By Alexa Paprosky.
The only thing I had ever piloted before my intro flight had four legs, a mane and a tail. I was type rated in thoroughbreds and had only soloed airframes with hooves and brains.
I walked into the hangar expecting to see a Clydesdale of a machine, but instead was faced with an aircraft more akin to a pony — a tiny, yellow pony.
Bred by Robinson, Bravo Charlie was an R22 helicopter that would eventually teach me how to trade my reins for a cyclic and collective and exchange stirrups for pedals.
Two days before my first flight lesson, I was totally in the dark.
In the metaphorical sense, I was feeling a little bit lost as a college freshman trying to pick the most lucrative major, and in the literal sense, I was in a movie theater. Seeking an escape from the drama of dorm life, I went to see “Earth,” a Disney nature documentary.
At one point in the movie, there was footage of a helicopter being utilized for aerial filming purposes. With one hand shoved deep into a bag of popcorn and the other pointing at the aircraft, I turned to my friend and said, “That’s it. That’s what I want to do.”
Armed with the college student survival kit of instant ramen and a quadruple shot caffeine concoction, I abandoned whatever assignments I was supposed to complete to instead search for local helicopter flight schools.
A Groupon, coupled with an apparent lack of concern for my own mortality, led me to scheduling an introductory flight — and the beginning of an obsession.
Decked out in shorts and a horrifically patterned shirt with long flowing sleeves, an ensemble I quickly learned was not ideal for preflight purposes, I walked into the flight school filled with excitement.
After signing my life away on a waiver, I was led out into the hangar by my first flight instructor. With two headsets in hand, she walked me over to what I was certain was a glorified go-kart. Bravo Charlie’s airframe left little to the imagination and the exposure of its components was unsettling to my extremely untrained eye.
Then it got worse. The pilot’s petite stature was suddenly more intimidating as she went through all of the ways in which a helicopter could essentially lead you to 6 feet below the ground instead of above it. This portion of the lesson was called “awareness training,” part of SFAR 73, although at the time I thought it should have been called “run away while you still can” training.
It was an experience similar to a horse trainer telling me that the horse I was about to ride had an extremely volatile temperament and would most likely buck me off its back immediately. Fear, however, quickly translated into intrigue and Bravo Charlie was wheeled outside for takeoff.
Upon climbing into the helicopter, my instructor realized my vertical deficiency — I could not reach the pedals and they could not be adjusted. I was given a cushion to place behind my back to correct this problem and that cushion would soon become one of my permanent flying accessories.
I made a joke to my instructor about how I constantly had to adjust stirrups on saddles to shorten them. That is when my instructor revealed that in addition to being a pilot, she was a horse trainer. I was thrilled beyond belief and instantly hooked.
I likened the setup of the aircraft’s dual controls to a driver’s education car and the ability of the instructor to take over helped pacify my nerves. It did not take long to recognize a cyclic, collective and pedals required a much more refined degree of input than the steering wheel of a car.
My instructor let me test out each control in flight and the T-bar cyclic’s need for a precise hand fascinated and terrified me at the same time. I could not possibly understand how someone could ever utilize all of the controls in unison. My instructor executed her inputs with a finesse that produced a perfect harmony between the controls and the aircraft. I wanted nothing more than to learn how to acquire that same feeling.
When we landed, I had to mentally drag myself out of the aircraft.
I remember going to amusement parks as a child and screaming “again, again” at the completion of a roller coaster ride in hopes that the operator would satisfy my request. I had that exact same feeling when the rotors stopped moving and we were safe to exit the machine.
My instructor filled out my first logbook entry and I was eager to start filling up the pages. I wondered then if instructors were able to immediately dictate the odds of an intro flight student actually returning for more or if the interest was only fleeting.
As a child, people always told me that riding horses was a phase and that I would eventually grow out of it and move on to other activities. It has been 16 years since I started riding and, so far, I have yet to lose an ounce of interest in horses. My intro flight led to flying joining the ranks with my equine addiction.
Later on in my training, I would learn the value of how riding and flying complemented each other in a way that promoted a transferrable skill set. My flight instructor would describe certain flight maneuvers as being similar to a riding maneuver, and this was extremely helpful for my understanding of how my inputs would affect the aircraft’s response.
The parallels between riding and flying continue to be unveiled and the connection between the two only further fuels my adoration of both.
When I got back to my dorm room after my intro flight, I put my logbook in a location where I was sure to keep it away from any inadvertent Starbucks spills.
I found my movie ticket stub from “Earth” and put it into my logbook, where it still is stapled today.