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The Joy of Flight: Lessons learned--about flying and life

My father came home with a copy of Top Gun when I was merely three and a half years old, but I still knew what airplanes were. My parents were dumbfounded that a movie held my interest...and boy did it.

For years, all I ever wanted to do was to become a fighter pilot flying F-14s in the Navy, just like Maverick. I would sit for hours at my house, in an overturned coffee table set up as a mock cockpit, forcing my brother and best friend to play the part of Goose as I re-enacted scenes from my favorite movie. As I grew older, self-doubt, and, to some extent, self-sabotage caused me to drift from my dream. By the time I was in high school, I had given up on the idea that I could fly airplanes, let alone fighters. My grades suffered, and I had other interests that occupied much of my time and efforts (namely women and cars).

I applied to several colleges and decided to attend Montana State University in Bozeman. When I enrolled, I had a new dream to become a cattle rancher. However, after two semesters and changing majors twice, I entered the fall of my second year of college and was feeling a growing concern: “What am I going to do with my life?”

One day, during a casual conversation with my mother, she suggested I become a pilot. Imagine the surprise I was feeling when she said those words. I believe my response was: “Yeah right mom, people don’t just become pilots!” (Looking back, it makes me laugh! Yes people do become pilots...every day!)

So I kicked around the thought for a semester. I had no idea schools existed that offered a degree in aviation. I decided to change my major, once again, to physical geography with an emphasis in meteorology.

Then one day I was walking back into my dorm from the dining hall and happened to glance at the bulletin board as I strolled by. It’s funny how on a bulletin board filled with perhaps 50 fliers, my eyes caught and focused on one that read, “Flight Ground School.”

I immediately tore it from the board and proceeded directly to my room to read it. I discovered that ground school is an “integral part of flight training, whether you want to fly for the airlines, or just want to be a weekend leisure pilot.” The class was being offered through Montana State University as an elective class. It would be instructed by Master CFII Benjamin Walton.

I immediately telephoned my mother and woke her (due to a two-hour time difference) and told her I had to take this class. She agreed and offered to pay the additional tuition for the class. And so it began.

The night I walked into the classroom was extremely nerve-racking. I didn’t know how many students there would be, how many already knew how to fly, or if I would be the rookie in the class. As I took my seat, Ben walked in, although no one seemed to notice. I believe we were all expecting a middle-aged man in epaulets with wings tacked on his chest. Instead, what we got was a 20-something guy dressed in olive drab cargo pants, with an untucked plaid shirt. This guy was going to teach us about flying?

Imagine my amazement when he professionally introduced himself with a charm and professional manner that would have made any presidential candidate proud. I was even more amazed when he started explaining what flying was truly about. Even more so, he was able to communicate his knowledge in a way that was easy to understand. I went back to my dorm that night and read the first five chapters in my Jeppesen Private Pilot Manual.

Not every class was as easy as the first. However, Ben always was available for extra help either after class or via telephone if I had a question.

At the time, Ben was a freelance flight instructor working out of an old, smelly, brown hangar at Gallatin Field in Bozeman. He taught in a 1971 Cessna 150, lovingly nicknamed Red Rocket. On the side, he worked as a forest service pilot in the summer flying various aircraft and as a wildlife-tracking pilot flying a Super Cub in the area surrounding Yellowstone National Park. Although he was my first flight instructor, and as such, I look on him with a special fondness and admiration, he is only human.

During periods of inclement weather and maintenance groundings, he told stories of mistakes that he had made, including one story of complete engine failure at 16,000 feet msl in instrument conditions near Missoula, Montana (complete with an ATC tape). I was learning.

Shortly into my flight training, Ben set out to begin his own organized flight school—the third of its kind on the field. He wanted to be different in his approach to flight training; he wanted it to be challenging, structured, organized, professional, and safe, yet there was another element he required...an element that seemed to be missing from many other flight schools. Fun! Sure, learning to fly is inherently fun. It has to be—otherwise students wouldn’t want to continue. But weekly summer barbecues and poker nights could potentially give a much-needed shot of fun to a world-class flight school.

I was nine months into my flight training (May 2004) with nearly 55 hours of total time when I took my checkride. I was quite comfortable in the Cessna 150, and deep down I knew I was ready for the ride; however, I kept procrastinating in the scheduling of the event.

Finally, one day, I walked into the flight school after taking a break for a month or so. Ben looked at me and said, “Landon, you are taking your checkride on Friday.”

It was Monday.

I was done with school for the semester, so I didn’t have any legitimate excuses as to why I couldn’t. After a short-lived argument over the matter, I was preflighting the airplane for a checkride preparation lesson. I flew everyday that week and passed my checkride with no problem, but it was that push from Ben that helped me finally accomplish my goal.

Since then, I have been along for the ride as Ben’s “down home” flight school has grown into Summit Aviation LLC. I have seen the ups and downs over the past couple of years and have learned a great deal about the industry as a result.

Though I didn’t learn to be a cattle rancher in Montana, I would not trade a minute of my experience with Ben and Summit Aviation. Now with about 375 hours of total time and an offer to teach once I become a CFI, I have a career plan. Without my mother re-sparking an old interest and Ben taking me under his wing and helping me realize a childhood dream, I have no idea where I might have ended up.

Why not check into a little “down home” flight school? You just might find someone to teach you a thing or two...about flying and life.

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

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