I took my friend Robert flying early last spring. Or rather, a flight instructor and I did. While I am a licensed pilot, at the time I wasn't "current," as they say in the piloting vernacular. That means I hadn't made three takeoffs and landings to a full stop within the preceding 90 days, so I had to have an instructor on board before I could legally give rides to anyone.
When I had completed my requisite three landings and was taking the airplane around for a fourth for good measure, I turned to check on Robert. He was strapped in the back looking quite contented with this thing we call flight. Right then, I had this brilliant idea.
"You want to give it a try?" I yelled to him over the engine.
He shrugged. "Sure!" he shouted back. So I negotiated a quick lesson with the instructor (who is always happy to get another student), and after landing I braked the airplane, hopped out onto the tarmac of the small New Jersey airport, and held the door open while Robert got situated in the pilot's seat. I shut the door and watched them taxi toward the business end of the runway. As the small Cessna roared down the runway and flew out of sight, I felt like an anxious parent seeing his kid take the bike around the corner for the first time. Only this bike cost $75 an hour to rent and as much as a new luxury car to replace. And that's without the instructor.
While I waited, I remembered my own first lesson, something I hadn't thought of in quite a while. It was a hot July afternoon in Kansas in an even smaller Cessna, and my first instructor and I were getting bounced around in the sky a bit. "Sorry about that," I kept repeating after every major bounce. It was like driving over potholes.
"Really, it's not your fault," he'd reply.
I felt queasy and ecstatic. "You think I have The Right Stuff?" I kidded him.
"Sure -- it just needs a little polish."
Conditions for Robert's first flight were much better -- calmer and cooler. Once he got back on the ground, he was positively gushing. "I've never felt so free before," he said. And later, over pizza, he kept gushing on and on about how he got to take off and how the cockpit smelled, and how it was like being in an eggshell with wings and how he was surprised that there was nothing high-techy about it and how the instructor let him fly it and how he even got to touch the controls during landing. He kept on gushing all the way back to Manhattan.
That's the part I'd forgotten about -- the excitement, the thrill of controlling for the first time a marvelous, winged machine, cunningly engineered to allow mere mortals to frolic in the sky. And how you want to tell everyone about it.
Of course, you may have heard that flying is so easy that anyone can do it. Well, that's a load of bull.
Flying is not for everyone. Is it dangerous? You're damn straight it is. In the United States in 1999 there were 1.26 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours flown -- 342 total -- compared with 0.012 fatalities in commercial airlines. (Of course, there were more than 40,000 deaths on the road that year, but who's counting?)
And you have to be smart. There's no official published intelligence requirement for a pilot's license, but you can bet that anyone who has a license has an IQ safely ensconced in the three-digit range. Also, flying isn't cheap. The price varies, in proportion to how much money you have. Usually flying takes all your surplus cash. It's best to have good credit, too, so it can begin to eat that up without mercy. For instance, at Westair Aviation, based at Westchester County Airport near White Plains, New York, a private pilot's license will cost about $4,560. That figure is based on 20 hours of dual instruction in a Diamond Katana or an Aerospatiale Tampico, and 20 hours of solo time in either aircraft. Forty hours is the minimum flying time necessary to qualify for a license according to government regulations, but in truth, few get their ticket so quickly. Figure on 70 hours total for your license, and you won't be disappointed. And figure on paying around $120 an hour. So, more than eight grand for a license. That's not an outrageous price tag, sure. But flying is addictive. Once you get your license, you're going to want to do it all the time. You pretty much have to, just to stay current. And then you're going to want an airplane, and cool headphones, and on and on. There goes the kids' trust fund.
Look, I'm only telling you this for your own good.
So the big question you must have is: Why do it if it's so difficult and expensive?
Because people look at you differently when they know you're a pilot -- with a little more respect, as though you're something more than they are, as though you've climbed a mountain when they can't reach its base camp. Because being able to fly automatically makes you elite: out of 281 million Americans, only about 635,000 are pilots. Because it is hard. Because it's there.
Getting started is the easiest part. Me, I saw an ad with an 800 number in a national magazine. Most airports smaller than a JFK or an LAX -- and that means the local airstrip within a few miles of your home -- have a flight school; they're listed in your local Yellow Pages under "aircraft schools." Or you can check out such organizations as Be A Pilot (800-991-3331 or www.beapilot.com), the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (301-695-2000 or www.aopa.org), the Experimental Aircraft Association (920-426-4800 or www.eaa.org), or Cessna Aircraft (877-FLY-B-FREE or www.flyandbefree.com). Each can direct you to flight schools in your area.
When you call the school, ask for its introductory flight package, which will run around $35 for a half hour of instruction. Most schools even allow you to give -- or receive -- one in the form of a gift certificate. If you're lucky, like my friend Robert, someone will thrust it upon you. But you'll be expected to turn someone else on sometime. It's only fair.
Like Robert, and me before him, you get to do some pretty amazing stuff right from the start. The flight instructor will let you take off and fly the airplane (by the way -- real pilots think it's uncool to ever call an airplane a "plane") and he will talk you through what they're doing when he lands it. "Because the instructor was there I knew he would be the helping hand if I screwed anything up," Robert says. That's the important thing to know about flight instructors: they're not going to let you do anything terminally stupid with the airplane -- they don't want to die any more than you do.
Since I took my first lesson 16 years ago, I've flown with a couple dozen flight instructors in as many different types of aircraft, and I can honestly say I've never had one who left me feeling as if he was unqualified or incompetent. But you can check up on yours by contacting the National Association of Flight Instructors at www.nafinet.org. When you talk to yours for the first time, interview him (more than 90 percent of instructors are male) as you would anyone you were hiring for a job -- ask plenty of questions. Such as, how many hours has he logged in the air? A little above 250 hours means he has just been certified as an instructor, and maybe that's not so good if you're the nervous type. A few hundred more is fine; more than a thousand and he's getting ready to move up to his first airline job -- if he's not working for one already. That's what most instructors are trying to do. You're going to need someone who can fly when you're available, be it on a particular night or weekends, and the guys with a lot of hours under their belts may not have the time for you. (Here's a hint: try to schedule a lesson at least twice a week, in case you have to cancel due to bad weather. If you can only fly on the weekends, try to take Saturday first; if the weather goes down you may be able to reschedule for Sunday.)
The first few hours in the air you learn the basics of flight, namely, how to take off and land safely. You learn how to advance the throttle surely, how to keep the airplane's nose pointed straight down the middle of the runway, and when to pull back on the yoke and lift the landing gear off the ground. You learn how to pull off the power, and set the flaps -- which act as air brakes -- and put the airplane in the proper angle of descent for flying. You learn how, right before touchdown, to flare the nose of the airplane just enough so that the wheels tweak as they touch the pavement, yet the machine stays on the ground. It is the moment when science turns to art; even 10,000-hour captains -- even your instructor -- will occasionally bounce one in kind of hard.
In the airport's practice area, which is situated away from incoming and departing traffic, you climb to a safe altitude and you learn more about the basic controls -- how pulling back on the yoke moves the elevator, the horizontal surface on the tail, which deflects air from the airstream and pushes the tail down and forces the nose up; how pushing the yoke in deflects the tail upward and the nose downward; how turning the yoke left makes the aileron on the left wingtip go up and the right wingtip's aileron go down, making the airplane bank left; and how moving the rudder pedals moves the vertical surface on the tail in order for the nose to yaw left or right.
Then you move on to steep turns, and you practice what are known as landing and departure stalls, for that's when they are most likely to happen. In an aircraft, a stall has little to do with the engine; rather, it's an aerodynamic condition that occurs when the wing no longer generates enough lift to keep flying. More often than not, the airspeed is low and the nose is high, and the airplane's stall warning horn will squeal and you will drop -- but not far, and once you get used to it you will learn not only how to recover in a safe altitude but how to recognize stalls when they are about to happen. And you will roll your eyes the next time some news dweeb reports that an airplane crashed because its engine stalled.
You will learn the emergency procedures: what to do if that engine should really quit or if the radio should die or if you should lose the horizon in haze and have to fly by instruments.
One day, usually before you've logged 20 hours, your instructor will ask you whether you have scheduled your medical. Officially, it's called a Medical Certificate Third Class, an examination you must undergo at a Federal Aviation Administration-approved doctor's office -- the instructor would have a list of docs in your area. It's not a very stringent examination, though: to pass it, it seems as if all you need is a pulse and the ability to distinguish between red and green. The greatest difficulty I've had is the writing test: filling out the check for $90. It's not covered by my insurance.
Once you've got that slip of paper, show your instructor immediately. You're about to be kicked out of the nest. The traditional routine consists of three times around the traffic pattern alone, maybe 30 minutes airborne in a tin can while the instructor waits on the ground praying you don't screw up because his butt's on the line, too. But for you, that first solo is about as fun and as nerve-racking as any experience can get. Remember to wear an old shirt the day you first solo. At a lot of schools, they'll cut off your shirttail once you've landed and write your name and the date on the tattered shard and pin it on the bulletin board. Don't ask why it's your shirttail; it's a tradition.
Soloing is a milestone, and for some it's also the finish line -- they've piloted an airplane by themselves and that's good enough. But for the rest it's time to begin the real work, mastering elementary navigation. You pick another airport more than 50 miles away and plot your course to it on the aeronautical version of a map, called a sectional chart. With your instructor you fly out, land and come back. You graduate to a longer "cross-country" flight, more than 100 nautical miles, and eventually you must fly a cross-country solo with three legs and landings at two airports other than your home base, and one leg must be at least 50 nautical miles. It will take a few hours to accomplish, but combat the urge to do it on a holiday. Take my word for it: no one's around to sell you fuel on Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile, there's the all-important ground school course, which covers subjects such as navigation, the federal air regulations that pertain to private pilots, and the basics of weather theory. You can take the course at home by watching a videotape series, or on computer discs; there's always the old-fashioned classroom variety, either in a three-day cram session or a multi-week course like your average college class. Any way you take it, what matters most to the government is that you pass the 60-question written test at the end with a score of 70 percent or better.
Finally -- once your instructor deems you ready -- comes the check ride with an impartial FAA?designated examiner. Mine was an airline captain with a jet-black toupee and matching hair growing out of the top of his nose. He had a nasty disposition to boot. The flight wasn't pleasant, either, with him peppering me with questions about what I'd do under such-and-such situation and what the regulations were for this or that circumstance, and ordering me to fly on this heading and climb to that altitude and turn to that heading and descend to this altitude. But in the end, somehow I had his signature on the form that said I was officially a pilot. It was my best Christmas ever.
It doesn't have to stop there. You can go on to get your instrument rating, which allows you to fly in poor weather conditions by reference to instruments and directions from air traffic control. You can also get your commercial certificate, which allows you to fly for hire. Then you can become an instructor, and build time toward a job with the airlines. And of course, all the astronauts start by being airplane pilots. Well, the cool ones do, at least.
Or you can simply impress the hell out of your friends by putzing around the traffic pattern on the weekends.
"It's like an explorer setting out on a new adventure," says my friend Robert, who has decided to take lessons. "All that 'Roger!' and leather jackets. A lot of people fly, but they don't do it themselves. It's like going into less charted territory." It's a territory worth traveling, at any price.
Phil Scott is the author of The Pioneers of Flight (1999, Princeton University Press).