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Flight Lesson Journal: First Flight, or The Beginning of the End

Flying over Sand Harbor, Lake Tahoe, during a first flight lesson
Flying over Sand Harbor, Lake Tahoe

Making Lifelong Dreams Reality, and Catching the Disease

Recently I’ve decided to make the leap and get my private pilot’s license! What follows is the second in a series detailing the process of getting my private pilot certificate, and more specifically, my first flight. To read part one, click here.

My Pre-Flight Checklist

Behind me, a huge whiteboard sat on the floor, propped up against the wall of the office. On it was everything I needed to finish before I left for my flight lesson; a chronological list of articles and assignments counting down to 2pm. Each time I swiped my finger across the shiny white surface, wiping clean a task off the list, 2pm got closer and closer, and my stomach twisted into shapes I’ve never even heard of before. But I suppose, I’ve never flown a plane before, either.

It was the day of my second flight lesson, and we were planning on going airborne for my first flight as a student pilot. I kept an eye on the wind all through the morning, but the forecast and the office window promised a beautiful fall day in the mountains. I scanned over the small collection of plane knowledge I’d gleaned from an hour or so of online ground school: Ailerons for roll, elevator for pitch, rudder for yaw. Take off into head winds, lift and speed are not the same.

En route to My First Flight:

Shortly after 1:30pm, I was tripping over myself on the way to my car, lugging my backpack and the Bose A20 Aviation headset I was set to review. I was running late, yet again, due to the construction traffic and poor planning. Luckily, when I went to text my flight instructor that I might be a bit late, I saw that she had already texted me the exact same message. I laughed out loud and relinquished myself over to glee and excitement and disregarded the clock. (I still got there first!)

After we met inside Sierra Aero Flight School, Sarah and I headed outside, where the plane was parked by the last student pilot. Walking slowly toward the white Cessna 172m, Sarah instructed me to take in the “big picture,” admiring and examining the plane from far away, so that during the pre-flight checklist I wouldn’t miss the forest for the trees. Sticking your nose close to every rivet and airflow vent is fun and all, but if you missed some serious structural damage, you’re in for a bad flight.

After walking around the plane, we shoved our gear into the back seat, which immediately cemented the scene into reality. I was pleased to see the burnt orange of the 70’s cockpit in the storage compartment behind the seats. Anything with carpeted walls and floors is good in my book; there’s few things groovier than orange-brown carpeted walls!

Anticipation Builds

Stepping out of the cockpit, Sarah instructed me to grab the laminated pre-flight checklist from a pocket just inside the door. Starting at the wheel struts, we checked the tiny, disconcerting brake pads (the ones on my mountain bike are bigger than the ones on this plane!), checked every air intake outlet, learned a few more acronyms, made sure there were no cats or critters taking shelter under the cowl, and worked our way around the Cessna 172m’s 36’ wing span. We refilled the oil with the help of the Sierra Aero mechanic, Jeff, who also owns the two training planes for the flight school.

Once we made it back inside the cockpit, we went through the rest of the pre-flight checklist by checking the instruments and adjusting as needed. And then, all of a sudden we were buckling our seatbelts and putting on our headsets, getting ready to roll to the runway.

“On take-off, we’re going to want to turn 90 degrees to the right, and slowly, carefully turn ourselves back towards the lake.”

I nodded my understanding, but I was confused why she was telling me this; surely she would be flying the plane? At least steering and stuff right?

Sarah had me line myself up with the center line on the runway using the foot pedals, and gave me a couple more instructions and then told me to push in the throttle. We were off!

Oh Lordy, Here We Go

flight lesson journal 2
Me and my flight instructor Sarah from Sierra Aero Flight School at the Truckee-Tahoe Airport.

Rocketing down the runway for what felt like half a second, watching the dying fall grass bleed into a greenish-gold smear of landscape as we picked up speed, and then all of a sudden, we pulled away from the earth. I would transcribe the events that followed, but after I realized we were actually, literally, physically flying, and that I was controlling the plane, more than a few explicative’s slipped out (due to pure, unadulterated happiness). Warning: how jubilant I felt is going to come across as incredibly cheesy, so bear with me. The emotion train hasn’t stopped yet.

How many times have I dreamt of this exact moment? The moment where I broke my ties with the earth and experienced ascension. It was like having a small amount of faith, spending your life questioning and doubting, and then meeting your God face to face; my entire view changed. Something inside me knew that I would never be the same. It was like I could truly breathe for the first time, inundating my lungs with the thin, intoxicating air of freedom- via airplane. However, it was less intoxicating than it was clarifying; I understood deep in my chest that this was where I was supposed to be.

Once we climbed to an acceptable altitude (and I started coming down from my adrenaline high), Sarah instructed me to turn the plane, which banked us so sharply I was looking right between the wing and the wing strut at the tips of the pines and patches of snow dusting the mountains. It felt amazing. I personally love driving, and previously believed that driving on a smooth road with the windows down and the tunes up was the freest and happiest I could be, and flying a plane blew that notion so far out of the water I watched it burn up as it exited the atmosphere.

“For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you long to return.” attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci

I turned to either side a few more times to get the feel for it, foot jammed on the right rudder pedal the whole time, due to one of the many quirks of the communal student plane. Once we leveled out, Sarah advised me to make a wide turn so that we could head the opposite way and fly over the lake. I followed my thumbs (“Thumbs up, ailerons up!”) all the way around in a sharp circle, imagining the tip of my wing stuck on a pivot that I could spin around. It wasn’t that neat, unfortunately, but for my first flight I was pretty proud.

flight lesson journal 2
Sand Harbor, Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Beginners Luck

“Wow, I’ve been working on training private pilots on 60 degree turns and there you go, doing it like it was nothing!” Sarah joked. I grinned wider than I thought was capable, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t blush a little bit. Brushing away the compliment, I reply, half-joking, “Beginners luck! Once I know what I’m doing, I probably won’t be able to do it.”

We continued chatting and turning and getting incredibly close to the granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada’s, as we continued toward Lake Tahoe, aiming our nose toward Sand Harbor.

“I can see my house from here!” I cried facetiously, pointing in the general direction of Kings Beach as we flew over. As anyone who’s seen an aerial view of the Lake Tahoe Basin knows, all you can see is trees, trees, and more trees. I suppose, the occasional parking lot is visible, but even the rooftops of most houses are painted forest green. I was just so giddy with excitement I couldn’t hold back the urge to make lame jokes.

Once we passed the shore and officially sailed over the sapphire depths of Lake Tahoe, we did some more maneuvering and even had the opportunity to take some amazing pictures of the scenery. Even having lived in the Basin for years, experiencing a new view was a thrilling experience. I wanted to see how low I could get to the surface, but there was a bit of turbulence and Sarah thought it would be unwise. She was probably right.

Alpine Aviation Adventure

After we got our fill of the smooth rocks stacked and protruding from the water, the shimmering strips of sandy beaches, and the ever-changing undulation of the deep blue waves set against a backdrop of purple, snow-capped mountains, we decided to climb the walls of the Basin and do a little more sight-seeing. With Sarah working the trim tabs and giving me advice, I managed to get us over the mountains, where we flew through a pass that opened up right over Marlette Lake, one of the thousands of lakes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and a popular day trip spot. It was here that I decided to try a maneuver that I had experienced as a passenger flying with Bryan Stewart, an experienced pilot and one of the original Disciples of Flight, when I traveled with him and his wife to Auburn for a $100 breakfast burrito not too long ago.

The goal of the maneuver was to get us as close to perpendicular to the landscape as I felt I could do safely, or before Sarah decides enough was enough and takes back the controls. I wanted to try flying on a knifes edge so that we could gaze directly deep into the secluded alpine lake, like I was lucky enough to do when Bryan flew us over Donner Lake. Unfortunately, my incredibly limited piloting experience (about a whole hour of experience at this point in the flight) only got me around the 60 degree mark before Sarah instructed me to level her back out and point the nose back to the Truckee-Tahoe Airport.

I felt like a petulant child told to go to bed without supper. “We’re going back already?” I whined. “Can we just not land and say we did?”

Sarah laughed, and said, “As much as I would love that, I have a night flight scheduled at 5pm with another student.” I grabbed my heart in mock despair, gave her my best puppy dog eyes, and eventually turned the plane left, back toward the “267 corridor;” a flight path that follows the 267 freeway and leads from the lake back to the airport.

As we got closer to the airport, Sarah instructed me to begin our descent. Together, we got the plane all nice and dirty and prepared for landing, and she lined us up over the runway.

The Beginning of the End

“Aim for the numbers,” Sarah said, pointing at the huge white 2-9 painted on the asphalt, and down we went. Though she said I landed the plane, I’m close to 100% positive all I did was pull up on the yoke when she told me to. Sarah must have been adjusting everything else, or else I’m sure the landing wouldn’t have gone so well!

The moment before our tires touched down was filled with panic. Maybe it was something about the ground being right there, all the chaotic skid marks slapped across the runway, or maybe it was all the stories I’ve heard about touching down on your front wheel first and flipping the plane like a cardboard glider toy, but I was white-knuckling the yoke and biting my lip from a second or two before we touched, to the jolt of our weight being deposited from the air to the earth.

“The secret of flight is this — you have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws.” Michael Cunningham, A Home at the End of the World

Once we were firmly planted on the ground and steering ourselves back to the hangar with our toes, the panic dissipated and the excitement returned. I just landed a plane! Or, rather, I played a small part in landing a plane, and that is still very, very cool. We traveled down the yellow lines until we turned off on Foxtrot and made our way toward the Bravo hangars, where Sarah took the reins and backed us into a good spot. When we got out of the plane (or rather, when Sarah gracefully got out of the plane and I fell out, tangled in my headphones and my seatbelt) I found that my legs were replaced with tubes of jelly sometime after takeoff. I was planted in disbelief and life-changing glee and my poor little knees were quivering like spaghetti. I just flew a plane! And landed- alive!

A pilot's headset hanging from the yolk, found in small airplanes.
Flying in Small Airplanes: A Passenger’s Perspective

I am not a pilot. But I am lucky enough to have a good friend who is. And a few times a month, I get to join him as he takes to the skies in a small, single engine Cessna. And every time I get to go flying, particularly in small airplanes, I’m struck by two things:

1 – Flying is not something I should be able to do.

2 – Flying appears, for such an incredible result, to be accomplished with a string of surprisingly small motions. [Click here to read more…]

Sarah fetched a junkyard chic-lawnmower looking thing from the hangar, and affixed it to the front tire. I realized that it was a motorized version of the little red tow bar I saw Bryan use a few weeks earlier. Sarah attempted to convince me that you can buy a motorized tug like that, but watching her unsuccessfully pull-start it like a lawnmower a few times made me sure than the airport mechanic must have Frankenstein’d the machine in his garage from an old lawnmower and some metal tubes.

When the Cessna 172 made it back into the hangar safely, we busied ourselves with keeping her warm overnight. We plugged a cord into the engine somewhere, and put a sleeping bag over the cowl. As we were tucking her in, I asked Sarah if the plane had a name. She laughed and said no; “Maybe you should give her one?” Sarah suggested. I beamed at the concept, but didn’t, and still don’t, think it’s my place to name someone else’s plane. I mean, I just barely met her.

flight lesson journal 2
The Truckee-Tahoe Airport at sunset.

After we made it back to Sierra Aero Flight School to take care of the business end of the lesson, we set about arranging my next lesson. I doubted whether I could go a whole week without flying; a peculiar feeling. Like it was necessary to me, like air or water and without flight, my heart would slowly dim and fade. I was determined to have another lesson before the week is out. Between having to reserve Sarah and reserve the Cessna 172 separately, it took a bit of finagling, but we made it happen. I made sure to tell her a couple times (read: eight times) that if any students ever canceled, I could get from the office to the cockpit in 45 minutes, so she should keep me on speed dial. Sarah gave me a bright, kind smile and said, “So you liked it, huh?”

There weren’t enough words to describe how much I fell in love with flying on my first flight, so I could do was laugh.

Carly Courtney graduated summa cum laude with her BFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College nestled in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Carly is still there, living the dream writing articles and flying (as a student pilot) whenever she can!