Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Learn to Fly: A Practical Guide

Today, it’s easier than ever to fulfill your dream of flying

Though not from any official poll or study, the desire to learn to fly is one of the most often unrealized dreams in our society. I can't count the number of individuals who have said to me, "I always wanted to learn to fly," during a conversation. It's usually said in a wistful voice that trails off into silence. I can see the zeal in their eyes along with the coinciding look of resignation, as if that goal were the most unattainable in the world. "You're so lucky," they add, "I should have just done it." I always reflect and ask, "Why don't you do it now?"

The inference is that, somehow, it's too late. However, learning to fly isn't age restricted. Sure, legendary pilot Bob Hoover hung up his flying goggles as he approached 90 years old, but at 82, he was still flying aerobatics just for the fun of it—in an Extra 300 no less.

Aviation can be learned and experienced at any stage in life, and its rewards can be sweeter with age. Life experiences give new meaning to a sunset viewed from 7,000 feet, and time provides the perspective necessary to appreciate the nuances of our country from the perch of a general aviation aircraft. Whether you're a teenager who was bitten by the flying bug, a middle-ager whose career aspirations derailed the dream of flying for a few decades or a retiree looking to fulfill a long-held goal of flying an airplane, the cliché stands: It's never too late or too soon.

Learning to fly is different from other worldly pursuits, and it's not the province of only the rich or those with "The Right Stuff," though the misconception still holds. It's nothing like earning your scuba certification, or learning to drive a race car or boat, or learning to ballroom dance. Learning to fly changes your life and forever affects who you are. It opens the door to a new world, to new people and even a new way of thinking. It involves training all of your senses to do things they weren't meant to do and developing motor skills that seem unfamiliar at first. Learning to fly is the only pursuit that combines sensory training with learning about science-related concepts like weather, navigation and mechanical systems, and then adds the complexities of federal regulations that govern everything from airspace to certification.

A question I get often is, "Is flying difficult?" The truth—and some pilots won't admit this—is that flying an aircraft is actually pretty easy. The skills necessary to do it safely come in about 20 hours of instruction, and that's the point when a student "solos" (fly the aircraft by themselves). Landing is more difficult from a skills perspective, and like anything that involves muscle memory and motor skills, practice is the key to improving. That's not to trivialize what's involved in learning to fly, because mastering an aircraft is different than just being able to control it, but the essence of flight is something everybody can master.

A reader recently sent in a letter saying he was frustrated with his training because it was taking longer than he expected. His instructor added to his frustration by suggesting he "didn't have what it takes." I encouraged him to stick with it and work through the frustration. I also suggested a different instructor right away. I told this reader the truth—people all learn at different speeds and respond to different styles. He took my advice and recently contacted me to let me know he had soloed and was doing great with a new instructor. What got him over the hump was the realization that there's no "right stuff," and that given enough time and patience, anybody can learn to fly.


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