There is a universal truth for pilots. It has to do with the journey that got them from being a dedicated ground-pounder to an occasional inhabitant of the air.
That first flight lesson was a little intimidating. Exciting, but not altogether comfortable. There tend to be a few nerve endings waving around loose. This flying thing isn’t for the faint of heart, after all.
For those of us who make it through those first few lessons, the reward is a sneaking suspicion that grows over time. It suggests that maybe, just maybe, we have a shot at this.
Slow flight wasn’t so tough. Power-off stalls were actually kind of fun. Power-on stalls, well that’s another story, but we got through them. And ground reference maneuvers — they can be frustrating when the wind is high, but on the nicer days they’re a cake walk.
Then comes our solo. For most new pilots that momentous event comes as a complete surprise.
My first solo took place in a Piper Cherokee. Although the event itself happened decades ago, I have a vivid memory of how large and spacious the cockpit felt without a second body in it. The takeoff roll struck me as being surprisingly short, which it was. The airplane was 200 pounds lighter.
As the wheels stopped spinning, the nose remained stable in a climb, and the world fell away, I felt an elation I’ve rarely felt in my life. It was indescribable. Almost overwhelming.
I was experiencing something new. Something I’d never done before. Something that could reasonably be considered a life-altering accomplishment. And I liked it.
We all start out as beginners. Sloppy in our maneuvers, sometimes unprepared for our lessons. Less than confident when the weather takes an unexpected turn for the worse. We — or the circumstances we encounter — can push us to the limits of our ability, and that nervousness comes back. For a short time, anyway.
The solution is prevention. It’s not a cure, but it is a viable inoculation against the shortcomings we and our aircraft all have. Even the system itself can be overloaded at times.
So, good pilots endeavor to learn continually, to hone our skills. We actively seek out the areas where we’re weak in an effort to bolster our knowledge and capabilities. The goal — and this is the highest goal a pilot can attain — is to be safe. Safe on the ground. Safe in the air. Safe in as many situations and scenarios as she can imagine. Safety is the gold ring. I suspect it always will be.
Thankfully, something new is always lurking out there in the distance, waiting for us to discover it. Once we’ve got it in our sights, we can take on that new challenge and hopefully best it. Even if those old nerves come back on the first flight or two, even if the thought of going back to school to challenge ourselves worries us, the destination is very much worth the journey.
There’s always something new in aviation. No matter where you start, you find yourself at the point of a slice of pie that represents a much larger and more diverse marketplace than you might have imagined possible.
The vast majority of us start with our single-engine land airplane certificate. The private pilot version. Many press on to earn an instrument rating. Some seek out their commercial certificate, and maybe even an Airline Transport Pilot ticket when they qualify.
But even that rarified pinnacle of achievement isn’t the end of the line for a curious pilot. For those who want to expand their horizon and develop new skills by submitting to new challenges, there is always something shiny and bright on the other side of every hill they climb.
We can step back in time if we wish, to learn the ways of the wily taildragger. Beautiful to look at on the ramp, the taildragger can bite back if the pilot gets complacent. And it does it in the worst possible place — on the ground, in front of witnesses, at relatively low speeds.
There was a time when virtually all pilots started their career in taildraggers. Now the skill required to tame the beast is an elective relatively few pilots seek out. Regardless of the experience you’ve racked up in wide-body jets, pressurized private transports, or military go-fast machines, there are few situations that will focus your mind like accelerating down the runway in a taildragger. One of the few exceptions to that rule is the intensity of your concentration when descending to the runway in a taildragger with even the slightest crosswind.
Yee haa, baby! That’s where the fun is.
But maybe taildraggers aren’t for you. Maybe you’re more of a seaplane fanatic. If you’re not, you might be surprised how quickly you become one after splashing down on a peaceful body of water, the engine idling slowly, the world around you coming into focus in a whole new way. Earning a seaplane rating is real point of pride for many of us.
Then again, maybe you’re drawn to aerobatics. Or gliders. Or weight shift ultralights. Or helicopters. Or even the lighter-than-air world of balloons and airships.
It’s all out there if you want it, only a phone call and a short drive away. Something new is lurking over your horizon, waiting for you to rediscover the excitement you felt during your initial instruction.
I hope you find it and reclaim that level of elation. It’s still in you. You just have to give it the opportunity to come out again, and again, and again.