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I am a neonatologist (a doctor who takes care of premature and sick newborns). I accidentally got into flying in 1979, when I was in my second year of residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida. I had never thought of becoming a pilot but was invited by another resident to attend a presentation by a flight school in the hospital cafeteria. It was 7:30 at night and I had not eaten anything all day (Jackson Memorial is the third-busiest hospital in the country after Cook County’s Chicago hospital and LA County, and it was not unusual to go all day on only a few snacks).
In the cafeteria, I found a portly looking guy with a few flyers about learning how to fly and how much fun it would be. He invited us (I think there were only three or four residents there) for a free introductory lesson, and then came the clincher—reduced rates for the poor residents: $75 for a wet plane and the instructor for an hour. Needless to say, I swallowed the bait and showed up at Opa Locka Exec (KOPF) the next Saturday, even though I could hardly afford $75 per hour for flying lessons. At the time, I was making $15,000 per year and was supplementing it by moonlighting at another hospital in West Palm Beach, about 80 miles away. I rationalized my decision by telling myself that it would be safer to fly there than to be stuck in traffic on I-95 (the things we can convince ourselves of).
Training started in an old Cessna 150 that could have used a paint job. I soloed and flew a few more hours beyond that, but I was working two jobs and was on call every third night. I had only one weekend off a month, which most of the time I spent moonlighting, so flying lessons became infrequent. Studying for my medical board exams for pediatrics and then neonatology took precedence, and I never found time to take the FAA written test. I joined LSU as assistant professor, got married, had kids, got divorced and forgot about flying.
Fast forward to 1984, when I moved back to Florida to start my own private practice. I frequently interacted with an anesthesiologist who was a pilot with his own Moony. He frequently talked about flying to Bahamas for fishing and how much fun it was. That ignited my flying passion, and I wanted to start flying again. However, because of the pressures of establishing a new practice, neonatal patient care, administrative duties and growing family obligations, it did not happen till 1996.
I restarted flying lessons once again, this time along with my wife (girlfriend at the time). With my friend’s recommendation, we started flying lessons at a local school. The owner was the CFI as well. He was young, very personable and had three reasonably decent Zenith airplanes. This time I enjoyed the process. He was pretty thorough in his teaching, and I soloed at about 20 hours.
Things were going well until my future wife experienced a bird strike while taking off. The engine quit, but fortunately she and her instructor were able to land safely. At the time, I had about 35 hours under my belt and was feeling relatively comfortable flying the plane. I was pretty confident that I would be able to finish the process that I started 17 years ago. However, the bird strike scared her so much about flying that it put our impending wedding in jeopardy.
To be honest, I did continue to fly for a few weeks after her incident. I soloed again and was on my first solo cross country when I had a really rough flight and then a difficult landing due to very unstable and gusty winds. The combination of my harrowing flight and her incident effectively put an end to my desire to continue with my training.
Two years ago, I retired and found plenty of free time on my hands. Our house happens to be right under the final approach for runway 4 of Southwest Florida International (KRSW) airport, and my wife often found me looking up to watch the landing airplanes. One day, out of the blue, she said, “I know PPL is one of the things you have on your bucket list. You are 66 years old and retired, so go start ticking off the list.”
So, last year I restarted taking flying lessons. I was a little slower but more mature and patient, so things were going really well—until I went for my medical certificate. In the intervening years, I had a coronary artery stent placed in my heart. Therefore, I needed to supply the FAA a ton of medical documents for my medical clearance. Fortunately, being a physician, it wasn’t a difficult process except for the wait. The FAA took 11 months to review my records and grant me my third-class medical certificate.
A year ago, I began again. I have been taking weekly flying lessons, with a break of three months due to the delay in obtaining the medical certificate. I passed my written test without problems and have logged 70 hours. I am having some trouble with flaring the plane at landing. The school is pretty finicky about safety, so my instructor won’t let me go solo until all my landings are buttery smooth. At my age, that is probably not a bad idea. I am hoping that I will be able to go solo within the next week or so. Ten hours of solo time for a PPL should not take too much time, and I am hopeful that I will be able to call myself a private pilot within the next two months. After that, I will rightfully be able to boast to my kids that I have never not finished a project that I started.