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The first one’s free

Planning for a successful first flight

Aviation is like a drug and lately I’ve become especially complicit in its spread. Following my own first flight in a general aviation airplane, I lost track of myself immediately afterward and floated in its effects for days.
Illustration by Shaw Nielsen
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Illustration by Shaw Nielsen

Although I’ve built up a bit of a tolerance, I still find myself giddy after a day of great flying or a new aviation adventure. These effects seem to be common among my fellow addicts.

Sewanee, the university at which I teach mathematics, features an airport on its mostly forested, 13,000-acre campus. In recent years airport operations have declined, so I took our new president, former U.S. Ambassador to the African Union Reuben E. Brigety II, on an aerial tour of campus so he could see firsthand the amazing resources we have here. He loved it, and, probably in his own delirium, asked what it would take to get a flight school going. I suggested forming a new flight school that offers the best instruction and purchasing a top-quality trainer. That’s exactly what happened as we’ve hired a career flight instructor (see sidebar) and expect to collect our new Cessna 172 from the factory this month.

Feeling perhaps a tad responsible for hooking him and the other administrators in, I have set aside some of my own time to promote the program by taking prospective students and area residents up in my Bonanza, Niky. Since I exclusively teach aerobatics, I rarely fly with a brand-new pilot and had forgotten the joy of being the pilot for that first flight. Normally reserved people lose themselves in their excitement and literally jump up and down with glee. And I can’t help sharing their high.

Before a recent hike with girlfriends, I looked outside to find a beautiful Saturday morning. I texted Beth and Janet and suggested a quick flight and they jumped at it. When she came to the airport, Beth confessed that she was nervous but still game to go. Fortunately, I had recently done a number of these first flights and was prepared to ensure success. Here is the planning and advice that helped me.


With an enthusiastic first-time passenger, I feel free to put the date on the calendar and, if conditions are suitable, carry on with the flight. But if I sense nerves might play a role, I’ve found that waiting for ideal conditions and inviting at the last minute is the way to go. Beth admitted that if I had asked her the previous evening, she would have been awake all night, so she appreciated me springing it on her.

My mentor impressed that it’s not enough to have a Sic-Sac in the airplane or even just removed from its wrapping. Unless I’ve already blown some air into it and tucked it under my seat in easy reach, I haven’t done my job.In all cases, I coach them to wear clothing that facilitates comfort in all phases of flight. As much as I marvel at Niky’s perfection, she could really use better venting. Low-altitude sight-seeing flights can be stifling on a warm day.


Before I get out to the airport, I calculate weight and balance with the various seating scenarios to ensure that the flight is safe and to understand what kind of fuel load will be appropriate. I arrive early to check over the airplane to make sure there are no surprises and that I’m not stuck in line to get fuel. Additionally, my excited passengers are guaranteed to have lots of questions, so preflighting Niky without distractions allows me to give passenger questions my full attention when they arrive.

The best flights feature a stress-free pilot, and an important component is ensuring that, in case someone feels sick, I’m not worried about a messy cabin. As an aerobatic instructor, my mentor taught me well. He impressed that it’s not enough to have a Sic-Sac in the airplane or even just removed from its wrapping. Unless I’ve already blown some air into it and tucked it under my seat in easy reach, I haven’t done my job. I now pride myself on the speed with which I can grab the bag from its hidden location and place it, feedbag style, in front of my green-faced passenger.

I’ve always found it better to plan a short flight that can be extended if it’s going particularly well rather than to cut it short if it’s not. In doing so, I’ve rarely found the need to demonstrate my mad Sic-Sac skills to an audience and only once have I had to clean up an airplane. (See “Kid Tested,” February 2020 AOPA Pilot.)

Before entering

Some items need briefing before we even step foot in the airplane. My home airport seems to offer up a crosswind with regularity, and, even when aligned with the runway, the air that hits the side of the nearby bluff causes swirling, gusty winds over the runway. Although I try to find the calmest conditions for GA novices, air bumps happen and setting appropriate expectations on the ground eases anxiety in the air. I explain that these little airplanes, with their light wing loading, sway with the wind more than the big airplanes do—nothing unsafe, but just a heads up.

Speaking of stepping foot in the airplane, brief your passengers where it’s OK to step and where it’s OK to grab. I learned the hard way years ago when a first-time passenger grabbed the 1973 vintage interior plastic surrounding the windscreen only to see the fragmented shards of it fall to the floor. Had I explained that ahead of time, my own stress level would have decreased.

Years ago, I took my sister flying in a friend’s gorgeous new Piper Turbo Saratoga. I settled into the left seat after which she slipped in beside me on the right. Before I could say anything, she grabbed the door and, with a mighty yank, slammed it closed like we were in some tin jalopy. First time flyers don’t realize that doors don’t need to be slammed and such treatment means an expensive repair down the road. Since then, I give my spiel before we get anywhere near the door.

Passenger brief

FAR 91.519 stipulates that the pilot in command (PIC) of an airplane “shall ensure that all passengers have been orally briefed” on the conditions under which smoking is prohibited, seat belts and shoulder harnesses must be secured, location of survival equipment as well as location and means for evacuation in case of an emergency. I confess that I’ve rarely given the smoking bit to passengers because I’m sure all mine know I’d lose it if anyone lit up anywhere near one of my airplanes. The briefing “need not be given when the PIC determines that the passengers are familiar with” its contents. For the first flight in a GA airplane, all of this applies.

The flight

Even if you fancy your skills as the best in the business, now is not the time to show off. I make control inputs as smooth as possible. After restricting banks to 25 degrees, I asked Beth and Janet if they would mind a steeper attitude to afford a better photo opportunity. By that time, they were so comfortable that they readily agreed. Beth and Janet marveled at the beauty of the sandstone buildings bathed in the early morning sunlight before we found our houses nestled near each other on another part of campus.

Approaching the airport I explained that they would hear the stall warning sound once we were near the runway and that was not only normal but desired. Those noises can alarm first-timers.

After landing, I tucked my Bonanza back in the hangar and chuckled to see Beth texting the many photos she snapped to all her friends as she proudly dictated, “Look what I just did!” At the same time, Janet phoned her 94-year-old mom and yelled into the mic, “Mom, you need to do this before you die!” So, it turns out I’m even luring in the 90-something crowd. And I couldn’t be more pleased.

First Flights
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From left to right: Michelle Helms, Abdul Maflahi, Tommy Johnson, Mikhael Ellis

First flights

After earning a master’s degree in journalism and on assignment as a field reporter for CNN, Michelle Helms headed to DeKalb-Peachtree Airport (PDK) near Atlanta for an aviation story. The sight of a young woman her age sliding back the canopy of a military airplane and hopping out planted the first seed. Soon she was in the left seat of a Cessna 150 under the tutelage of CFI Gerald Stepp who made flying fun and fostered her confidence. With the ink barely dry on a commercial certificate, Helms sought a position as a production test pilot with a local general aviation manufacturer and found the CEO less than interested. When he accepted her offer of $5 per hour, she immediately called her mom and confessed that the joke was on him because she would have done it for free. Today Helms has logged north of 16,000 hours and is a captain on the Airbus 330 and just purchased her first airplane—a Zlin Savage Cub Classic on floats. Her daughter is a CFI and her son is working toward his instructor’s certificate. Helms and her boyfriend just earned their tailwheel endorsements.

Mikhael Ellis grew up in a single-parent household in New York, and, as a child, never imagined that he could become a pilot. His mom ensured each of her children had a skill with which they could provide for themselves without struggle. So, Ellis learned to cut hair and earned his master barber designation as a teenager. After moving to Atlanta and finding stable work there, he found an affordable flight school at PDK and took the discovery flight that changed everything. Flight instructors Michael Carter and Fabrice Musangila shepherded him through his private pilot certificate in August 2020. Since then, he’s earned an instrument rating, commercial certificate, and has passed his flight instructor practical exam. Ellis reports that he’s on track to have 1,500 logged hours by 2022 toward his future as an airline pilot. When he’s not in an airplane you can still find Ellis cutting hair as “The Flyest Barber” to fund his aviation habit.

After serving for 14 years in the Tennessee Air National Guard, Tommy Johnson settled with his family in southeast Tennessee for a full-time ministry career. A pilot from his church introduced him to flight instructor Joey Fowler and Johnson took his first instructional flight on March 2, 2017. He always knew his calling was a higher one, but that flight steered him toward another one. Upon landing, Johnson asked Fowler, “Which one of us will call my wife and let her know why I am about to put us in debt?” Fortunately, the GI Bill helped him earn several certificates and ratings as well as a degree in aviation from Middle Tennessee State University. Today he is a career flight instructor with Sewanee: The University of the South, at the Franklin County Airport, where he also serves as airport manager. In reflecting on his path in aviation, Johnson values his experiences and enjoys providing the same spark for others that Fowler did for him.

Growing up in Yemen, Abdul Maflahi missed his father who spent considerable time in the United States to provide for his family. While his grandmother scoffed at the airplanes that flew overhead because they routinely took his father away, Maflahi smiled when he saw them because they brought his father back home, often with candy in hand. In seventh grade, Maflahi’s family moved to the United States where he excels in school. Last fall, during his senior year of high school, he took his second-ever flight and his first in a general aviation airplane. Johnson put Maflahi in the left seat and let him fly the Cessna 172 from the Franklin County Airport on his first lesson. Before hopping in the airplane, he said that all his dreams were coming true and the flight turned out to be that and more. Maflahi plans to pursue his certificates and ratings while earning a college degree with an eye toward a career as a commercial pilot.

Catherine Cavagnaro
Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor ( and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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