It was Day 5 of flying in the One Week Ready to Solo project, and instructor Doris Gatewood had her eye on storms to the west.
Gatewood, an instructor at Aviation Adventures in Warrenton, Virginia, is under a time crunch guiding Chris Graves through the weeklong, industry-wide project led by Redbird Flight Simulations during the Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In and Expo in Lakeland, Florida. Graves, a Harley-Davidson custom builder, had performed two unassisted landings the day before, but the three participants were scheduled to be evaluated by a designated pilot examiner the next day before their supervised solos at the end of the week. Graves was counting on two flights April 23 to refine his landings and build confidence.
“If we don’t get these two flights in, it’s going to be hard,” Gatewood said. “There’s a little competition between these three. … I want him to win.”
While there is a playful competition between Graves and fellow participants Nik Oekerman and Sherry Rosenkranz, their motivation is mainly internal. Redbird Flight Simulations Founder Jerry Gregoire said the participants have been pushing themselves to succeed in the fast-paced training regimen. “We’ve had to send them home a couple nights to get them out of the simulator,” he said.
Just before a morning briefing from Sporty’s Academy President Eric Radtke, Graves admitted he could be hard on himself when a landing didn’t go as planned. But, he said, “If it works out, it’s the best feeling ever.”
While Graves and Oekerman got the briefing at Sun ‘n Fun and storms passed over the area, Rosenkranz was waiting out the weather with celebrity instructor Patty Wagstaff at nearby Plant City Airport. Rosenkranz said at one point they taxied out to the runway when the weather seemed to have improved, waited there a moment, and taxied back. She didn’t get to take the flight with the airshow star, but she did take advantage of their time together to get advice on her training—and, while there were no maneuvers or landings that morning, she exercised another skill that will serve her well as a pilot.
“A big part of this, too, is good decisions, decision-making skills,” she said.
The One Week Ready to Solo program takes three people with no flight experience to ready to solo through an intense seven-day training period that includes training in Redbird simulators and flights in refurbished diesel-powered RedHawk Cessna 172s, culminating in unassisted flights at the end of the week. Rosenkranz said that as the participants spend most of their time together, they share tips from their instructors and talk through their days as they go through the process and meet the challenges of training in different ways.
“It’s a reminder, too, that we’re all different people, so we’re all going to go through this differently,” she said.
Rosenkranz, global advertising manager for General Motors Co., expressed to AOPA before the program began that life is more about the journey than the destination, and that perspective shone through during training. While the nature of the program—in a tight time constraint, traveling between airports for training, and doing it all under the watchful eye of video cameras—puts external pressures on making that one week deadline, Rosenkranz said she’s focused on getting through the milestone the right way. She wants her first solo to be elegant, she said.
By contrast, Oekerman seems energized by the ticking clock. The former Navy corpsman, a self-described adrenaline junkie, is eager to move from one task to the next, and said his instructor, Jeff Wolf, works well with his task-driven mentality. “We’re like on the fast-track team,” Oekerman said.
All three participants, demanding much of themselves, expressed some frustration at their landings. Yet Roger Sharp, Redbird Skyport chief flight instructor and general manager of flight operations, said they’re all making fast progress. “They’re all, as of this morning, right on the edge of getting it,” he said, adding that they’re on track to complete the program on time.
The sky cleared in the afternoon, giving all participants a chance to fly before the day was out. The participants had a chance to relax at the end of the day, and enjoy their immersion into the world of general aviation.
“My whole briefing to them was, ‘Your mission for the week is to have fun. You’re just going to do it while you’re learning to fly,’” Sharp said.
With flights out of nearby Plant City Airport and simulator sessions in Lakeland, the training occupies the students from early morning to late afternoon—but there’s still time to indulge in some of the fly-in attractions. The students got a chance to watch the night airshow April 22, and even got some personal attention from celebrity instructors.
“I went up with this guy,” Graves said, pointing to the cover of a magazine featuring the name of airshow star and Red Bull Air Race pilot Michael Goulian. He said he was impressed with the patience of Goulian, who in spite of being an elite pilot took the time to instruct a beginner like him. (Goulian is no stranger to instruction; his family flight school has been training pilots since the 1960s.) He drew upon his motorcycle background to describe the sustained slow flight Goulian showed him, where he set power and trim just right and took his hands off the yoke.
“I call it a wheelie,” he said.