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Success story: Dreaming big

A pilot learns it’s not too late to move up

By Juan B. Plaza

It was a cool December night in South Florida and I was sitting outside, writing my resolutions for 2017. Just a few hours away from the ball dropping in Times Square, I found myself writing “commercial multiengine certificate.”

Advanced Pilot

Advanced PilotI had been managing a fleet of six Cessna Citation IIs (550s), based in Conroe, Texas (CXO). Some of the pilots were friends of 30 and 40 years and I wanted to fly right seat with them, but I wasn’t able to fly the jets because I was a single-engine private pilot with an instrument rating.

I looked at the sentence and the detractor in me took charge: You’re too old. It’s going to be expensive. It’s too difficult. You don’t have time.…

I showed my wife the list. We discussed the pros and cons and finally she said, “If this is what you want, go for it.”

That was all the encouragement I needed.

I was 61 years old when I walked into American Flyers at the Pompano Beach Airpark (PMP) on January 5, 2017.

During the initial interview, the school director explained that it would make economic sense to first obtain my commercial single-engine certificate in a Cessna 172RG and then move on to multiengine.

The next day I began my training. Initially it was getting used to the retractable gear and the constant-speed propeller as we practiced commercial maneuvers. I showed up early in the morning and we spent hours flying over the Everglades practicing the maneuvers; training became more and more enjoyable as I gained confidence. I took my commercial knowledge test in mid-February.

When ready for my checkride I received some disappointing news from the school director. I wasn’t IFR current, so before I could start my multiengine training after the checkride, I had to work on my instrument currency.

The checkride took place the first week of March, on a beautiful cloudless day with calm winds and unlimited visibility. I nailed every maneuver and every landing. I was a commercial pilot.

My sixty-second birthday came as we started the IFR refresher and, boy, did I struggle. I was not expecting to be so rusty. It was embarrassing to find myself chasing needles and missing altitudes. I was supposed to be an IFR-certified pilot, and some approaches were a disgrace.

We persevered, and in mid-April I was ready to start my multiengine adventure. I was introduced to Paul Janecki, possibly the best instructor I would ever have. I soon realized that learning to fly a twin-engine airplane is the art of flying it with one engine in all phases of flight.

We spent hours at the whiteboard discussing the electrical diagrams, the fuel system, the landing gear particulars, and every detail that would make me a safe multiengine pilot. I studied the book, drew large diagrams of every system, highlighted paragraphs, printed schematics, and created checklists. Soon it was time to start training in the simulator, and in mid-May, Paul announced that I was ready for the “real thing.” We climbed aboard N3696G, one of two Cessna 310s at Pompano Beach.

The first day was not too bad. The lesson focused on getting comfortable with the aircraft, practicing engine loss above 3,000 feet, and takeoffs and landings. As the week progressed, things got scarier. Engines were failing on me during the takeoff run, on initial climb, below 3,000 feet—and, worst of all, during the final phase of an instrument approach.

Multiengine flying was the most difficult thing I had ever attempted. One day, after a particularly difficult flight, I thought about quitting.

“Paul, I don’t think I can do this; it’s too hard,” I said, slumping down in a chair across from his desk with my arms almost touching the ground.

Paul closed the door.

“Juan, you are one of the best students I have,” he said resolutely. “You are a safe and conscientious pilot. All you need is practice and perseverance. You can do this.”

I will never know if what Paul was saying was true or if he did it to keep me as a paying customer, but his inspirational speech gave me the push I needed to finish.

A few days after our debrief, Paul said, “You’re ready. I would like to schedule the checkride for this Monday.”

I froze.

“I don’t feel ready,” I said hesitantly.

“Well, you are,” he said with a reassuring smile.

I told him there was one more thing I’d like to do before my checkride: fly just for fun. The next day we flew for 90 minutes, and after we landed he said, “I told you, you’re ready.” This time I agreed with him.

Monday came with dark skies, rain, and isolated thunderstorms dotting the region. I met the inspector and we had a great oral exam. At 10 a.m. we took off in light rain, 3,000-foot ceilings, and about 6 miles visibility.

The checkride went well but at the very end the skies over South Florida closed and most airports, including Pompano, were solid IFR. The examiner contacted Palm Beach Approach and opened an IFR flight plan back to Pompano Beach.

“You’re not going to need foggles,” he said with a smirk.

I received my clearance for the localizer approach to Runway 15 and soon, as I was turning to intercept the approach course, the right engine quit, as expected.

I continued my turn, identified the dead engine, went through the procedure to feather the propeller, and began my descent. At 500 feet agl the ceiling opened and Runway 15 was in front of us in all its splendor.

We landed, taxied to American Flyers, and when the engines were shut down he said, “Congratulations, captain. See you inside.”

It was the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life, but it was behind me; I was relieved and happy.

On June 19, I met with my best friend, Jean Gabriel Ducournau, at the Conroe airport to begin my training for second in command in the Citation II. On June 21, exactly five months and 13 days after I began, I met with the FAA inspector with my letter certifying that I had received instruction on the Cessna Citation 550, and a few minutes later I walked out with my temporary certificate for second-in-command privileges for the Cessna Citation 550.

As of this writing I have accumulated more than 100 hours in the Citation II, and I’m seriously thinking about obtaining the type rating. I’m 64 years old and have never felt better or more confident.

Follow your dreams and the universe will conspire with you to make them a reality.

Juan B. Plaza is an instrument-rated commercial pilot with experience in photogrammetry, navigation, and camera operation.

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