A journey that began with backcountry flights in Alaska took twists and turns for one woman to become a pilot, only to have to put those dreams aside as life events interfered. Now, an opportunity to return to Alaska for some summer flights has once again ignited the desire to get back in the left seat. Kathy Dondzila, manager of technical communications for AOPA’s Pilot Information Center, recounts the path that led her back into the air.
After being out of the cockpit for nine years, a pilot getting back into flying might be a little nervous. Is taking off and landing like riding a bicycle again after nearly a decade? AOPA’s Kathy Dondzila readied for her first recurrency lesson in N330ME, AOPA's 2000 Millennium Model Cessna 172S.
A pilot’s first lesson after a nine-year hiatus left her feeling increasingly confident in regaining her skills. But how would she handle the second lesson: takeoffs and landings with winds of 13 knots gusting to 18 knots? Her landings on the previous flight had been pretty good, so she expected this lesson would be a piece of cake. She was wrong.
Her confidence shaken after a bruising round of touch and goes, a pilot returning to flying sought the wisdom of two experienced pilots. She took off for her third lesson with three action items in mind, and in spite of distractions all around, she kept her main focus on flying a textbook pattern, establishing a stable approach, and greasing the landing.
Can short- and soft-field practice on a 5,200-foot paved runway prepare this pilot for operating on a 1,700-foot grass runway, with the last 500 feet sloping downhill at a 15-percent grade?
The loss of her mother interrupted a pilot’s effort to get back into flying, but she returned to the cockpit resolved to be ready for soft-field landings, short runways, and adventure in Alaska. In lesson five, she got a good radio workout at the newly towered Frederick Municipal Airport and dealt with some unusual traffic on the day of the G8 Summit at nearby Camp David.
At Kingdom Air Corps in Sutton, Alaska, the grass strip is short and the scenery is long on beauty. Lesson six brought real bush flying, breathtaking views of mountains and glaciers, and a chance to practice a short- and soft-field landing—for real. It was another step forward in a journey undertaken by pilot Kathy Dondzila, manager of technical communications in the AOPA Pilot Information Center, returning to the left seat to take on new challenges, and the blessings that come with them.
The Brooks Range offers a picturesque backdrop for a lesson in the rudder dance demanded by the Champ, a conventional-gear workhorse that is decidedly unconventional to pilots accustomed to a Cessna 172. The airspeed indicator is the far right gauge, altimeter on the left. The most important instrument is dead center—the needle and ball. The yoke is missing, but a stick does a fine job. The throttle is on the left side where the Cessna 172 door is. Trim? It’s on the ceiling. Go back to basics, flying by the seat of your pants with Kingdom Air Corps.
The two pilots took off in a Cessna 172 from a private 2,200-foot grass strip in Alaska and headed for Wiseman, about 40 miles east. The pilots were going to fly through the mountain passes of the Brooks Range, not over them, using that tried and true navigation: pilotage. The highest peak on the chart was 5,903 feet.
AOPA thanks our members for their continued support in protecting the freedom to fly.