My friend Eirlys is a youthful ball of fire. She’s just 18 years old. As of last week she’s now an official high school graduate, with a diploma to prove it. If all goes well, and weather permitting, she’ll be a brand new private pilot by the end of next week.
She’s really something.
I ran into Eirlys the other day when I stopped into the maintenance shop on my home field, which is coincidentally, the home base of the flight school she’s working with to finish up her training.
Propellerhead Aviation is a classic aviation success story. A work in progress, Propellerhead started out as a one man shop. It grew to a two-man shop, then continued its expansion.
Currently, eight years into its experiment in the general aviation marketplace, the maintenance shop has grown to include several mechanics, an office manager, a parts person, and now a small flight school as well.
Like so many flight students, Eirlys has been through multiple flight instructors to get her to this point. She started her training working with a CFI at her flying club, which also happens to be the flying club I belong to. She swapped instructors there, once, then moved on to Propellerhead to finish up when her CFI at the club started working farther from home and was less available than she needed her to be.
Such is the path into general aviation for so many of us. The journey requires more than money, more than just a drive to meet the goal of mastering specific tasks and demonstrating knowledge of aeronautical principles. It asks flexibility of us, and tasks us with dealing with frustrations we never envisioned when we started.
I was reflecting on all this as Eirlys and I chatted at the maintenance shop. She’s knowledgable, capable, and doing well in her training. I have no doubt she’ll do well on her check-ride next week.But it occurred to me that I’d been in her place once, many years ago, and if there is anything that sticks out about that time for me it is this: I’d focused so hard on achieving the requirements to earn my pilot’s license I completely lost sight of the practical use of the airplane, and the reason I’d wanted to learn to fly in the first place.
When I was in her position I had no friends in general aviation. The only way I got to fly was by paying for it, and those flights were invariably structured (or sometimes less than structured) lessons where I was expected to perform to a specific standard.
Everything was plus or minus 10° degrees, plus or minus 10 knots, plus or minus 100 feet. There was very little time spent on experiencing the joy of flight, or the wonder of seeing the world from high above, the horizon stretching out before me for miles.
I regret that oversight.
As we talked, it occurred to me I was planning on flying to Sebring, Florida, the next morning. It would be just a quick trip, 42 nautical miles to the southwest. But I invited Eirlys to come along. Not to log it as a training flight, not to learn great gobs of wisdom gleaned from my years of flying. Nope, I just asked her to come along for the fun of it.
She jumped at the chance.
It’s been my experience that it’s virtually impossible to fly with another pilot, or pilot in training, without learning something. In this case, it seems we both learned something from each other.
Eirlys learned that the tower rising 420 feet above the ground that’s so easy to pick out on the chart is in fact almost invisible when cruising along at 2,500 feet. She found that a four-lane divided highway running approximately parallel to our route of flight is a perfectly good landmark.
Throughout our outbound leg, she was surprised to find the pilot kept his hands in his lap for the most part, with the airplane trimmed up and on course. That was new for her. There was no need to enter a stall in order to prove I could recover from it, or to bank into a steep turn on the way.
We were using the airplane for its most fundamental purpose – to get from here to there and back again. And that requires very little effort when everything is going right.
What Eirlys taught me, or more accurately, reminded me, is that flying is an amazingly adventurous experience that relatively few humans even attempt. Even fewer persevere for long enough to reach the goal of being able to log time as Pilot in Command.
She showed me how hard a student has to work to maintain her course when headed back home while being distracted by building clouds, circling birds, and other air traffic. And she reminded me how much mental effort has to be expended by a low-time pilot to make good use of the radio while keeping all those needles right where she wanted them to be.
Eirlys is going to be a good pilot, because she’s doing it, and she’s evaluating her own performance, and she’s honestly striving to be better with each new decision she makes. I’d like to think that’s true of me, too. I’m hoping it’s true of you as well.
It’s been said that perspective is everything, and that’s largely true. I’m so glad Eirlys accepted that invitation to go on a short hop to Sebring.
That flight out and back brought back something we can all lose if we’re not careful, and that’s the awareness that having the ability to fly, and to fly safely, is absolutely, undeniably, magical
Even if we’re just straight-and-level on our way to a destination that lies just over the horizon.