Cleared for Takeoff? Oh Dear God

IMG_20130425_144150_702It’s been months and months, I know. I’ve been flying.

Literally. Since I quit my job in early April (bye!) I’ve thrown myself into training for a private pilot’s license. It’s challenging, fun, and exciting. In other words, it’s the best thing I can think of doing before matriculating to a medical school this summer.

Yes, I know where I’m going, and no, I’m not going to tell you here. Sorry, not sorry.

Anyway. Learning to fly is exactly like learning to drive, except with a lot more buttons (a direct correlate to my interest level in pretty much everything) with less things to hit, and a new language – radiospeak – to acquire.

Flying is easier to learn, albeit with a steeper curve. My mom taught me how to drive; the main thing I remember is her overwhelming faith in me. When driving around the cul-de-sac for the first time with the crumpled trash can finally in the rearview mirror, I looked over triumphantly – “Mom, I’m doing it!” – as the side of the car skirted the curb. Her hand gripped the armrest, her knuckles turning white as sweat beaded on her forehead while she prayed. She looked like someone with a tree nut allergy who just realized her salad contained cashews.

Flight training is considerably more structured than learning to drive from your parents. There is ground school, instructional training, solo practice, cross-country training, cross-country solo practice, night training… the list goes on. I have almost as many study books for my private pilot test as I did for the MCAT.

Almost. Nothing tops that hateful monster.

Flying a small plane with an instructor is comforting, in fact. When you first start flying, it’s alarming to bounce all over the sky. That doesn’t happen on a 737. It helps your anxiety levels to see your instructor, who has many thousands of hours flying everything with wings, yawn while the plane drops 200 feet in a bubble of air.

One of the weirdly fun parts of flying is learning to speak on the radio, because if you close your eyes (you probably shouldn’t), you can pretend for a minute that you’re Val Kilmer from Top Gun, coolly radioing in your position and that you have the bogey on radar:

Air Traffic Control: Cessna Five Papa Charlie, Patuxent Approach. Traffic, 2 o’clock high, three miles eastbound, type unknown.
You, dispassionately: Pax Approach, Five Papa Charlie has traffic in sight. 
ATC: <clicks mic>

WHAT A BADASS. (We’ll leave out the part where all I did was say “I see the plane headed my way and I promise not to run into him” BECAUSE HEY I AM TALKING ON THE RADIO LIKE ICEMAN HERE.) I haven’t requested to buzz the tower yet, but rest assured it’s coming.

Once you’re ready to progress to your first solo, the instructor hops out of the plane and you take off alone off into the wild blue yonder of bouncing, choppy air. (Depending on your instructor, he may or may not do the funny “CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF” pose also found in Top Gun.)OB-VM135_crt_sh_E_20121127054926Once your wheels leave the ground, you become instantly aware of four things:


2) You are flying a Cessna, the plane type responsible for roughly 90% of all aviation accidents. It has one horizontally-opposed engine, one propeller, multiple dials that are “okay if they aren’t working, they never do,” and noticeably alters its performance if a passenger reclines their seat by moving the center of gravity;

3) You don’t understand a damn thing anyone is saying on the radio, despite your earlier Iceman experience;

4) The urge to close your eyes and just yell “JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL” is becoming overwhelming.

(Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m joking and everything is perfectly okay I’m actually getting good at this now. Grandma, same to you, and yes we can have lunch soon.)

If we’re being honest, though, the Cessna is the Volvo of airplanes. It’s been around forever, they run forever, and almost every accident or incident is a result of pilot error, not the plane itself.

Wait, that last part isn’t comforting at all. My landings are case studies in pilot error. During a standard landing, I experience the following thought process:

“Looking good. A little high, but otherwise good. Wait, why am I drifting? Hmm. Correct to the right. To the right! RIGHT RUDDER! Oh my god oh my god ohmygod YAAAAAAAAAH” <slam> <bounce> “AAAHHHH” <skid> <slam>

High five, I landed! Rife with pilot error, sure, but the plane’s on the ground.

Now, who wants to ride copilot?!


Preflight check: “looks safe to me!”

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