by: Jeff More

I guess I'm different from the rest of the pilots here since my first experience driving anything, was taxiing a plane onto the runway and I tell ya, it wasn't easy for a 15 year old Chinese kid to see over the dash in a plane that was made in Kansas. I finally got smart and used a telephone book to gain a couple inches.

Before the flight, the instructor talked me through the four basic fundamentals: lift, weight, thrust, and drag. The radio calls were difficult to understand at first and it took me about a year to master. For example, you would have to say

"SANTA MONICA TOWER, CESSNA N[tail numbers] AT [location] TAXI TO RUNWAY 21 WITH INFORMATION XXX [phonetic letter]"

You'd have to say who you're talking to, what plane type you're flying, and which runway you want to taxi to. Information XXX represents the latest weather report and anything else of consequence. Before you taxi, you have to copy down all the information such as barometric pressure, which affects your altimeter, what direction the wind is coming from, how fast, et cetera, and make the appropriate adjustments on the flight instruments.

Pre-flighting the plane took me about 45 minutes the first time, checking to make sure every screw was in place, no holes on the skin, no flat spots on the tires, no birds in the engine cowling, and most importantly, the fuel and oil quantities. This process takes a while to get used to but can be completed quickly once you get the hang of it.

The first few times I flew the plane, I got fatigued very easily and somewhat queasy. Aside from the queasiness, a couple other factors made an hour and a half drag out to what seemed much longer. The smell in the cabin was awful. The first thing I'll do when pre-flighting the aircraft was to open both doors and windows to ventilate the cabin. Since the upholstery was sitting under the Southern California sun for hours, you can imagine it didn't smell very pleasant. That, along with the gasoline odor, and the tiny, tiny ventilation ducts made the cabin quite stuffy. It's not like flying in a Boeing 777 where you have a reclining chair and air conditioning. No, it was more like sitting inside a glass jar under the sun. Boy oh boy those of you who live in cooler areas sure are lucky. I like the higher winged Cessna aircraft since I can use the wings for a shade. The headphones were also quite heavy and uncomfortable and I developed a headache after about an hour of flight. After a couple lessons, the fatigue and unpleasantness wears off, but the thrill and awe of looking down at your home from a mile high never does (except the time I thought I was going to puke my guts out). Since the Los Angeles freeways have been dubbed 'the busiest parking lots in the world', it was quite hard to imagine myself going from home to downtown in ten minutes.

The funny thing about fatigue is that I've seemed to be more prone to it when nothing was going on, such as on a long, drawn out cross country flight. Normally, we're supposed to stay out of the clouds, but one time the only way we could have landed was to fly through the clouds. The tower gave us directions and directed us through the clouds. Turn left, stop, turn right, stop turn left stop turnleftstopturnrightstopturn...and boy was it bumpy. I am sure I would have spewed my breakfast on my lap if I hadn't stayed so busy making sure I answered every single radio call ensuring we didn't run into a hill or skyscraper we wouldn't have seen even if we did. The funniest thing about that flight was that we ended up on a perfect landing approach as soon as we exited the clouds about 700 feet above ground.

Cross country flights are very different than local flights because you do almost as much work on the ground as you do in the air. Since I have only done a couple instructor aided cross country flights, I still don't have the details down well enough so any mistakes appearing in the next paragraph or two are mine alone. Anyway, we'd get two very large flight charts, one is called a sectional, which in my region, spans from a little bit south of the Mexican-American border to roughly a third of the way to San Francisco. Another is a terminal chart, which gives more precise detail about the airports in the Los Angeles area, their airspace, et cetera. On cross country flights, we'd plan out which direction we'd fly along with the altitudes we want to cruise. Cruising altitude is important since they somewhat define the lanes of air travel. At a certain altitude, aircraft would travel east-west and at a thousand feet above that, they'd travel west-east. We would also have to dodge airspace, such as airports with very very large aircraft creating massive wake turbulence, and military operation areas. I drifted very close to Edwards Air Force Base and Point Mugu Air Station once, but I think they were both Sunday mornings and I would have received a warning before they started flinging lead at me. I did also happen so see two SR-71s, a U-2, and two B-2 Spirits that day, but I was also sick to my stomach from the up and down currents over the hot desert.

On these cross country flights, we'd have to make many radio calls and try to stay in contact with other humans as much as possible. I liked the idea of putting yellow sticky pad shreddings on my flight maps to remind me to change frequencies, climb, dive, whatever, but sometimes they'd fall right off the map. We'd also have to call a flight service station to tell them where we are headed and which direction we are traveling to get there, and supposedly if we didn't show up for half an hour past our estimated time of arrival, they'd send someone to start looking for us. Politicians have threatened to close these stations down, as well as charging a hefty fee every time you land at an airport, but that's another matter. On the way, we'd have luxuries such as flight following, which is basically talking to someone over the radio, they tell you about traffic in your area, and they hand you off to someone else when you are leaving their radio area. One of the most interesting things on a cross country flight was that I shared a comms frequency with a Blue Angel on the day of the El Toro MCAS air show. I never saw this guy but on final approach, I heard the control tower to make sure he had his gear down!

Along with cross country flights, pilot training includes emergency procedures. The instructor would ask 'if the engine crapped out right now, what would you do?' Well, first you'd trim the aircraft out to best glide speed to buy you maximum amount of time before you hit the ground. Second, you'd look for a place to land, so if you did hit the ground, it would be as soft as possible. Then you'd try to restart the aircraft engine, and if that didn't work, you'd cry for help on the radio and hail Mary. Some times when the engine goes out, it would be something like forgetting to pull out the carburetor heat and restarting would be as simple as applying carb heat. Other times, it would be fuel problems where you won't be so lucky. We'd also practice soft field and short field landings, the former being practice landing on soft fields such as mud or grass, anything soft where you risk running the nose wheel doubling as a tractor and plow. Short field is exactly what the name implies, such as tiny runways where you'd run off a cliff or into water if you didn't do it correctly. Such a landing would make landing on an aircraft carrier a snap with room to spare.

Though I've been getting very lazy about doing it, I've got to say flying is the most rewarding experience of my life. It's been more expensive than hell and there were times I'd want to stick my head out the window and heave my guts out, but there's definitely nothing more amazing than being able to see your home town from twenty miles away.

(Jeff is an avid flight simulation enthusiast, currently attending college in California. He has soloed and continues his training. Jeff has a homepage, you can get to know this young flyer better at http://home.pacbell.net/squinky/ -ed-}

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