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I started Flight Lessons!

A while back I played a trick on myself. I made a public commitment to learn to fly, on YouTube and Facebook, so I wouldn’t let all my other obligations crowd out that goal. So once my busy Autumn season started to wind down, I contacted the flight instructor who had taken me on my discovery flight back in September and started scheduling regular lessons. I was pretty proud of myself for getting lessons scheduled without much delay once the busy season started to wind down, but as it turned out, the first five scheduled lessons were canceled.

The first two were canceled because the plane took longer than expected in its 100 hour inspection. The third was canceled because the flight instructor’s other piloting job came calling: he flies private jets, and a family he flies for decided to go out of town for Thanksgiving. The next was canceled because of tornadoes…so I guess that’s OK. The fifth was canceled because the flight instructor had a death in the family.

I actually chose that flight school, though it’s not the closest airport to my home and work, because it is an actual flight school, not just a guy with a CFI doing training in his spare time. I thought it would probably be easier to schedule training time against my own busy calendar. I was beginning to wonder if I’d made a mistake, but almost a month after the lessons were due to start, I drove over to the field at midday and took my first real flight lesson.

During my discovery flight a few months ago we did many of the things that John, my flight instructor, would have done for a first flight lesson, so we actually started on lesson two for my first official lesson. This meant that we jumped right into power-on and power-off stalls. Power-off stalls are basically what I would have expected from the training videos: you get the nose way higher than you’d ever take it for normal operations, wait for the plane to buffet and the nose to drop, then recover. Power-on stalls were a different story, though: even with only 65% power, it felt like the plane was standing on its tail by the time we got it to stall. Recovery from both is simple: let the nose drop out of that ridiculous attitude, increase the power, and start flying again. I think I probably pushed the stick forward rather than just letting it neutralize from the power-on stall, though, because we went from straight up to straight down before leveling back out again. My flight instructor doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining what’s about to happen before we do it; he seems to be of the sort to let the experience speak for itself. That’s fine, but I will say that if I had experienced a power-on stall without knowing what to expect beforehand, I think I’d have started mentally revising my will. Since I knew more or less what to expect, I never felt in any danger, and by the second time around it was actually kind of fun.

Both kinds of stall practice are meant to teach you what the plane starts to feel like before it stalls. They’re done with plenty of altitude, and you take the plane all the way to the stall because there is plenty of time to recover. Unless you’re doing aerobatics, you should never have the plane in the attitudes that these stalls are practiced at. The times that stalls like these tend to happen is in the traffic pattern near an airport: a pilot takes off with a plane that’s loaded way too aft-heavy, or tries to salvage a landing that’s gone bad instead of going around and trying again, all too low to the ground when recovery after the stall might be a (literal) dead letter. Stall practice lets you feel just how squirrelly the plane starts to get before it stalls, so that if you start to feel those same sensations down low to the ground where it matters you can take action before the stall even develops. It also instilled in me a healthy respect for how fast things move once a stall develops. I lost about 500 feet in the recovery from my first power-on stall. I’m sure you can improve on that with practice, but I was also expecting the stall. Imagine if I hadn’t been, and imagine if it’d happened just before landing, at 400 feet AGL (Above Ground Level). That math doesn’t work out in my favor, and it all happens in seconds. The moral of the story: the airplane will warn you before it stalls, so listen, and don’t let the stall develop.

I haven’t been taking any video these first few lessons. I didn’t, and don’t, want any distractions from the basic stick and rudder training here at first. I did take a business trip to NYC a few days before my first lesson, though, and took a few pictures from the air on the final leg home. Though there were four separate legs to my round trip, the first three were flown from middle-row seats and, on the way up, 700 foot ceilings across the entire Southeast, so there was nothing to see out the window from just after takeoff until just before touchdown. This was my first airline flight since I started studying to be a pilot, so from a technical standpoint the trip through the soup was interesting to me in a way it wasn’t before. But still, middle seat. The final leg from Atlanta to Huntsville started from blue skies and the plane was only half-full, though, so I got a few shots out the window. In the lower left center of the first picture here is a clearing with a large home with a private paved airstrip in the backyard, west of Atlanta. I had to take a picture of that. This was all from my iPhone, so it’s much harder to see the strip in the picture than it was in real life, for the same reason that your pictures of the moon are never very impressive.

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