Nothing makes an impression like a first ride in an airplane. It is within the reach of every certificated pilot to give an introductory ride, so it is also possible for each pilot to shape the experience for the benefit of the passenger - and aviation as a whole. This makes every pilot a potential ambassador-at-large for flying. It gives us power to counter the effects of ignorance and sensationalism that sometimes have more to do with public perception than knowledge and experience. Prospective passengers, who may range from wildly enthused to reserved or skeptical, have one thing in common: They will not be reticent when reporting their impressions to other "groundlings." As a marketing force or a means of shaping public opinion, word of mouth is powerful.
Remember that giving is a two-way transaction in an introduction to general aviation. We pilots give an airplane ride, but the passenger gives us his or her confidence and expects that we will not abuse the privilege. Most pilots understand this and rise to the occasion. But there are some spotty performances too, and those are the stories that have a greater shelf life.
The local environment has much to do with the nature of first flights. By this I mean both the physical and demographic environments. In this regard I consider myself extremely fortunate. As a graduate student at our state university, I have made many friends among the community of local and international students. Many of the latter group are from countries in which personal aviation is limited or nonexistent; the very idea of strolling onto an airport ramp and firing up a single-engine airplane for a look at the natural wonders strikes them as novel indeed. In the past few years I have given rides to students from such diverse homelands as Switzerland, Korea, Japan, Norway, France, Moldova, Ukraine, and India.
I have two other aviation assets that I exploit to the max. One is the natural spectacle of Maine's beauty. In minutes I can be over the ocean or the mountains. I let the rider choose the itinerary. The other asset is my flight instructor certificate. If the passenger is curious about becoming a pilot or just wants to see how the training process works, the ride becomes a modified student intro flight. Either way, I offer the left seat, the availability of which never fails to impress.
The CFI leverage is nice, but don't shy away from aviation ambassadorship if you don't have it. My friend Peter, an enthusiastic instrument-rated private pilot and the owner of a handsome Cessna 182, has perfected his first-ride-giving technique. His airplane provides a scenic and comprehensive tour of our coastal bays, or a glance at the peak of our highest mountains, in comfort and style. He knows from devoted exploration where the salmon farms, island airstrips, and other curiosities can be found. Coaxing a ride out of him after supper in a nice restaurant is about as difficult as calling "Here, boy!" to your dog. Bringing up the subject of a flight won't be hard; probably he has been easing into the subject since the waiter asked you what kind of dressing you wanted on your salad. "Thousand Island" may have been a subliminal message.
Another of the local pilots tries to combine business trips with ambassadorship. When he goes out to fly, empty seats will be available and there is an open invitation to his employees to fill them. His business is a seasonal restaurant and brewery, but there is a distinctly aeronautical feel to it all. If you look closely, small airplanes will be seen in the artwork on his product labels. Ambassadorship takes many forms.
Angus King can tell you all about that. He is Maine's governor and a political independent. This attracts much public notice - but the imagery that most draws media people's notice is "The Guv's" affinity for riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. I wonder if he has considered taking flying lessons or has gotten some stick time on official flights or his trips with author Stephen King to see Maine's college sports teams play on the road.
Ambassadorship took on literal significance last year when I gave Alexandra, a visitor from Eastern Europe, a ride in the University of Maine Flying Club's Cessna 152. I managed to extend the invitation in the jumble that remains of my two semesters of college Russian. She accepted readily and laughed when I said that we would have to decide who would be the copilot and who would be the pilot for our aerial inspection of the site of a recent lobster feast.
We made our way out to the airplane past the friendly gauntlet consisting of the line crew and the usual airport bums. She was surprised that no one asked me to show a badge or fill out any forms or anything. After preflighting, I gestured toward the left seat and, with a perfectly straight face, asked, "Would you like to be the pilot today?"
She hesitated for a moment and then, in a tone of utmost gravity, she said, "Be serious!" I slid into the left seat, where usually for me the other half lives, and we took the tour in silky smooth air, arriving back at the home base just after sunset.
Lest you have any doubt about just how much of an impact ambassadorial flights can have, let me report that many of the inquiries I have received about starting flight lessons stemmed from first flights given by private pilots. First flights help journalists and air traffic controllers gain perspective on aviation, delight kids and tourists, and forge new friendships for pilots and aviation. AOPA and numerous other aviation organizations recognize this as part of their mission and acquaint thousands of newcomers with flight every year. But on the personal level, it counts the most that this is also part of the pilot's calling, and it may be one of the most meaningful missions your personal aircraft ever flies.
BY WILLIAM K. KERSHNER
It was late that October afternoon and the sun was low as we were shooting landings. It was almost a year to the day from my first ride in the Meyers OTW, a World War II-era two-place biplane trainer, but this was an Aeronca Defender, a two-place tandem-seat high-wing taildragger. The peculiar coolness of that time of day and year had set in, and the air was as calm as it had been the day of that first ride. There was a low pocket of smoke surrounding the tobacco barn in the gentle depression off the south edge of the grass runway. The smoke was starting to spread easily out of the hollow and to the north, crossing our approach path at an angle. The smoke was thin and shallow; each time the airplane crossed it would be stirred and the instructor and I would smell the tobacco-scented wood smoke. By the next pattern and landing the smoke would have settled back to a gray, transparent veil over the ground, providing no problem with visibility. The wake turbulence of the airplane would disturb it again, each time the smoke settling back to placidity more quickly as the air grew cooler.
My instructor was saying very little during the takeoffs and landings. Occasionally he would make a gesture to suggest a point of turn, or nod when I made the turn at the right place or when the touchdown was just right in attitude.
We had been shooting touch-and-goes during the earlier periods. Each time I had reset the trim, opened the throttle, pushed the carburetor heat off, leaned to the left to look past the instructor to check the runway edge and the airplane's position relative to it - until the tail came up and I could look straight ahead past the instructor and see the runway. On this flight we were shooting full-stop landings, taxiing back to the takeoff end of the runway.
As I taxied back along the bare area next to the grass runway, I felt that this was the time I would be turned loose to solo, and so I tensed up, thinking that it might be better to delay it a little longer. I had been thinking of this time and place and had lived it over in my thoughts; on several nights I had even dreamed about how it would be.
The procedure was almost automatic. Keep the airplane straight, ease the tail up, add a little extra right rudder as the tailwheel leaves the ground and the aerodynamics of the rudder take over all the directional control, and then feel the bumping cease as the airplane comes alive and lifts off into the smooth air. The noise, the smell of the airplane (leather and a faint scent of gas and maybe a trace of oil), and the sight of the runway and other parts of the world drifting down and back during the climbout had become familiar and good, but I was still shy with the idea of taking it around the pattern alone.
Climb straight ahead to 400 feet and then a 90-degree turn to the left. (Now I didn't wait for my instructor's unconscious lean to the left before starting that turn.) Climb to 600, then another 90-degree turn left and level off at 800 on the downwind leg.
I checked that I was flying exactly parallel to the runway and again subconsciously noted how far down it was to the grass landing area. Then always the ritual of carburetor heat (pull it soon enough on the downwind leg to allow any carburetor ice to be cleared out before closing the throttle for the approach).
The glide itself, straight ahead as my back pressure and trim slowed the airplane to the proper airspeed. Watching the runway and seeing the time to make the turn to base and then to final. I imagined that the projection of its path was a rigid wire, suspended above the ground at the point of throttle closure, the wire making two 90-degree turns as it descended toward the runway, with the straight glide between the turns that was the base leg. The wire was a fixed length that started at the glide and ended on the grass strip. It could not be stretched without the use of power (poor judgment), nor compressed at the end without putting the airplane into a slip (again a sign of a mistake in judgment).
After each landing there was the taxiing back. This was the time to review and relax. The instructor, Mr. Agee, would comment briefly on the takeoff, pattern, or landing. ("Ease the nose up a little higher just before touchdown; and don't forget to hold the stick full back during the landing roll…your landings are doing fine but remember these points….")
I changed my grip on the stick, holding it now with my left hand, leaving the throttle set as we taxied slowly back. My right hand was cramped and the palm was red, with specks of black rubber on it from the stick's hand grip. I would listen to the instructor's brief comments as I
S-turned down the side of the strip.
As I reached the run-up spot, the instructor cleared his throat. I knew what he was going to say; not the exact words but the general idea. I thought that it had all been pointing to this - the months of waiting, the hours at the airport, the practicing, wondering if I would be able to do it.
"Take it around, shoot a full-stop landing, and taxi back by me. If you're not on the ground when you get by where I'm standing [the instructor pointed up the runway a hundred yards], take it around and shoot another landing. You can do it."
The instructor grinned and got out. I foolishly noted that it took two slams to get the door closed.
I wasn't ready. I needed more work on landings. Maybe I wouldn't hold the stick back far enough after touchdown, letting the tailwheel get light and groundlooping the airplane. Or I might.…
The instructor walked on ahead and stood by the edge of the runway, between the mowed grass and the weeds off to the side.
I was tense and went through the cockpit check quickly, testing the controls, not really noting whether they moved correctly but knowing that they must, since I had been flying the airplane for 30 minutes. I checked the magnetos unnecessarily, wanting time to collect my thoughts. The checks completed, I looked for other airplanes landing; there were none. I taxied out on the now-strange grass runway and looked for the tree at the far end - the tree that I had used to line up so many times on other days, and which today suddenly had a different, not-so-friendly look.
The front cockpit of the Aeronca Defender was empty. I could see all of the instruments for the first time and this made the airplane seem unfamiliar too.
Before opening the throttle, I looked over at the instructor, who was just standing there. "Maybe he'll wave me back," I thought.
The gray-haired man stood there, short and stocky in his khaki shirt and pants, unmoving, watching. For a brief flash, I thought of taxiing over and telling him that I wasn't ready. In my mind, however, I knew that there would never be a better time for this. And I will do it.
The throttle seemed to open almost automatically, and I grasped the routine, watching the tree alongside the nose, ignoring as best I could the vast acreage of the front part of the cabin.
As the tail came up, the tree had moved slightly from its proper position over the nose, and I corrected. I knew that the tree was more than 3,000 feet away, but it seemed close now.
The plane was light, skipping; I tensely moved the stick back and the airplane was off the ground.
"Climb at sixty-five. Level the wings," I told myself.
The airplane felt unfamiliar. It had been ready to fly long before I had let it and the back pressure, without the instructor's weight, had made it leap up. It seemed to be climbing too fast.
I was committed. I was flying and I was alone. It was scary and yet terrific.
When the airplane reached 400 feet (My God, already!) I made the first turn, skidding slightly and correcting. The runway looked right, but the front part of the cabin was still very empty. "Trainers should be made so that the student would fly from the front, so that when the instructor got out there wasn't such a psychological shock," I thought.
At 600 feet I made the second turn, but it seemed too close to the runway; I reasoned that the airplane climbed faster and reached the altitude sooner.
I leveled off but was above the required 800 feet. (This was not a sensitive altimeter, but it had one needle to mark every 100 feet.) Yes, the runway was too close, or rather I was too close on this leg paralleling the runway, and I turned the airplane slightly away from the runway as I eased the nose down until the hand of the altimeter moved back to 800 feet.
I had forgotten what I'd been told about the airplane's getting off sooner without the instructor's weight and had been surprised. Now I must remember that the airplane would tend to float and land longer down the runway.
Now at the place to start the landing approach, I closed the throttle more rapidly than I had intended, starting the glide.
The carburetor heat, I remembered.
I yanked on the heat-control knob and the oversight set back my confidence a little.
The first gliding turn. Seventy miles an hour. Too fast. Much too fast. Get the nose up. Trim. The airspeed indicator needle now quivered around 60 and the attitude was good.
The second gliding turn was smoother. The runway moved and turned as I banked. Was I a little low? I halfheartedly added some power, then decided that it hadn't been needed. (Why did I do that? I'd been told several times to wait longer and see how the approach was going.)
The air was calm and smooth and the thin layer of smoke was there, perhaps a little thicker in the low spots, but no problem.
I was a little high. Damn that adding of power; it would have been perfect otherwise. Why did I do that?
The end of the runway moved under, and I resisted the impulse to nose down to get it on the ground.
I was suspended and the runway was a green belt with larger clumps of grass standing out, moving rapidly under the airplane, the runway getting shorter by the second.
Still airborne, I was approaching the instructor, but I could see the individual blades of grass; I had been easing the stick back unconsciously. A wing low. I raised it with the stick and rudder and continued the backward movement of the stick.
Stop. A slight ballooning.
Wait. Start easing back again. I leaned over to see out the left side of the airplane now that the nose was up in the landing attitude and I couldn't see straight ahead.
The airplane touched before I thought it would, but it was all right, and I felt the roughness of the turf through the wheels and airframe. The airplane was farther down the runway than I expected and the reference tree was fairly close, or so it seemed. I kept the airplane straight, with the rudder and the stick back in my gut. At taxi speed I turned and taxied back to the waiting instructor. It seemed to take a long time; I had landed longer than I planned.
I wanted to shout.
The instructor waved me on for another pattern, and I shot another full-stop landing, followed by a third. After the last one I taxied back to the instructor, who was still standing at the same spot. It would not be good to taxi in and have him walk the distance back to the line shack.
He congratulated me and, being a good instructor, only mentioned in passing my first long landing. He knew that it was not dangerous. He knew that I would correct for it in the next pattern (which I had) and to have called me over and discussed it after the first landing would have spoiled the continuity of the transition from dual to solo.
Taxiing back to the tiedown spot, directed by my friend, the now-grinning lineman, I knew that nothing in flying would ever exceed this day and this hour.
And it has not.
The other instructors congratulated me, and my "student permit" was duly signed for solo flights. I walked out to stand by the airplane and relive it all. I was 16 and life was good and would continue to be so.
And so it has.
The sun was just above the horizon, as it had been after my first airplane ride, and this was the last flight of the day - as it had been the year before. I helped the lineman put the airplane in the hangar and wanted to stay always here on this October late afternoon, smelling the gas, the leather, and dope of the airplane, with the smell of tobacco being fired, moving in and out of other autumn smells and seeing smoke from the barn in the low spots as a thin, almost nonexistent screen, gray to make the contrast with the colored leaves and sharp blue sky even greater. I said to myself that I would never forget this day and time.
And I have not.
BY JONI M. FISHER
"Why can't you take up golf?" I pleaded when my husband Maury announced he was going to learn to fly. First the red sports car, now this? My second reaction was to check our life insurance policies and our will. Was this part of a man's "go-fast" stage of life? He seemed undeterred by news clippings of commercial airliners pictured as twisted smoking remains. I feared what I didn't know. I worried about the dangers that he would face in an environment with such fatal consequences for error. Would he perform as well at flying as someone who did it for a living?
Throughout his training, he urged me to take lessons, but I wasn't interested in riding in a small airplane, let alone controlling one. I preferred tamer, safer activities, such as waterskiing in the alligator-infested lakes of Central Florida, where we live. Maury loved flying from day one and tried to instill his enthusiasm in me. At times his insistence that I should do as he does felt like badgering or nagging. I didn't appreciate being "should" upon and told him so. Suddenly the nagging stopped, and I traced the cause back to his flight instructor, who had warned him that nagging creates resistance.
After Maury got his certificate, he offered me a ride. Knowing how diligently he had studied this new hobby, I felt obliged to go. What a mistake. He explained how safe the plane was and said something about how stable it flew in an engine failure, and then - at 4,000 feet - it sounded as if he had stopped the engine. While he told me how many miles the plane would glide, I sucked air and stared at the panel of blinking lights, knobs, and dials, hating them all. This stunt provoked panic and severely uncharitable thoughts toward the man I had loved and trusted for 16 years. Handling emergencies, he explained, was part of the training. Smiling, he told me that he had everything under control, but all I could think about was beating him senseless if we survived.
"Start it up again now!" I demanded, dreading the long fall to the orange groves below. This was not how I wanted to spend my final moments.
When the sounds of the engine returned, my fear converted to silent fury. He had meant well. He believed that by simulating the worst-case scenario - an engine failure - he would prove that there was nothing to fear. By the time we landed I had calmed down and was merely yelling. He was shocked that I hadn't enjoyed the ride. This stunt kept me away from small planes for six months.
Clearly, he would continue flying with or without me. My choices were: to never get into another small plane - and spend weekends alone - or learn to fly so that I could land if I had to. I decided to challenge my fears.
Male pilots such as Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker, Chuck Yeager, and the ones so common on commercial flights, gave me the impression of aviation as a male-dominated realm. The only significant woman pilot whom I could name then was Amelia Earhart. In my mind, Lindbergh was famous because he had successfully flown across an ocean, and Earhart because she had died trying.
The few women pilots whom I knew stressed that learning to fly wasn't as mentally demanding as getting a college degree or as physically demanding as childbirth. After a "been there, done that" pep talk to myself, I called Don Kohler, CFII, for an abbreviated training course on how to call for help on the radio and to provide practice in landing the plane. Patient, courageous, and witty, Kohler was the perfect instructor for me. He had been flying longer than I'd been alive, and the folks at the FBO said that he didn't scare easily.
I learned two important lessons on the first day: one, my feet couldn't reach the rudder pedals; and two, bulky earrings don't go with headsets. By lesson two, I had a booster seat and studs, and we went flying.
Kohler encouraged me through the hurricane season flight by flight. On our third flight, he casually brought up his beliefs about the afterlife, quickly adding that he wasn't in a hurry to test them and would I please not touch the mixture control on final approach again. Gee, how did he know that I had momentarily confused it with the throttle?
Kohler's coaching built my confidence and knowledge in increments, introducing me to each knob and dial, each chart and calculation and its importance. The only time I became unnerved came when we were on final approach at Winter Haven's Gilbert Field, an uncontrolled field. After I dutifully announced my position and intentions on downwind, base, and final, a man announced that he, too, was on short final and was going to scoot under us. His low-wing plane zoomed 200 feet below us seconds later. I couldn't reply to "scooter" because what I wanted to say to him was prohibited according to FCC directives and because I was forced to execute a go-around. Scooter was long gone from the FBO by the time we landed.
After hearing about the day's lesson, my husband said, "Welcome to uncontrolled airspace."
Helicopters, seaplanes, skydivers, hot air balloons, gliders, birds, and "stealth flyer wannabes" who don't use the radio offer a variety of hazards for pilots. But, as my mother says, "Life isn't fair - adjust."
After that first solo, my goal changed. Yeeeeha! No more learning just enough for an emergency; I wanted more. I wanted my certificate. When we walked into Jack Brown's Seaplane Base, where I rented the airplane, Kohler congratulated me again and then urged me to leave immediately; he recommended running. I obediently ran to the van and zipped home.
At our next lesson, he explained the peculiar traditions for celebrating a solo flight, such as cutting out and hanging the back of the pilot's shirt, or throwing the person in the lake. Had I known, I'd have kept a Dolly Parton-size bra handy for them to hang in my name.
Our neighbors, the Walkers, often took Saturdays to fly to the beach for what they called a hundred-dollar hamburger. They demonstrated the fun of flying as more than a means to get somewhere. The ground school course that I studied, featuring John and Martha King, also showed couples happily flying together. I wanted to be part of a team, to be more than someone just along for the ride, more than someone to hold the charts. It took me a year to get the certificate, completing the checkride on my instructor's birthday.
I've found no negative discrimination from male pilots beyond the usual "you have your license?" asked after I've already said so. Well, then there was the time that I walked into an FBO and the men stopped talking and looked uncomfortable. Doubting that their silence was from awe or hormone surges, I wondered if they were offended that a woman dared to enter their Y-chromosome sanctum, so I didn't linger in the FBO. It turned out that the men weren't offended by me; in fact, they were trying to avoid offending me because my sudden appearance had interrupted a joke or story, which they finished after I left. I can live with that. I can also live with having my hair restyled by David Clark. And I can live with the smell of aviation fuel as my signature scent.
As I celebrated an endorsement for high-performance airplanes and one-quarter ownership in a 1980 Cessna 182RG, pilot Linda Finch retraced Amelia Earhart's journey around the equator. Such feats inspire women to aim for higher goals. I encourage all women, especially the frequent-passenger spouses, to learn to fly. We won't all pursue careers in aviation or become aerobatic pilots like Betty Skelton Frankham or Patty Wagstaff. It's enough to improve gradually, to develop lifelong skills, and to overcome fear one flight at a time.
As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, "You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you think you cannot do." Remember that Eleanor boldly climbed into an airplane with one of the Tuskegee Airmen to demonstrate her support of their ability. She did this in the face of accusations that black pilots were not as capable as white pilots.
Women pilots today face similar discrimination in the military, but women have made some progress in the U.S. space program. In 1983, Sally Ride flew as the first American woman astronaut, but the Russians had used women cosmonauts since 1963, so we still have some catching up to do. According to Diane Green, management assistant at the aviation piloting statistics branch of the FAA, women hold only six percent of the airman certificates in the United States. I'm proud to be one of them. And maybe, one day, we can fix that title. How long would men tolerate being called airwomen? How about calling us all fliers or aviators or pilots instead? Flying skills are not gender specific.
I hope women settle for more than holding charts. Aim for more. Hold the controls. Flying is fun, and yes, I'd even recommend it over playing golf.
Joni M. Fisher, AOPA 1283058, of Auburndale, Florida, is a freelance writer. She earned her private pilot certificate in 1995. - Ed.