How I learned to fly and how you can, too...
When I was sixteen, I heard about how people learn to pilot small airplanes. I had had no interest in aviation whatsoever up until then, but I loved aerial photographs and landscapes, as well as machines. I wondered if I could possibly learn to fly too, and so I began to read aviation magazines and to send away for all the flying school catalogs I could find.
I soon learned that the minimum age to earn a
private pilot's license was 17, and in Switzerland it would take years and double the price
that I could pay in North America. I finally found a flying school in Quebec - which is bankrupt now that the golden eighties are over - and was able to arrange to go there for the summer of my 17th
year. So I finally arrived in Mirabel, Montreal, where an airplane from the school picked me up and took me to St André Avellin where next day I would being my 5-week course.
The course in St André Avellin, a small place near
Ottawa, was very intensive, with theory classes every night except Sunday, and flying
lessons every day that the weather allowed. As is common in the US and Canada, the instructors were in their early 20's and were building up their flight hours so they could earn their line pilot license for which 1500 hours are required.
If you are able to understand some modestly complex systems and like to read, the theory part should not be a big problem. Towards the end of the course, all the students went to
Montreal - by plane, of course - and passed the theory exam. Well, nearly all - some stupid
Frenchmen who thought that all they had to do was pay the fees, did not pass the exam.
The flying lessons went on and on, with a lot of
emphasis on the flight pattern around the landing field, spin recovery, emergency procedures and,
my favorite, navigation. The lessons culminated in a long cross-country solo flight above the
featureless landscape of Quebec and Ontario.
Advice to those who would like to learn to fly:
If you can find the funds, go to North America (Canada or the
US would be nice) and find a full-time course. You'll learn more easily and the total
number of hours needed will be lower.
Find a good school. Here's how:
First choose the area in which you want to learn.
Find somewhere dry, with no fog, little wind and few storms. The south west of the USA is just such an area, Florida is not.
Then browse through aviation magazine from that
country, and also look in news groups and on the Internet. Mail a standard letter to all the school you can find asking for:
Total price (some have a flat rate that is all inclusive);
The location of the school relative to accommodation (otherwise you might need a car);
Whether they can arrange accommodation for you;
The local weather at the time of the year you plan
to be there;
The number of accidents they have had involving students (you want the answer to be 'None');
The type of airplane you will be flying, its age and equipment (the newer, the better);
The number of instructors available, plus their ages and years of experience (the older the better);.
The price per hour for airplane rentals;
The phone numbers of former students (the more, the better).
Then, find the money and go.
Work hard, read the books and try to understand why
they make you do things the way they do. If you make mistakes repeatedly, just note them during the debriefing and discuss them with the instructor.
If your instructor regularly shouts and is rude
during the flight, just tell him to go to hell and find another one. DO it. There are so
many nice, sane, intelligent people doing the work that it would really be a pity to put up with a lousy instructor.
Where and what I have flown
When I got back from Canada, I had to make an alpine
flight and do a Swiss aviation law check, which I passed. I also learned that you
should choose your flying school and instructors carefully. I flew a bit in the Alps, then once across California, Nevada and Arizona, once to Corsica (a 3-hour, non-stop trip through the Alps and then over the Mediterranean - it was a superb flight), and once from Boston to Prince Edward Island.
I have flown a Cessna 152 and 172, Robins, Piper Warriors and an Archer. The Robin was the best, partly because it was my most recent flight but also because the Robin is a nice wood and cloth, low-wing airplane with a wonderful Plexiglas cockpit. I usually prefer high-winged planes because they allow you to study the ground, but in the Alps the interesting stuff is above you and so
low-wings are a must.
Why I quit flying and why maybe you
I flew little, and very irregularly. The weather is
tricky in Switzerland, with a lot of fog in the place where I live, and a lot of wind at
the other airport in Sion. Add to this the huge costs (double the US price) and you'll
understand why I did very little flying practice.
In 1996, after a memorable trip in New England (Boston
- Prince Edward Island the same day) I decided it was too much. Apart from seeing whales off the coast of Nova Scotia, that terrible trip included:
Strong gusty winds at two airports that made me
think I was in a washing machine, and that I was going to crash on the runway;
Cumulus cloud cover that made the flight so bumpy
that I did not dare to eat for fear of puking;
An emergency landing in a blueberry field because the fuel gauge was indicating, wrongly as it happened, that the fuel was dangerously low;
A forced stay of 3 days in Bangor, Maine, waiting for
the sky to clear.
It was all too much. Several times before I had had the feeling that I was about to die in the next 10 minutes, but this day I realised that this was likely to happen eventually. From that day on I never flew again.
Some things I wished I was told before ... or maybe I was?
Perhaps my limited experience will be of help to some readers, so here is my advice:
If you can't fly regularly and competently enough, don't fly.
If you doubt your ability to master the
plane totally, ask a nice, sane instructor to come with you for the ride.
I have some gaps in my log book that show 4 months
without one minute's flying. I think that is very dangerous.
Club pilots like to tell their war stories:
how they got near to death and all that. This is a stupid and dangerous practice, because it encourages pilots to take risks to earn the admiration of their peers. I also have my share of horror stories, including how I lost control of the airplane in a storm right above a 6000' airport and was unable to land for 20 minutes, and a similar story in the Alps where the turbulence was so bad, one passenger hit his head on the roof even though he was strapped into his seat. I also have some
really bad fuel-shortage stories. But I'll follow my own suggestion and move on to the next piece of advice.
Don't tell your horror stories, and if someone else does, don't listen
with admiration but rather reproach him for the risk he took.
Some other advise that is more commonly given and self -explanatory:
Always check the weather and if in doubt, DON'T GO.
Check your fuel twice, and if in doubt, fill it up as
much as W&B allows.
Strong wind is EXTREMELY dangerous for small airplanes.
Always look at the forecasts and surface observations, and decide that if the wind is above 15
knots, say, you STAY on the ground.