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Expand Your Horizons

Exploring other definitions of the word ‘fly’

Earning your private pilot certificate is one of the most rewarding endeavors you will undertake in your lifetime. In and of itself, it is worthwhile. With your fresh pilot certificate in hand, you’ll find new destinations to visit, give nephew Nathaniel and aunt Gertie their first airplane rides, enjoy weekends flying out for $50 hamburgers, and spend priceless evenings with your wife, husband, or sweetheart, cruising through smooth air near your home field, watching the golden sunset fade to dusk.

Sooner or later, however, you’ll ask yourself the question every private pilot asks when weekend jaunts start to become routine: What next? One of the great things about aviation, though, is that it always offers up new challenges, new horizons, to the pilot looking to explore different facets of flying. Here’s a rundown of just some of the ways you can expand your portfolio of piloting skills and experiences well beyond the private pilot certificate:

Aerobatics

If you like roller coasters, you will love aerobatics. That is, of course, a bit of a simplification. But the thrill of riding the world’s best roller coasters is the closest ground-bound humans will ever come to the exhilaration of piloting a capable aerobatic airplane through loops, rolls, spins, and the like. The great thing about riding the aerial roller coaster, of course, is that you are in control; you design the track as you go along. The thrill of movement is combined with the freedom, beauty, and sense of accomplishment that comes with all human flight. Master aerobatics—a contraction of aerial acrobatics—and not only will you have the time of your life, you’ll have gained a difficult skill that few pilots can lay claim to.

Contrary to common perceptions, most light aircraft aren’t designed to do the sort of maneuvers we’re used to watching airplanes perform in movies and on television. It takes a special kind of airplane and a specially trained pilot to fly aerobatics safely—and legally.

Airplanes certified by the Federal Aviation Administration as aerobatic must be able to withstand plus-six and minus-three Gs, which means six times the positive force of gravity and three times the negative. Aerobatics can put some real strains on an airplane, and you want to be flying a rugged machine designed for the job.

Although no additional pilot certificate is necessary to fly aerobatics, pilots normally enroll in a formal course of training. Companies that rent and insure aerobatic aircraft virtually insist upon it, and it s downright dangerous to attempt “self-taught” maneuvers. Ten hours of dual instruction is the norm to attain basic aerobatic skills that will enable you to fly spins, loops, and rolls. As you progress as an aerobat, however, you probably will seek additional instruction. As in all types of flying, you never get to the point where you have learned it all.

A minor point, but one frequently asked about, concerns air sickness. Although Sic Sacs are standard equipment in aerobatic airplanes, most pilots find that they quickly get used to the unusual sensations of watching the horizon spinning about the airplane. Some never experience any queasiness at all. But aerobatic flight can be strenuous, and pilots with bad backs or in poor physical shape should use caution.

Aerobatic training can’t be beat for building your confidence in the cockpit. For information on the sport of aerobatics and training programs in your area, contact the International Aerobatic Club in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, at 414/426-4800.

Soaring

Silent flight—only sailplanes allow us to experience flying the way the hawks do, held aloft by the very air itself, accompanied only by the sound of the wind in our wings. It is flight at its most basic and, some would say, at its most beautiful.

The common term for flying sailplanes and gliders is “soaring,” a graceful word that seems to embody the sensation of motorless flight. This art is taught at soaring centers around the country, many in bucolic settings with grassy green runways, others alongside powered flight operations in more populated areas. Some people choose to start their flight training in sailplanes. Others, recognizing the greater utility of powered aircraft but drawn to soaring as a form of peaceful recreation, work on their private pilot certificate first, then study soaring as an added skill. A glider certificate is an enjoyable add-on rating that may be attained by powered-airplane pilots with relative ease over a long weekend, although further training will be needed to become truly proficient at it.

Whether you choose soaring as an adjunct flying activity or decide to head straight for the local soaring center and become a die-hard glider pilot, few experiences in life can rival the tranquility of soaring on silent wings.

For information on soaring, contact the Soaring Society of America at 505/392-1177.

Taildraggers

Taildragger is the term pilots use to describe an airplane with a small wheel under the tail and the two main wheels up front. In the old days of aviation, that was the common setup, and such landing gear still is referred to as “conventional gear.” But the convention nowadays is to put the small wheel in front and main wheels behind—the “tricycle gear” design that engineers discovered to be much more stable on the ground. You’ll hear more about conventional and tricycle landing gear early in your flight training, and it all may sound a bit arcane and irrelevant. That is, until you fly both types of aircraft.

Taildraggers simply are more demanding to handle during takeoffs and landings than their trigear counterparts; that’s why they were largely phased out of production. But paradoxically, that also is why pilots continue to fly them and several companies still build them. Because taildraggers are more challenging to fly, their pilots consider themselves a cut above their tricycle-pedaling aeronautical brethren. And their traditional designs keep pilots in touch with the seat-of-the-pants roots of aviation. Most tailwheel airplanes tend to be more traditional in design than trikes. Many have joysticks—the classic control stick coming up from the floor—instead of the car-like steering wheels found in most airplanes today. Virtually all biplanes, for example, are taildraggers. And most bushplanes are taildraggers, thanks to their superior performance on rough airfields.

A sign-off from a qualified instructor is required to pilot tailwheel airplanes. But you needn’t wait until you ve earned your private pilot certificate to taste this kind of old-fashioned flying. Many student pilots even start their training in taildraggers where such instruction is available. If you are used to flying trigear airplanes, a few hours of dual instruction should bring you up to speed for a tailwheel sign-off, although regular practice will be necessary to stay proficient. Because tailwheel airplanes are no longer the norm, the availability of tailwheel flight instruction can sometimes be spotty. The best way to seek it out is to ask around at the local airport, and check the ads in any of the regional aviation publications you find on the coffee table at your flight school.

Helicopters

Nothing quite impresses the neophyte helicopter flier like the hover. To be cruising along in a helicopter and then just stop.... You look past your feet, and there’s the ground down below, and you’re just sitting there on this invisible cushion of air. Intellectually, you know that helicopters can do this, but the first time you hover, it is an odd sensation—and an incredible blast. Most people are hooked on helicopter flying after that first hover.

Whether you start out in helicopters or add a helicopter rating to your fixed-wing private pilot certificate, you are sure to be challenged by this fun and growing branch of light aviation. The only catch—we might as well just spit it out—is the cost. Although enough people can afford helicopter flying to make it a booming segment of aviation (More Robinson R22 light helicopters were sold last year than any other piston-powered aircraft), it is hands-down one of the most expensive kinds of flying to get into. Dual instruction in even the smallest, most economical helicopter will run you in excess of $100 an hour. That’s because helicopters are complicated machines that are costly to maintain and operate.

Helicopter flying offers unmatched versatility, utility, and enjoyment. From putting down in remote areas and shooting nature photos to landing in your own backyard (where permitted, of course), helicopters offer fun flying that is challenging to master, usually with great visibility outside the aircraft. Even if you can’t go all-out for a helicopter rating, most people can scrape together enough money for an introductory flight or two. It’s well worth it, if only for the rush of that first hover.

Look into helicopter flying the way you would fixed-wing flight instruction. Start with the Yellow Pages in your area. If you don’t find anything nearby, contact AOPA at 800/USA-AOPA for more information on helicopter flight schools.

Floatplanes

Wouldn’t it be great if you could combine the barefoot fun of boating with the travel opportunities and airborne enjoyment of flying? You can with a seaplane rating.

Floatplanes allow you access to some of the most pristine wilderness areas in the country, and you take your boat with you in the form of your airplane. Imagine landing on a remote lake, dropping anchor, and casting for a lunker trout, bass, or pike. And although their popular image is as the bush pilot’s traditional conveyance, floatplanes also can be operated out of many metropolitan areas. An added advantage is that for float pilots, every river or pond offers a handy emergency landing site—floatplanes can even be landed on dry ground or highways in an emergency. Airplanes equipped with amphibious floats, which have retractable wheels, have the added advantage of flying from airports as well as water. And although some waterways are off-limits to seaplanes, most states offer extensive possibilities to the floatplane pilot.

None of which brings out the most important point: Floatplanes are a heck of a lot of fun to fly. There is just a different feeling to taking off and landing on water that you have to experience for yourself. Imagine speeding along the surface of a crystal-clear lake, with the spray flying back from your floats, only to lift off smoothly and soar above the evergreens on the far shore. There’s nothing quite like it.

Although an additional rating is required to fly floatplanes, it is considered one of the easier—and more enjoyable—add-on ratings to obtain. No written examination is required, and the necessary flying can be accomplished in the matter of a few days. It’s the sort of thing you can accomplish on vacation or a long weekend. By their very nature, floatplanes will put you near the other types of recreational activity usually found in waterfront areas.

Many light airplanes were certificated by the Federal Aviation Administration with the approval to be equipped with floats, although it can be hard to find floats for some models.

Floatplane pilots make up a close-knit, laid-back community. You just know these people love to fly floats. To look into joining their number, contact the Seaplane Pilots Association in Lakeland, Florida, at 888/SPA-8923.

William L. Gruber is a writer and pilot living in Venice, Florida.

As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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