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Introductory Flight Lesson: A true story

By Mike Morley

Intro flightAt work, I looked anxiously at the clock to see how many hours were left to go. Five hours, then four, then two, then 22 1/2 minutes… I was twitching with excitement. I had waited years for this moment, and now the time had finally arrived for my first flying lesson.

I wasn't sure what to expect from an "introductory" flight lesson. Would I merely be watching the instructor, or would I be thrown to the wolves and be running the checklist and making radio calls? Would I get some grizzled ex-military pilot barking rapid-fire commands at me or yelling at me to "watch my airspeed"? What should I take to the lesson? Shouldn't I be doing some kind of prep work?

I thought about calling for a weather briefing, but I was afraid they would say "This service is for pilots only!" so I checked the Aviation Digital Data Service instead. Forecast winds for the next three hours were steady, but expected to increase to 10-15 knots after sunset. We should be down before then, right? There were weather advisories for turbulence and mountain-top obscuration. Since I could see Mount Diablo, I figured MTOS wasn't a problem. The only temporary flight restrictions were the usual ones at Disneyland and Beale AFB. It was a go.

I arrived at the fixed-base operator desk armed with my kneeboard, frequencies, and airport diagram and announced sheepishly that I was there for an intro flight. As I waited, I looked at the triumphant faces of the students on the wall, posing with their aircraft for their first solos or passing checkrides. Out came the flight instructor, who went about getting the keys and headsets and checking the squawk sheet. He looked like a high school kid, but he seemed to know what he was doing.

I expected him to lead us to some oil-stained trainer with buckled skin and bald tires, but I was pleasantly surprised to find us in front of a newish Cessna 172. The R model looked virtually identical to the S model I had been "training" in for the last few years on my computer at home. Although the gauges and switches were in the same location as the simulator, the panel was somehow unfamiliar and I found myself searching for the master switch. As the instructor explained each item to check, I nodded like a dashboard ornament but didn’t really comprehend. "Look at the flap tracks for problems," he said. "Got it," I replied, not knowing what on earth a problem with a flap track would look like.

I climbed inside and watched the instructor work the fuel pump, throttle, and mixture; then I turned the switch and the engine rumbled to life. His hands became a blur as he set the radios, GPS, and altimeter; retracted flaps; set takeoff trim; and called ground control. Weren't we supposed to follow a checklist or something? He checked the brakes and we started to roll down a line of planes parked on each side of the taxiway. I realized that we had an extra 15 feet of wing on each side of us, and I was glad he was driving.

Just as I was becoming content with being a left-seat passenger, I heard a disembodied voice through the headset say, "Put your feet on the pedals and take us to the runway." I wiggled down the yellow line as he pointed which way to go. I stepped on the right pedal to turn onto the next taxiway, and suddenly we were careening off to the left. Did I step on the wrong pedal? He explained that I had stepped on the right pedal, but that I had also pushed the left toe brake down. He took over before we hit the taxi lights, and we were back on track.

I headed for the hold-short line prepared to stop, but felt the left pedal yank down. I said nothing, took my feet off the pedals, and put my hands in the air in surrender to signify it was his airplane—not exactly a positive exchange of controls.

We headed to the run-up area and spun around with our tail to the grass; he explained he didn't want to blast anyone with our prop wash. He pushed in the throttle to 1700 rpm and asked me to check the magnetos. Happy to be of use, I switched from both to left, then both to right--looked good. Oil temp coming up, pressure in the green, vacuum good, fuel 3/4 on each tank, fuel selector: both, trim set, controls free and correct. I was settling down and thinking clearer. I can do this! The instructor asked me to make the call to the tower, and despite my mental rehearsals the night before, I could not for the life of me remember anything beyond "Concord tower…" I asked him to make the call instead.

We taxied onto the runway. As the instructor advanced the throttle, he told me to keep it on the centerline and rotate at 55 knots. I put the balls of my feet on the bottom of the pedals and gently pulled back on the yoke at 55, and after a slight hesitation we were airborne.

I added a little right rudder as we yawed to the left. Moments later, I noticed the nose had climbed to an alarmingly high attitude and we were in a 20-degree bank. It was time to focus. At first, all I could manage was keeping the wings level as the nose porpoised up and down, but I leveled out at 2000 feet over Suisun Bay.

The instructor asked me to make a turn to the left, so I checked for traffic and slowly banked the wings, adding a little left rudder. The nose jerked to the left and dropped a few degrees, so I released the rudder and pulled back a little on the yoke. I glanced at the vertical speed indicator (VSI) and saw I was still descending, so I pulled back more and noticed that the bank angle was well over 30 and increasing. I leveled the wings as we ballooned up a few hundred feet. Oh yeah--release back pressure. This was definitely harder than driving a car!

The instructor asked why I stopped the turn and I said I wasn’t ready for steep turns yet. He said, "Oh, those are easy! Let me show you." We entered a tight turn to the right, and I saw the VSI was pegged at zero. This guy was good.

Next he asked if I wanted to see a stall. We were only at 2000 feet, but he dropped full flaps and pulled back the throttle while I raised the nose. I watched the airspeed drop off quickly below the green arc, and the stall horn started blaring.

I looked out the window at the mothball fleet of ships below. We were not moving, just suspended in mid-air. He told me to pull back further, and finally I felt a little burble as the nose dropped slightly. He lowered the nose to gain airspeed and then raised the flaps. I pulled back again, and the horn blared. Finally the nose dropped unexpectedly. That wasn't bad at all. I had expected a wing to drop or a snap roll to the left or right.

As we headed back to the airport, I asked if I could do a slip. I added rudder and banked the ailerons to the right. The sight before me was so unnatural and the feeling so uncomfortable in my seat, I promptly returned to straight and level. OK, enough maneuvers for today.

The instructor noticed me looking for my house below and asked if I wanted to take a few pictures. Looking out over my neighborhood, I located my street by following the canal below, and then finally found my house. I shouted, "There it is!" and the instructor put the plane into a steep slip so I could get a good shot. I took a few pictures, and then tossed the camera onto the back seat as we turned to base.

The instructor dropped the final notch of flaps as we neared the runway and pulled the throttle to idle. He lined up on a very short final and told me he would help with the landing if I needed it. I put my hands and feet back on the controls and corrected for a little drift. I concentrated on staying on line and glanced at the airspeed: stable at 70. I rounded out a few feet above the runway, held the nose a few degrees up, and waited. We floated for a few seconds and made a greaser of a landing.

We were rolling down the centerline when I heard the instructor say, "That was all you. Nicely done." Beaming with pride, I forgot to use the brakes as we rolled past the taxiway.

We did a U-Turn and taxied back, crossing the adjacent runway and coming to a stop just past the hold short line. We were cleared back to the FBO, and when we got there I pulled the mixture and the engine rumbled to a stop.

After we tied down, the instructor took a snapshot of me posed with the airplane, like all those other pilots in the office, and I felt a small sense of accomplishment. Only a few people I know have ever been at the controls of a plane, and it was clear to me then that not just anyone could do this--and I had a lot to learn. As I drove home, I wondered if I had the "right stuff" to become a pilot. How many lessons will it take to answer that question? Maybe you never know.

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