Last weekend I was fortunate to have the opportunity to fly a plane for the first time. My girlfriend Laura purchased a lesson for my birthday, which turned out to be an amazing gift. It’s something I’ve loosely thought about trying for some time, but I probably wouldn’t have pulled the trigger without a push. It always seemed like an expensive and difficult thing to do. Having now been through the experience, that’s certainly not the case.
The lesson was purchased through a school at Minute Man airfield on Living Social. The deal included an hour of on-the-ground instruction, followed by an hour of flying. Leading up to it, I was fairly certain that the hour of instruction would be very detailed, and I’d subsequently have a very limited role in actually flying the airplane. I assumed there’d be lots of rules about what I was and wasn’t allowed to do as someone with absolutely no prior flying experience. I turned out to be wrong.
We showed up at the airfield and the instructor brought us over to a computer to show us how to check the weather forecast and flight conditions. We chatted for 20 minutes or so about weather patterns, then he handed us each a headset and we went out to one of his Cessna 172’s, which are apparently the most common training planes.
He explained to us that flying a small plane is surprisingly similar to driving a car. Unlike commercial aircraft, you don’t need to register flights or ask permission to take off or land. You simply get in the plane, announce yourself on the open radio channel, and then fly wherever you feel like going. Most small airfields don’t have control towers, and you can use them as you please.
My instructor told me that he often goes to the Cape or the Vineyard for lunch, to Tennessee to visit family, and he recently went to Montreal for a night. And it’s all surprisingly inexpensive. For example, from Minute Man in Stow, MA, it would be about $35-45 to fly to the Cape or the Vineyard. And it only costs $40/month to store the plane at the airfield.
I was instructed to climb into the pilot’s seat, and the instructor took the copilot spot to my right. Laura took the backseat. We taxied to runway three, announced our intent to take off — apparently anyone planning to land at the same time would have let us know their intention and asked us to wait — and then switched up the engine power to take off. Within a minute we were flying over Stow, a few hundred feet off the ground.
The views at such a low elevation were spectacular. In a larger aircraft, you have a very short window at low elevations, as the planes generally ascend quickly. In the Cessna, I could make out the details of cars and rooftops, and even see people on the ground. But we were just high enough to see far into the distance — I could see Boston in surprising detail on the horizon. It was a great perspective.
Within a few minutes the instructor gave me complete control, which caught me off guard, as I still hadn’t learned the first thing about flying. I took the yoke, and it turned out to be surprisingly intuitive. Turns are straightforward enough, not unlike driving a car or boat, and adjusting the pitch felt fairly natural as well. We ascended to 5,500 feet and then adjusted the power to level off. I flew over Fitchburg, then went towards Worcester. I also got comfortable using the GPS to track nearby aircraft, first on the screen, then by making a visual sighting to ensure we were a safe distance away.
The instructor also turned the engine power off at one point, showing us how the plane could glide for quite some time without power. He told us that an important practice safety drill is to kill the power, pick an emergency landing site, such as a field or parking lot, glide towards the site, and then boost the power just before a landing would be necessary. I think I’m still a few lessons away from trying that.
After about a half hour we began the descent, and the instructor took control to land. We radioed our intent to land on runway three, and circled around the airport as we descended. Within minutes we were back on the ground.
I must say I’m intrigued, and definitely eager to fly again. While this first lesson was fairly affordable, it’s a financial commitment to rack up the 50 hours of flying time required to get a license. But this lesson did count towards that goal, so I’ve got 0.6 hours under my belt. Thanks again Laura.