresh in his mind.
The Remos had served him extremely well during his sport pilot training, and it was exciting to see the sleek, thoroughly modern aircraft stand up to rigors of the flight training environment. The Light Sport category and airplanes like this one are going to be critical to growing the pilot population in the future.
I let Blair know that flying a four-seat Cessna or Piper would seem like driving a truck compared to the responsive LSA he was accustomed to. We’d already done several hours of flying under the hood, so he’d need about 10 hours in a standard aircraft, some night flying, and a long cross-country to satisfy the FAA’s private pilot requirements. Compared to what Blair’s already accomplished, and the difficult challenges he faces in his daily life, future FAA ratings will seem like a snap—even though they’ll require much more of that dreaded bookwork.
Blair said flying already has changed the way he looks at the world and opened new possibilities that he hadn’t considered.
“I’ve been thinking about going back to school for an engineering degree,” he said. “Aerospace engineering could be the place for me, and that’s something that never would have occurred to me before I started flying. This whole process has changed me in ways that I’m just beginning to figure out.”
By Dave Hirschman
Sgt. Michael Blair will take the stage at AOPA's Aviation Summit this year to talk about his experiences in flight training and as a newly certificated sport pilot. AOPA Aviation Summit takes place Nov. 11 through 13 in Long Beach, Calif.
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.
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