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Confessions of a Student Pilot

Over the past 5 years I have more than earned my right to be called a student pilot. Between when I was 12 years old and now I have attended 3 different flight schools, passed my FAA Written Exam twice, and been lightheartedly made fun of by CFIs for rookie mistakes countless times. It’s been said that it’s about the journey, not the destination, and this rings incredibly true in the world of aviation. I have learned more about life and passion through aerospace than I ever learned in my standard high school curriculum. I have been taught discipline, self-control, dedication, logical thinking... All through my experiences in chasing my dream of becoming a pilot.

I hope to help other student pilots remember why they are doing this. It can be such a challenge to continue training when you feel you are stuck in a rut, or you will never achieve the dream that we all chase after. I have compiled a few observations or "confessions," if you will, that have stuck out to me during my journey. A few come with stories, a few are simply food for thought. Here are my confessions of a student pilot.

Keep your training consistent. This may seem obvious, but it keeps many student pilots from advancing quickly enough to reach their full potential. It is far better to wait and save up enough money for a flight lesson every week or so than to attend your flight school sporadically. For the first 3 years of my training I could only afford one lesson every month (between allowance and babysitting money that wasn’t too bad!) If I could go back and do it again, I would have saved up for a year or so and had lessons sequentially in just a couple months. In having to wait, I kept relearning the same concepts every month and was nowhere near reaching my full potential.

Don’t be scared to be assertive. On June 19th, 2013 I was on a routine flight with my instructor, going around the traffic pattern at Capital City airport. As my instructor continually pointed out, I was spending too much time with my eyes glued to the instrument panel and not enough time looking outside. As I turned for my downwind leg, he held a sheet of paper over the instrument panel to stop my nervous eyes from glancing inside too much. I huffed a bit, then began making a call to other traffic that I was on downwind. "Capital City traffic, Cessna -" my heart sank. I hadn’t memorized our tail number yet and the sheet of paper was obscuring my view of it. Without skipping a beat, I forcefully moved (read: slapped) my instructor’s hand out of the way, read the tail number off, and finished my radio call. I immediately felt bad and apologized for what I had done, but I had never seen my instructor so thrilled. "That’s what I’m talking about! THAT was a pilot in command move. If you know what you need to do, don’t ask my permission." The very next day I was endorsed and did my first solo flight. Which is the perfect segway into my next point...

Your solo IS as big of a deal as everyone says. Let’s say you have comprehended enough knowledge to safely takeoff and land an aircraft, and your instructor has enough faith in your abilities to let you do it completely by yourself. Congratulations, it’s time to fly solo! The whole ordeal in and of itself isn’t a big change from your previous lessons, as you have probably done exactly the same routine of taking off and landing many times before your instructor steps out. The real value and importance of a solo isn’t in the fact that there is one less passenger, it is that YOU are now the pilot in command. According to Federal Aviation Regulation 91.3, "The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft." You are now the CEO head honcho in charge of all aspects of safely executing your current flight mission. The boost of confidence that a student pilot gains after safely landing their first solo flight is astronomical. Celebrate this accomplishment and truly think about what it means to now be the pilot in command.

Networking is everything. I am a first-generation pilot. Nobody in my family has any ties to aviation, besides a strange obsession with warbirds my father and grandfather share. When I first started my flight training I felt like a very tiny fish in a very huge pond. All that I knew was that becoming a pilot was extremely expensive, difficult, and overwhelming... but that I absolutely could not live my life without doing it. I had not met a single female pilot in my first two years of training, but I knew they had to be out there. I began doing google searches, talking to family friends, and subscribed to seven different flight magazines in an attempt to gain an understanding of the general aviation community as a whole. Through a family friend I came in contact with a female UPS pilot, and she introduced me to the Ninety-Nines. From there I learned about Women in Aviation, AOPA, EAA, NBAA, all of these crazy acronyms which represented different organizations in the aviation community. I have met tons of interesting people who have taken a genuine interest in my future as a pilot, and I have learned so much about the different pathways that are available to me in the aerospace industry. Having a good network to support you is incredibly important for an aspiring pilot.

Do not give up. The most important "confession" I have for fellow student pilots is to not give up, no matter how difficult it becomes. Keep trying. Stay motivated. There have been times in my training where I have been completely overwhelmed and felt very unsure as to whether or not I would actually achieve my dreams. When this happens, I like to take a step back and evaluate what really draws me to aviation in the first place. I watch episodes of The Aviators, or read aviation literature and really soak in the pure beauty and freedom that a pilot can obtain. The challenge is half the fun, however daunting it may seem. I encourage all student pilots to really think about what keeps them going and to cling to it until they finally reach the day of achieving their ultimate goals.

Nellie and Abe, and the Grace They Provide

On September 21, I dropped by the Grace on Wings Family Aviation Festival and Hog Roast at the Indianapolis International Airport. Coming from the south end of the airport (which is mostly under construction and fenced off), I begin to wonder if I was lost – soon there were signs that guided me in. I found a hangar full of life and activity!

Bidders gather for the final moments of the silent auction.

The star attraction of the day seemed to be the Silent Auction. Tables and tables full of items up for grabs! Most of the hangar was filled with patrons of the hog roast – picnic tables with pulled pork and all the trim. The can’t miss vendor table near the entrance was packed with figurines of all sizes carved from olive wood grown in Bethlehem. Plus bouncy castles for the kids in the background let you know this truly was for the whole family.

The festival was to raise funds for Grace on Wings, the nation’s only charity air ambulance service. I spoke with Hal Blank, CEO and Chief Pilot, about this festival; with a turnout of over 1,100 over the course of the day, he was very pleased. "We always pray to at least break even. We’ve been doing this for seven years, and this event was one of our best! We served over 600 meals (at $10/adult, $5/child), plus the silent auction was huge. We also gave 71 free flights to kids as part of EAA Young Eagles program. But the largest success is always getting the word out about ourselves and telling about the opportunities we've had to be able to help families in need. In fact, many of our patients were there to celebrate with us Saturday!"

This little piggie was pretty much decimated by the crowd!

Grace on Wings was inspired by the need of two young Indianapolis girls who suffered from a genetic bone disorder that required regular visits to a Baltimore specialist -- more than 11 hours away by car. With the support of charitable funding, they provide transport to patients who are needing to go long distances for important treatment throughout the United States. Their two air ambulances, "Nellie" and "Abe", two customized Mitsubishi MU-2B Turboprops, were on hand outside the hangar for all to see. Both are equipped with oxygen, oxygen saturation monitors, portable ventilator, cardiac monitors, baby pods, defibrillators and more.

Blank shared the stories behind each aircraft’s name. "Nellie is named after Nell Wood, a missionary nurse who travelled the world. She was a member of the First Presbyterian Church, and they funded the original $10,000 seed money for Grace on Wings to purchase the aircraft, so it was named in her honor."

"Nellie" sitting outside the hanger for all to see.

"When Nellie needed to undergo routine maintenance, we needed to purchase a second aircraft since she was going to unable to make runs during that time. We went to Farmer’s Bank (who financed the purchase of Nellie) for additional funds, and they stepped up for us again. Since the registration of this one was 777LP, we took the LP to mean the "Lord’s Promise", so Abraham was the obvious choice. Abe served five families while Nellie was down."

How a patient would be transported in "Abe" .

Blank also explained that with the two different models come different advantages. "Nellie is a J-model, which sits lower to the ground. So loading is easier – we can use a 400-pound loading system with her. Abe, the 36A-model, is the best choice for long distance flights.

For more information on Grace on Wings and the services they provide, plus how you can participate, check them out here

A Feast for the Eyes: EAA Sport Aviation Weekend, Part 2

This is a continuation of my article on the 39th annual Kentucky EAA Sport Aviation Weekend. To see Part 1, click here.

We moved over to a beautiful little Cessna 172L Skyhawk, and chatted with its owner Keith Mountain. Keith, a native Australian, stateside for 35 years now, still has a strong hint of an accent that sets him apart from the Kentucky twangers (like myself at times). He explained that he has owned this Skyhawk for about three years – he sought it out for the 180hp constant speed prop conversion, plus the fact that both windows open. The latter was important for him since he does a lot of aerial photography.

Keith grew up with flying, as the farms where he worked frequently used cropdusters in the fields. When we joined the Australian army, he worked with C130s, Bell 212s and Caribous. He got all his ratings 25 years ago when he was considering a career in aviation.

Finally, we chatted with Jerry Depew from Knoxville, and his son Jeremy Hunt. They flew in with their Bonanza 35 C-model V-tail – Jerry joked that they were both "built in the same year – 1951". His Bonanza still has the original 185/205 hp engine, and has only replaced the glass and cylinders – other than a major overhaul, it’s a stock airplane. He’s owned it the same amount of time he’s been married – 17 years. "I asked her permission and she waivered. I thought about it, but kept her anyway!"

When I asked about what got him interested in flying, it was a family affair for him as well. "My father had an airplane, so when I was first flying I couldn’t see out of the windows! I could only see the ground when he turned left base or left for final."

Jerry also shared how he got his first job in aviation. "I just got my driver’s license – since I loved aviation, my first drive was to the airport. The pilots that hung out there asked if I was there to apply for the job. ‘What job?’ was my reply. They needed a lineman, and I asked what they do. So I spoke with the man in charge and got the job. I wound up endorsing my paychecks over to a flight instructor and got my license that year."

Jerry, the editor of the Knoxville EAA newletter, also enjoys collecting aviation stories like me, and shared a gem he heard from Peter Koza in Louisville. "Flying is NOT expensive. The cost of therapy and anti-depressants ARE expensive! Besides, if you take anti-depressants, you have no medical to fly, no libido, no sex, and then you are REALLY depressed!"

Enjoy these additional photos from the 39th annual Kentucky EAA Sport Aviation Weekend!

A Feast for the Eyes: EAA Sport Aviation Weekend, Part 1

The weather was perfect this weekend for a countryside drive from Louisville to the Falls of Rough. There, at Rough River State Park’s airport (2I3) was the 39th annual Kentucky EAA Sport Aviation Weekend, where pilots and aviation enthusiasts from Kentucky and surrounding areas to get together for the weekend. Activities, beyond the typical aircraft sightseeing and meeting old friends (or making new ones), included a poker run, spot landing contest, a Friday night hospitality room, and a Saturday evening banquet.

When my wife and I arrived, the poker run was underway, so many pilots were in the air. But there was still about 30 aircraft of many varieties hanging around, with their pilots grabbing from brats, burgers and potato salad, and sharing their experiences. We wondered around, snapping photos and talking to a few until the batteries on my camera faded away.

Nathan Robertson was minding his parent’s 1950 Cessna 195 when I wondered over – they were off chatting with some friends. His wife was changing their baby’s diaper in the back seat, which made me wonder if a car seat in an aircraft is still called a "carseat".

While his parents, Phillip and Tia, are career commercial pilots, Nathan only recently got his license. "Growing up around aviation, I took it for granted – if I wanted to go flying, I’d just ask them to take me up. When my friends wanted to go flying, and mentioned that they wanted to be adopted by my parents so they could be taken up like that, I began to realize this was something I wanted as well. I got my license in January, plan to get all my ratings, and possibly make a career out of it myself."

We also discussed the difficulty the younger generation faces when pursuing their licenses – Nathan had an approach to consider to fast-track it. "Get books and DVDs, study and get the written exam out of the way first. That way you can just do 20-25 hours flying to save expenses. Most people, like myself, focus on flying first because it’s more fun, but that can stretch out your training time and cost. However, if you decide to make a career out of it, in the grand scheme of things it’s really not that expensive!"

Part 2 of this article can be found here. In the meantime, enjoy these additional photos!

A Conversation with the Next Generation of Pilots

The Kentucky Institute for Aerospace Education (KIAE) is a one-of-a-kind endeavor, currently networking 20 high schools in the state to provide students direct experiences in aeronautical engineering, flight, aircraft maintenance, and space systems. When I asked Tim Smith, Director of Frankfort High School’s Aviation program and CIO for KIAE, why this was important, he said, "Programs like these will lead to more students enrolling in post-secondary opportunities in flight/aeronautics, aircraft maintenance, aeronautical engineering, space systems engineering, aerospace computer engineering, air traffic control, and aviation management/operations. Another important element of expansion is that potential grant opportunities and other sponsorships examine viability and scale of the initiative. So, it is important to show its implementation in a variety of environments. In short, the more students that are studying aerospace, the more that will enter the workforce."

Three of their students got to experience a different end of the spectrum when they rode along with a gathering of Yakolevs at Bowman Field in Louisville, KY (just outside GlobalAir.com’s office). See more on the gathering itself here. I spent a few minutes with Michael Dahl, Jason Smith and Seth Padgett just before they climbed into their respective cockpits for a bit of formation flying.

Michael Dahl climbing into a Yak to experience formation flying.

GlobalAir: What inspired each your interests in aviation?

Michael Dahl: My uncle took me flying in an open-air cockpit bi-plane right here at Bowman Field when I was 11 years old, and that summer I flew on a commercial airliner on our vacation to California - all that exposure to flying in a short amount of time got my attention. When I found there was an aviation-related program at Frankfort High School, I made sure to get involved!

Jason Smith: My mother often took me to the airport as a baby to let the sounds of aircraft calm me, so I’ve been interested a long time! I knew after seeing "Top Gun" that I wanted to be a fighter pilot – I even dressed like Maverick for Halloween once.

GA: You’re too tall to play Tom Cruise!

JS: (laughs) Well, this was a while ago. Then I got involved with the aviation program at school. I was also motivated by learning about the various mission aviation programs that exist when I was at Oshkosh, so I’ve also become interested in contributing there.

Seth Padgett: I was born in Germany, so I’ve been on aircraft since I was a child flying back and forth to visit family. I became more seriously involved through an aviation camp where we did flight planning, and from there Tim Smith turned me on to the KIAE program in Frankfort.

Jason Smith receiving a safety briefing on riding along in the Yak.

GA: What have been the biggest obstacles for each of you in pursuing your pilot’s licenses?

MD: I was always concerned about "what if there’s a problem during flight"? I had to tell myself to get past it and stop being afraid to try.

JS: For me, it’s the number of hoops you have to jump thru, plus the financial burden. But, even though it’s a cliché, you truly can do anything you set your mind to do.

SP: It’s so much easier to get a driver’s license – take a test, drive an instructor around, and you’re done. Earning your pilot’s license is such a time investment; it’s easy to get discouraged. You have to remind yourself that you will get there, just be patient and stay focused!

GA: We, in the aviation industry, already know that bringing youth to aviation is vital to growing the industry. So what would you want to share with kids your age that may be interested, but intimidated, by flying?

SP: Statistically speaking, flying is very safe. When you see how many check-ups and tests you have to do to become a pilot and take care of your aircraft, you’ll see there’s nothing to be intimidated by.

MD: If you’ve never flown before, or are scared of flying, find an airport and see if anyone is willing to take you up and experience it for yourself. Learn more about airplanes & how they work - that’s how I got hooked!

JS: I agree – get up and fly! Talking about it isn’t enough!

Seth Padgett scoping the taxi path as they maneuver for takeoff.

GA: Lastly, what do you plan to do with your licenses – personal enjoyment, or career aspirations?

MD: Right now, mostly personal enjoyment. It’s still a little early for me to look beyond to career options.

JS: I mentioned earlier about being a fighter pilot and doing missionary work – which requires mechanical knowledge as well, so I’m putting focus there too.

SP: I’d like to fly for the Air Force initially. Afterward, I’ll likely transition to flying for services like UPS, FedEx, Delta – many options! But also personal enjoyment for sure!

Shortly after our conversations, all six pilots met and discussed formations, with the three boys listening intently. The students then met with the pilots of their Yaks and got personal instructions for their safety and knowledge about occupying the second seat. I marveled at the focus they all had on the task at hand as I snapped a few pictures – my presence wasn’t even registering anymore. They were now sponges, soaking in everything about the aircraft they were climbing aboard!

A few gallons of avgas were added, the Yaks (and their accompanying Cessna 172R and Christen Eagle II) taxied out and took to the air. I managed to catch a couple of passes over Bowman Field before I had to leave for another appointment, so I didn’t get to stick around to get their impressions afterward. But I think it was safe to assume that it was nothing but joy and excitement all around!

Watch the Yaks, 172 and Christen Eagle taxi out for takeoff!

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