Learning to Fly
October 26, 2009
Today I completed my private pilot training by passing the private pilot checkride. It has been one of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever had. I began my training this past summer. I decided I wanted to take lessons, this is going to sound really nerdy, after playing Microsoft Flight Simulator all winter and becoming slightly obsessed. Eventually, the rush of a playing a game about flying wore off and I sought more. I played around with the idea of taking lessons for a few weeks. I really wanted too but was afraid mostly for my safety. I mean, people die in these things all the time, right? I dug into some research, trying to justify to myself (mostly Sarah) that flying little airplanes was safe enough. After searching around and reading many peoples’ take on the question I came across a statistic that put me at ease. The chance of the average american dying of an accidental death is about 1 in 20. The chances of a lifetime pilot being killed by flying is 1 in 50, less than the normal accidental death rate. So, the chances of dying in an accidental death OR dying in a plane crash can be calculated by the sum of the two probabilities minus the product. This brings my chance of accidental death from 5% to 7.9%, I can live with that (just don’t tell my life insurance provider).
Once I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t putting myself in harm’s way, I set out to find a flight school. Turns out if you punch ‘columbus flight instruction’ into the googles the first thing that pops up is ‘Columbus Flight Instruction’. (Awesome SEO, right?) It intrigued me because Kathy, the owner and sole instructor, operated out of Port Columbus, an airport dominated by airline and corporate jet traffic. Rather than letting this scare me away I thought it would be a good learning environment. I thought: learn to fly with and talk like the big boys right away, and you won’t develop a phobia of large airports. Also, Port Columbus is the closest airport to my house, another very important criteria. Long, frequent drives can put a damper on your attitude.
I filled out Kathy’s online form and the next thing I knew she called me to schedule an introductory flight. This happened on June 26th. Kathy took me up, flew around downtown, went out of town a bit and turned around. After we landed, Kathy asked what I thought. At this point I knew it was something I was going to do. That day I bought a log book, a text book, plotter (for navigation), slide rule (for performance calculations), and some charts.
After this I scheduled as much time with Kathy as possible. Every day after work that was available I would snatch up. I wrote an iCal script to send an email automatically, two weeks in advance to schedule a lesson. (Kathy only schedules two weeks in advance.)
Everything went swimmingly until we started doing landings. Landings are hard, this is something you learn very quickly. It is hard to take a object moving at 60 MPH, that has 6 degrees of freedom, and put it on the centerline of a piece of pavement without hurting anyone or anything. After about 30 or so landings you start to get it. I would say it is about as hard as parallel parking a car. Really hard at first but is a skill that can be improved. And just like parking, sometimes you just don’t get it right and you have to try again (go around)
Eight lessons after the intro flight and 70 landings later, Kathy had me pull over to the ramp, got out of the airplane, and let me solo around the pattern. An exhilarating experience that is deeply etched in my memory. When you first lift off the ground you are filled with this sensation of ‘Oh my god. What have I gotten myself into?’ Then, after landing safely, you taxi back to the ramp and realize that your knuckles are white and your knees start to shake.
From here things moved into the ‘post solo/pre cross country’ phase. We learned many different things, not all pertaining to ‘stick and rudder’ skills. Things like, radio navigation, charts, uncontrolled airports, simulated instrument conditions, short and soft landings, emergency procedures, etc. In the mean time Kathy and I did two ‘dual’ cross countries in preparation of the solo cross countries required for the certificate. These were to Cincinnati and Holmes county. After completing these Kathy endorsed me for my solo cross countries. We ended up doing a short one to Sidney, Ohio on September 14th, and a long one to Findley and Mansfield on October 5th. The rest of our time consisted of reviewing for the flight test and doing ground preparation for the oral exam.
On October 18th, Kathy endorsed me to take my flight test and on October 25th I received my private pilot’s certificate.
It wasn’t cheap, but also wasn’t absurdly expensive. For anyone interested I am going to detail the total costs for me to receive my PPL, along with other metrics.
First Lesson: July 5th
Certificate Received: October 25th
Total Period: 112 days
Number of Lessons: 35 + 6 Ground Lessons
Total Hours: 62.9
Solo Hours: 11.5
Rental Costs: $94.25 per hour
Instructor Costs: $45 per hour.
Total Instruction Cost: $8,565
Materials (books, headset, charts, etc.): $500
Examiner’s Fee: $300
The costs are high. I have spent the majority of my income this summer on getting my license ( and aviation related iPhone apps), but I do not regret doing it. Being a pilot is something you never lose, as long as you have a biannual flight review by an instructor and can pass a medical exam every five years you will be a pilot for life. If you are considering it at all, just do it. Save the money up first, and do it. The more compressed the training the more you retain and the faster it will go, ultimately saving you money. Putting the time in on the ground will also save you a lot of time. Read aviation books, find some aviation related mailing lists or forums, listen to aviation podcasts (Uncontrolled Airspace is great, some very experienced and colorful hosts.), look at airplanes that are for sale, join AOPA and/or EAA, watch One Six Right. Being immersed in the subject really accelerates the training process.
Hope some of you found this information interesting and maybe even useful. If you are thinking about it at all, drop me a line and I will try and convince you to just do it. Drop me a line even if you aren’t thinking about and just want to tell me how crazy I am.