Most people have thought about learning to fly airplanes and a surprising number have taken an intro flight or a lesson or two. Are you a red-blooded American of means? A mile of road takes you 1 mile. A mile of runway can take you anywhere. I do it for the view, as soon as you’re above the treeline the world makes sense in a way that is not obvious on the ground.
Airplanes are ridiculously expensive and always have been, so let’s talk about money first. One of the things you learn about is that lift, the force that enables flight, is balanced by other forces. It is typically diagrammed as such:
This is incorrect.
Airplanes are actually held aloft by money. A more accurate diagram is:
I run a non-profit flying club and tell people thinking of joining that it will cost them $10,000-14,000 to earn their private pilot license. The legal minimum is 40 hours of instruction, but no-one does it that quickly, especially if you take 9+ months, which most do. 70-80 is average.
|70 hours airplane rental||$120||$8400|
|60 hours instructor time||$ 50||$3000|
|9 months club dues or renters insurance||$100||$ 900|
|Book or online, headset, practical test||$1200||$1200|
It’s a lot of money. If you don’t have it or can’t carve it out of your cash flow, save for it or let it go, please don’t spend a lot of money and then panic because you really want to finish but just can’t make it work. There are some cheaper ways to fly, such as powered paragliders, regular gliders and such, but you will find even those will set you back ¾ of the amount of plain airplane instruction. If you just want a taste, spend the $200 for an hour of instruction or demo flight, it is just plane fun for most people.
If you’re still with me, great! The first thing introduced is the parts of the airplane, the instruments and what they show/mean, the engine and the controls. Next, I’ll strap you in and demonstrate the controls. On the ground, the airplane is steered with your feet and it is just as awkward as it sounds initially. There is no reverse. I’ll have you taxi us out as best as you can, I’ll fix your big mistakes and take over if you’re not getting it. After a systems check, I’ll line us up on the runway and do the takeoff with your hands and feet on the controls so you can start to feel it out.
We’ll depart the pattern towards the practice area and I’ll have you do the flying, holding us straight and level at first. Next we’ll do some level turns: roll into the turn with the stick or yoke, apply a little back stick to correct for the lift exchanged for turn. This is what flying is all about, balancing forces to go where you want. To climb, add power and pull back gently on the stick to the angle that works. Check this angle through the windscreen and with the angle between the wings and ground. To descend, reduce the power then drop the nose a few degrees. Generally your climb angle is twice your descent angle and both are not much, 5 degrees down and 10 up are normal maximums.
Heading back to the airport, you’ll enter the traffic pattern generally 1000’ above the airport. Reduce the power to a get to a particular airspeed. Most airplanes have flaps, which increase lift and drag, slowing the airplane, so add the first increment and reduce power again, hold the altitude, reduce airspeed to a new target then start descending. Two turns to the left or right and a couple more flap changes and we are lined up on final on the final airspeed. Bank a little or change the heading a little to correct for any crosswind, add or reduce power to adjust your landing point. Once over the runway, throttle to idle if it isn’t already and slowly pull the nose up a few degrees in a flare to bleed off the airspeed and you touch down just as the lift stops. Maybe you did it all yourself, maybe I did most of it, but you’ll exhale hugely and not realize you were holding your breath as we slow to a stop.
That’s it, all the basics and you’ll do them all on your first lesson.
Each lesson just builds on those and variations on them. Climbing and descending turns, turns along a road or around a point so you get used to thinking about the wind. Stall avoidance and recovery. Flying to other airports. Checking the weather, dealing with air traffic control and talking on the radio.
And landing, always the landings: each one is unique and thrilling and eventually you will probably dream about them, being perfect and going very awry. Finally, you will take an oral and practical test with an examiner and get issued a license and then you’re free to fly as long and as far as your wallet can take you!