Their instructors were silent, hands off the yoke. With only a week’s worth of experience in their logbooks, Sherry Rosenkranz and Chris Graves took off from Plant City Airport in Florida April 25 and headed to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport for a touch-and-go in front of the Sun 'n Fun crowd.
The student pilots, each flying a Redbird RedHawk refurbished diesel Cessna 172, were making the culminating flights of the One Week Ready to Solo project conducted during the Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo. Through a combination of simulator training at the Redbird Flight Simulations tent at Sun 'n Fun and flights in the RedHawks at Plant City, the participants had gained the skills and confidence to take the controls on their own.
“You are the best instructor ever,” Rosenkranz said to Dan Farrell of Cirrus Aviation, who had taken a passive role in the right seat, after shutting down on the Plant City Ramp. “I don’t want to get out. I’m kind of ready to go back up.”
As video crews swarmed Rosenkranz and Graves to document the experience for an upcoming Web series, Nik Oekerman preflighted one of the aircraft for his turn.
“This is where Doris would say, ‘Right rudder, right rudder,’” said Graves as he watched Oekerman take off. While Graves’ instructor, Doris Gatewood of Aviation Adventures, had been in the right seat with Graves, he had had to count on that voice inside his head, not instruction from Gatewood, for the flight: She had put tape over her mouth to help abstain from coaching. The hardest part, she said, was not celebrating with Graves when he took off from the touch-and-go—because even encouraging him would be acknowledging she was there.
The students went through the same training that Redbird provides at its Skyport flight school in San Marcos, Texas, which takes students from no experience to their private pilot certificate in about three to three-and-half weeks, said Roger Sharp, Redbird Skyport chief flight instructor and general manager of flight operations.
“The notion was, if we had these folks at our school in San Marcos, then right at this point they’d actually be soloing,” Sharp said. Redbird decided not to solo the students because they would be performing the task in the busy Sun 'n Fun airspace, just when weekend traffic was arriving.
Throughout the week, the participants battled training plateaus, airsickness, and minor weather delays to accomplish something many people see as out of reach. Accomplishing the immediate goal was only the first chapter for the participants, however. They began talking about next steps: Rosenkranz wondered how she’d find an instructor in her area who could measure up to the precedent set by Farrell, and Graves talked with Redbird staff about what there was left to learn.
Oekerman would do three takeoffs and landings at Plant City, greasing the final landing to cap off a morning of achievement for the three participants, who had no flight experience before they met the previous Saturday. He wasn’t nervous, he told a film crew after the flight, just hyper—his mind was already on an upcoming aerobatic flight.