Flying Lessons and A Really Embarrassing Moment
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” ― Leonardo da Vinci
When I was about 5 months pregnant with Jett, I began flying lessons.
Yes, you read that right. I willingly, without a second thought, dove headfirst…wait, scratch that, belly first into the world of aviation.
Who knows what was going through my mind as to the timing of my decision, but obtaining my private pilot’s license has always been on my bucket list.
Flying, to me, represents excitement and possibility, the opportunity to live life fully...and it also scares me to death.
Cody (Jett's dad and my husband at the time) and I had plans to fly together as a family once the baby came. We had been talking about this for a while, but it was time for me to get over my fear of just being the passenger. It was important to both of us that I knew how to at least land a plane. What if we were flying one day and Cody all of sudden passed out? That specific scenario had played out in my head too many times to count. I didn’t want to be another statistic or another sad story on the news where a small plane crashes into a mountainside because of pilot error. I really wanted to be prepared to make radio calls and take over the controls if we ever faced such an emergency.
Piloting a plane does not come naturally to someone like me who mostly operates from the right side of her brain. I have never felt so outside of my comfort zone. I had never taken the time to learn the difference between a turbine and piston engine. I had no idea that airplanes require a certain weight and balance or that you have to be in a specific air space so that you don’t end up in serious jeopardy. Initially, I thought I was signing up to just learn how to take off and land a plane. That’s all it was, right?
There was so much to learn, so many buttons and systems, flight patterns, weather patterns, radio calls, maneuvers, I could go on and on. Everything was so exact and mechanical. Basically everything that I wasn’t! To sum it up, this was going to be a colossal challenge for me with a learning curve that I was not prepared for.
I found a great flight instructor who, bless his heart, was so patient with me. In my mind, he was probably used to a “guy’s guy” for a flight student. Do you know the type of guy I’m talking about? A manly man who had worked on cars his entire life and who had probably built an engine or two of his own. Nope! Here I was, this inexperienced, pregnant girl who didn’t even know how to check the oil in her car.
Regardless of my incompetence, we got started anyway. Just writing about it now gives me butterflies in my stomach.
In conjunction with the actual flying portion of flight lessons, there is a part called ground school. This is where you learn all of the fundamental aspects of flying. This was the toughest for me. I remember receiving my Private Pilot Manual and thumbing through its 808 pages. 808 pages!! I can’t tell you how many times I would start reading a section, start daydreaming, and then have to start over. I would start over, this time taking notes, and get to the end of the section wondering what in the world I just read. An engine consists of what? A crankshaft is located where? I can’t fly through cumulonimbus cloud? Wait, what is a cumulonimbus cloud? Ground school was (and still is!) a struggle for me. Luckily, the flying portion turned out to be much different.
Thank goodness for pilot checklists. Everything, and I mean everything has a checklist. Before you even get inside the cockpit, you have a checklist. Guess what? That preflight checklist reminds you to check the oil. Genius!
In all seriousness, these checklists ensure that you are flying a safe aircraft and that you know what to do in case of an emergency. Even the most experienced pilots are still required to use checklists.
My confidence started to grow as a flight student and I actually began to enjoy taking the controls. It turns out, when you take the time to learn about something that scares you, a lot of your fears are swept away. Who knew?
Taking the controls, following checklists, and performing maneuvers were a few things I was starting to master.
Radio calls, on the other hand, not so much! Radio calls were meant to be professional and concise “call-outs” that go something like this:
State who you are talking to- “Salt Lake Traffic…”
State who you are and your tail number- “This is Cessna 12345”
State where you are at- “We are flying northbound just East of I-15 at 6,500 feet.”
State your intention- “We will be entering the landing pattern on the downwind.”
Radio calls are super uber important and are to be done often while flying. These call outs can basically save you from colliding with other aircraft mid-air and help keep everyone organized, especially in crowded air space. There was no room for error. I was terrible at radio calls and I mean, terrible! Every time I started to talk, I would freeze up and forget everything I was supposed to say. Most of the time, my flight instructor had to chime in and finish the call. Even though I couldn’t hear it, I was pretty certain that other pilots within earshot were laughing at my pitiful attempts. It was truly embarrassing and something that I needed to become more proficient at.
Now...onto one of my most embarrassing moments as a flight student:
My pregnant belly was growing by the day and I knew my flying days were numbered. My ultimate goal before having the baby was to complete my solo flight. This consists of taking the plane off and landing a total of three times on your own. On my own! It’s basically a small test to prove to your flight instructor that you are making progress.
I was nervous about my radio calls, but practiced exactly what I needed to say. I was ready.
At this point, I was 36 weeks pregnant. There’s nothing like waiting until the last minute, right? It took some convincing, but my doctor agreed to let me fly one last time before having the baby. That meant I needed to pass my solo with flying colors. I couldn’t mess up.
The day of my solo flight came. Cody and my flight instructor were there. They had given me a walkie talkie to communicate with them if need be. I followed my checklists precisely and made the appropriate radio calls. I was feeling confident as I taxied my plane to the start of the runway. Here goes! I looked down at my massive belly and had a brief “aha” moment. I wasn’t totally alone in this. Jett was with me. I engaged the throttle and began gaining speed. I pulled back on the yokes, hitting my protruding belly of course, and the plane lifted off the ground. I was airborne!
The feeling I had was indescribable. I had goose bumps over my entire body. There was an electrical current running from my head to my toes. This was exhilarating! The best part was that I was doing this all by myself. I was flying an airplane.
My first couple rounds couldn’t have gone more smoothly. I stayed in the landing pattern and had near perfect landings each time. On my final go-around, I was certain I had this in the bag.
On my downwind stretch, I look to my right, and see a helicopter hovering near the runway. Where in the world did he come from? I was about to land and this helicopter was suddenly in my way! Had I missed a radio call?
My armpits started to sweat. How do I handle this? I had practiced MY radio calls, but what happens when another aircraft doesn’t make their radio call? I couldn’t abort the landing pattern because I wasn’t allowed to do that on my own yet! Here I was trying to land my plane, keep in mind, for only the third time on my own, and there was a huge obstruction preventing me from doing that.
I forgot all sense of professionalism on my radio call-out.
“Ummm…Mr. Helicopter Man? What is your intention?”
Mr. Helicopter Man.
I literally said “Mr. Helicopter Man.”
Was I a twelve-year-old kid? Who says that over the radios for all to hear?
I don’t even remember what was said back to me, if anything. I don’t remember landing the plane, but somehow it happened without colliding into the helicopter. Cody and my flight instructor were there to greet me as I pulled my large, sweaty self out of the airplane. They pretty much had tears running down their faces because they were laughing so hard.
Despite my terribly flawed radio call, I had done it. I had accomplished a long-time goal that was really, really scary. I was so proud of myself.
Thinking back to this moment in time makes me wonder how often I willingly step outside of my comfort zone. When was the last time I did something that truly challenged me mentally, physically, or even emotionally?
I think Mr. Helicopter Man can agree with me that you don’t need to be perfect to achieve your goals. It’s been about 8 years since my solo flight and many events have changed my course in life. However, I am going to do my best to pursue “solo flights” and be a little more daring from here on out.
How about you? What can you do today to be more daring? What can you do today that helps you feel more alive in your skin?