Imagine it: You’re training for night cross-country flying. The evening is moonless VFR. Your weather briefing says your route is clear. The synthetic vision feature of your glass instrument panel displays everything—including the runway centerline—as if illuminated on a clear day. You lift off into the inky twilight, and your instructor has you engage the autopilot coupled to the GPS to activate the flight plan you programmed earlier. A quick check of real-time satellite weather confirms the positive forecast. As you climb, you scan the skies for conflicting traffic and verify with a quick look at the traffic overlay on your PFD. You tap the secondary display screen to bring up a destination airport diagram and discuss it with your instructor over the quiet hum of your ANR headsets.
The aforementioned scenario now is an everyday occurrence, but it would have been pure fiction in the GA world of the past. Aviation has changed so much in the last 10 years that it barely resembles what most people imagine when they think “general aviation.” In fact, most contemporary airliners lack the capabilities that many newer GA airplanes have.
Flight training, too, has changed dramatically along the way. From the airplanes themselves to the way we’re taught, becoming a pilot has never been more interesting or exciting.
The Airplanes: Not Your Grandfather’s Cessna
Like a word-association test, mention learning to fly, and most people automatically think of “Cessna” or “Piper.” Those two names conjure up images of angular, brown-striped airframes with a zillion gauges, faded tan upholstery and a crackly radio. But today, there’s so much more to be excited about.
In 2005, when the FAA created the light-sport aircraft (LSA) category, it uncorked a genie. LSA represent both a classification of light aircraft and a new kind of pilot certificate: the sport pilot certificate. Both are huge developments in an industry that has remained largely unchanged since the 1940s.
LSA are limited to two seats, a max takeoff weight of 1,320 pounds and a max level-flight airspeed of 120 knots (140 mph), which make them perfect platforms for learning to fly. For the past two decades, the Cessna 172 has dominated the training arena. Before that, the Cessna 150/152 and the Piper Cherokee series of aircraft held court. Each represents decades-old design.
By contrast, different manufacturing requirements for LSA have opened the field to smaller, more innovative airplane manufacturers. Suddenly, small companies with unique designs were able to compete with the “big boys.” The result has been a multicultural crop of nimble, reliable aircraft that share little with their ancestors. Even venerable Cessna has introduced its own LSA: the sporty, gull-wing-doored 162 Skycatcher.
LSA have less-restrictive maintenance requirements, allowing flight schools to operate them relatively inexpensively. The buy-in cost usually is much less than that of a typical standard-category airplane. Those savings are passed on to customers. While a Cessna 172SP might rent for $130 to $180 hourly, a brand-new LSA can rent for $90 to $120 hourly. Most LSA use less fuel, fly faster and have comfort and safety features older airplanes lack.
But the real “wow” factor with LSA is how fun they are to fly! Because of their weight and innovative construction materials, as well as evolutions in flight control design and cockpit ergonomics, most LSA are a blast in the air. Touch the stick (many LSA have sticks rather than wheels, or “yokes” as we call them in aviation), and a quick, heart-stirring bank rewards your feather touch. Finger pressures rather than broad arm movements do all the flying. Traditional trainers feel leaden by comparison.
These new trainers also can make you a better pilot. Put a sleep-footed pilot who thinks crosswinds are no big deal into an LSA, and better techniques will emerge. A 1,200-pound airplane in a crosswind behaves quite differently from its heavier ancestor. Ultimately, the one who benefits the most from improved technique is you.
Flying Gets Safer
According to the NTSB, 2008 was the safest year for GA since official record keeping began. This has been a measurable trend since 2005. For comparison, in 2007, there were 685 fatalities in recreational boating, 496 fatalities in GA and 40,174 fatalities on U.S. roads and highways. Even adjusting for exposure and other statistical factors, flying a GA airplane isn’t the death sentence the media makes it out to be.
There are several reasons for the consistent increase in air safety. An important one is the advent of airframe parachute systems: Ballistic recovery systems were invented in 1982 by Boris Popov, a hang glider pilot. The basic idea is that a pilot in trouble can deploy a large parachute that supports and is attached to the entire airframe—it lowers the plane to the ground with minimal injury to the occupants. According to BRS Aerospace, these parachutes have saved 242 lives, and BRS has installed over 30,000 systems.
Air bag–type restraints have made their way from cars to airplanes, and so have seats that can sustain high G-loads, cocoon-type cockpit enclosures, collapsible structural components that absorb impacts, new composites and flame-retardant materials. New designs reroute fuel lines, put fuel tanks within protected areas in the wings and make emergency escape easier with more, easier-to-open doors.
Better ground schools and a variety of free online courses have made pilots more aware of factors that traditionally bring airplanes down. Pilots are attending safety seminars and taking courses that bring knowledge and increased safety to our skies. Though aviation isn’t entirely risk-free (nothing is), modern innovations have made safety a hallmark of learning to fly.
Training: How We Learn
In the recent past, your instructor would follow a course syllabus that taught you the necessary skills to pass your checkride. You’d practice a skill, and then move on to the next one. It was a predictable way to learn. Nowadays, traditional training methods are giving way to new ideas, such as scenario-based training.
An example of scenario-based training is learning to do turns around a point. It’s a skill every pilot must learn, but it’s not very exciting turning in circles around an intersection or water tank for hours. Instead, to teach the skill, a scenario is set up: Maybe the student is being hired to carry an aerial photographer who needs to shoot some feature on the ground. The student is expected to keep the same distance from the object while looking for conflicting traffic and maintaining altitude and airspeed. Scenarios like this make learning fun and pass on a valuable skill.
Traditional ground schools are disappearing in favor of multimedia courses that students can watch at home. Difficult concepts can be reviewed to make learning them easier. Interactive features, dialogs and graphics allow richer learning, and make certain concepts clearer than listening to someone explain them from a chalkboard. Also, militaristic instructors are disappearing as the armed services feed fewer pilots into the system, and a softer, gentler approach is proving effective.
Tools: Avionics & Gear
Some of the biggest changes in flight training have come about because of technological advances. Ten years ago, it was inconceivable that two-seat trainers would have the capabilities that modern trainers have. Touch screens, onboard real-time weather displays, GPS-coupled autopilots, 3-D terrain profiles, electronic charts and advanced engine and performance management were pipe dreams for anybody learning to fly. A tired two-seater with a VOR was all you could hope for.
But learning to fly today is a treat for anybody enamored with technology. The sheer amount of information available in a cockpit is staggering. Though student pilots must learn to avoid “information overload” and keep their eyes focused outside, the situational awareness these units provide is nothing short of phenomenal. Modern pilots quickly become “system managers” in addition to aviators.
Today, student pilots can learn in a glass-cockpit-equipped airplane from the very beginning. And the technology and knowledge is transferable as you move up in aircraft. Diamond, for example, provides a seamless upward progression from its two-seat DA20 trainer all the way to its D-Jet; the panel will look essentially the same in all the aircraft in the Diamond family. The same holds true for manufacturers like Cirrus and even Cessna and Piper. By employing glass technology, the cockpit becomes a familiar place, and students need only learn differences in handling and performance to master a newer, faster airplane.
Flight students also use different gear than their counterparts in the recent past. Manual E6B “slide-rule” computers are being replaced by their electronic cousins that instantly provide all the data previously available only by spinning the mysterious wheel of the E6B. Meanwhile, ANR headsets keep improving, making hearing loss from cockpit noise a thing of the past. Charts quickly are going all electronic, and handheld GPS units and portable communications radios have become common. Even flashlights and cockpit lighting are going to LEDs, with their long life, cooler temperature and miniature size.
Putting It All Together
Flight training has come a long way from the long-ago days of Piper Cubs and the more recent days of Cessna 150s and Piper Cherokees. Although we still fly the same skies, modern complexities and innovations have made flight training—and general aviation—a whole different animal than it was. From today’s safer skies to the comfort and confidence that technology provides, learning to fly is something that will pay you dividends for a lifetime.
|Flight-Training 101 (Photo By William Arcamuzi)|
|The decision to learn to fly is one of the most important choices you’ll make in your life. Flying is a gateway to countless new adventures, friends and experiences; it’s the beginning of a long road of learning. But just taking the first step can be overwhelming. Here are some guidelines to get you started.
You’ll start flight training in sessions of about one hour in the air and 30 to 60 minutes on the ground. You’ll need to study hard to pass the intensive FAA written exam. When the instructor feels you’re ready, you’ll solo (fly the airplane alone). Soloing is a big step, but just the first of many as your training continues toward the “checkride.” That’s when an FAA-designated pilot examiner will conduct a comprehensive oral interview and flight test. If you pass the oral interview, the flight test and the written exam, then you’ll earn your private pilot certificate!
1) The plane you train in: An older, two-seat Cessna 152 will be less expensive than a newer, fuel-injected, four-seat Cessna 172. Navigation equipment also determines price.
|Gear For Pilots|
It can be difficult for new pilots to discern between what’s necessary and what’s designed to separate them from their money. Here are a few essentials that every pilot needs.
For ANR headsets, look for the highest attenuation rating (usually listed in decibels) and also the widest frequency spectrum. The best headsets attenuate across a broad frequency spectrum instead of a narrow band. For PNR headsets, weight and clamping pressure are critically important for comfort. Look for the lowest headset weight to minimize hot spots on long trips. Clamping pressure rarely is listed, but can be judged by wearing the headset for 10 minutes or more. Many retailers will give you a 30-day trial period.
With both headset types, make sure you buy a model with an electret condenser microphone to make transmissions clearer. Dynamic microphones don’t have the same output strength or clarity as condensers for use in the cockpit.
Some of the latest features to appear in headsets are both innovative and useful. Multi-channel Bluetooth can wirelessly connect MP3 players and cell phones to your headset at the same time. Backup push-to-talk switches; wide-band, “intelligent” ANR attenuation; and helmet-style, integrated headsets are other options to consider.
Finally, don’t skimp on your headset. Think of it as a tool for your trade, and invest accordingly. Your hearing is nothing to be trivial with. Browse our Headset Guide.
PRIVATE PILOT STARTER KITS
The best courses are available in various media, and can be watched on a TV or home computer. Production value is important, since good graphics and clear explanations make learning easier. Look for such key items as:
Some courses will include such extras as a logbook and an Airman’s Information Manual (AIM). Each kit has its own style. ASA (www.asa2fly.com), Jeppesen (www.jeppesen.com), King Schools (www.kingschools.com) and Sporty’s (www.sportys.com) are among the respected companies producing private pilot starter kits.
HANDHELD GPS UNITS
The core function of portable GPS units is to provide navigational and airspace information to the pilot to increase cockpit situational awareness. All major manufacturers accomplish this task, albeit with minor differences; even the most basic units will provide the most used functions. The unique characteristics of each brand’s units include the level of complexity in operating the unit, and additional options that can be added. Features to consider are touch screen versus buttons and dials, battery life, display brightness, highway capability, physical size and ease of use. Advanced features available on more expensive models include XM satellite weather access, traffic display, checklists and interfaces to software and other devices. Low- and high-altitude en route charts, approach charts and airport diagrams are all available by subscription.
Pilots should consider their current needs and future aviation goals when shopping for a portable unit. Since unit prices range from hundreds of dollars into the thousands, it makes sense to buy a unit that will grow with you as you progress in aviation.
Though there are many manufacturers (as well as models), the most popular are Anywhere Map, AvMap, Bendix/King and Garmin.
A popular use of handheld radios is for learning. Instructors will frequently suggest that a student get a portable radio to become familiar with radio communications. In fact, many students who had difficulty with the radio, experiencing “mic fright,” have found that listening to actual communications at their home airport eased the learning process and helped them to use correct phraseology.
Since the primary job of the handheld radio is to communicate, look for one that has adequate output power and can be heard clearly. Have somebody transmit with the unit while you receive, so you can determine if the signal quality is sufficient. Look for long battery life and high output power (making communications clearer). Different accessories are available for most units, including ear buds, remote chargers, carrying cases and various battery options.
Navigation capability is important to some users and less so to others. Proponents say it’s a great backup for standard VOR navigation in an emergency. Detractors say it’s difficult to navigate from the small CDI display of a portable radio. In any case, NAV capability will add to the cost of the device. The most popular manufacturers are Icom, JHP, Maycom, Sporty’s and Vertex Standard. For more, read "Best Handheld Products!"
Comm1 Radio Simulator Software
|It’s Never Too Late To Learn
At 84, Doris Alexander fulfills a lifelong dream
By Pamela Lee
If anybody embodies the adage that “it’s never too late to learn,” it’s Doris Alexander. Born four years before the Great Depression hit, she has lived through World War II, the Space Race, the Kennedy assassination and much more. Though she had long dreamed of piloting an airplane, joking with her late husband that she could fly off of their home’s unusual, horizontal, flat roof, she had never before taken the first step toward a pilot’s license. Following her husband’s death, however, Doris decided to pursue her never-forgotten wish to fly. As she put it, “My husband never let me fly; now, I’m doing all the things I want to do. It was on my bucket list.” In June 2008, she began training for her private pilot certificate with American Flyers (www.americanflyers.net) at Santa Monica Airport.
Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Doris met her future husband, Milo “Sascha” Alexander, a Czechoslovakian, in a refugee camp during World War II. Following the war, in 1951, the married couple immigrated to the United States, settling in Southern California; soon after, they launched the Alexander Machinery Company in Culver City.
We first met up with Doris at Santa Monica’s Typhoon Restaurant on the evening after she passed her oral exam. That night, she was in the mood to celebrate, and she was confident going into the flying portion of the checkride, which had been postponed due to weather. “Yes, I was nervous for the oral,” she explained, “but I studied for it, and I had good training from Frank,” referring to her flight instructor, Frank Yniguez. “I’m not nervous for my checkride.”
Three days later, on December 13, after a lifetime of dreaming, and a year and a half of training and preparation (“I wanted to take my time,” she explained), the 84-year-old became a licensed private pilot. The next day, we became her first passengers as we flew from Santa Monica Airport for a scenic trip over Los Angeles with our newly christened “pilot in command” and Frank. Doris authoritatively guided the Cessna 172 along the Pacific Ocean shoreline before turning inland toward Beverly Hills to fly steep turns over her house. She then took us above the Getty Center, near the Hollywood sign, past Griffith Observatory and over an empty Dodger Stadium before heading back for a perfect landing at SMO.
On the ground, Doris recounted her experiences: “My first solo, I wasn’t nervous at all. I did three patterns, and it was the most amazing thing. On my first cross-country, to Santa Barbara, I was not so calm. I said to Frank, ‘I don’t want to do it on a Friday.’ It’s always so congested in the busy L.A. airspace on Fridays. But we did it on a Friday. At least it wasn’t the 13th! There was some turbulence over the mountains, and near Point Mugu Naval Air Station, I was passed by a formation of military planes. But the landing in Santa Barbara was standard, and on the return leg, I was so happy to hear SMO tower again. I brought them donuts the next day.”
Morgan Deering, American Flyers’ chief pilot and school director, signed off on Doris’ Achievement Performance Review (APR), the FAA’s Part 141 school equivalent of a checkride. “She came prepared and confident for all the maneuvers,” he recounted. “I just had to ask her once, and she knew how to do it—all APRs should be as enjoyable as that.”
Next on her agenda: buying an airplane and flying to Palm Springs, not necessarily in that order. “I don’t have much family anymore, but flying keeps me young and active. And I want to fly to see my friends while they’re still here. That’s why I’m going to Palm Springs, to visit a dear old friend.”
Other aviators who are over the age of 80 and are interested in pursuing flight can get in touch with the United Flying Octogenarians (UFO). Since 1982, the group has had a membership of more than 600 pilots who joined at the age of 80 or older. To learn more, visit www.unitedflyingoctogenarians.org.
|Doris Alexander celebrates her first flight as a certificated private pilot with her instructor, Frank Yniguez (left), and Morgan Deering (right), who signed off on her APR.|