I flew a plane!

6 August 2017
6 Aug 2017
Purdue Airport
6 mins

I was reading on my bed one night last week, and I thought, how cool would it be to learn to fly?

Unfortunately, I don’t know a thing about planes, let alone have experience flying or have relatives who do. Fortunately, I live right near Purdue, which has a great school of aviation. So I rang up Purdue Aviation.

Before I get into the story, here’s few clips, taken with my Snap Spectacles, over the thirty minutes or so for which I was in the air:

Some of you are probably familiar with the process, but if you aren’t (like I was), here’s how it works.

In most cases, you start out with a demo flight, which runs about a half-hour to an hour long, during which you can control the plane a bit and get a taste of what flying involves. So after work Friday, I drove down to Purdue Airport and got on one of their smaller starter planes (it was a Cessna 152 in this case).

Actually, backing up — before getting inside, there were some basic pre-flight checks to be done. So my flight instructor and I went around the plane and checked that there was enough fuel, that all the mechanical doodads worked, that there was nothing in the engine, and so on.

And all this was incredibly new to me, so I was just having fun looking around this tiny little plane that would take me up a few hundred feet in the air in a few minutes, and hopefully return me back to the ground with my limbs intact.

And then I got in, and I noticed a few things right off the bat:

First, everything was very analog. Granted, this was an old plane (like cars except better, apparently good planes last several decades), but I was surprised to find that the only visible electronic display on the dash was a GPS control panel that showed current location in respect to the destination airport. Everthing else, from indicators for speed and position and engine starters to fuel gauges and switches, was visibly all analog. This was a start departure from modern cars, the closest comparison I had in my mind. I was also surprised to find that, from what I could tell, the ailerons (the things that make the plane turn) and the elevators (the things that make the plane point up and down) were both mechanically linked to the handle/wheel thing in the cockpit, rather than controlled electronically.

The second thing I noticed, which you can kind of see in the video, is that there’s more room in there than it looks. The Cessna was what car people would call a 2+2 seat arrangement — two seats in the front with two doors, and two more connected seats in the back, to be climbed into. I think there was just a bit less seat space total than an average compact sports car, which surprised me, because I expected less.

The third bizzare thing I noticed was that you controlled the wheels — directions when you’re on the ground — separately from the ailerons — directions when you’re in the air. This was super obvious in retrospect, but at the time, I was surprised to learn that the handle/wheel thing only controls the ailerons and the elevators on wings/stabilizers, and has little impact on the ground. Instead, you steer on the ground with pedals that look just a bit bigger than pedals in a car. It’s a strange feeling to steer with your feet, and then ten minutes later steer with your hands.

Then we taxied to the runway and took off, which was less dramatic than I’d expected. It’s probably harder when you’re controlling the plane, but from a spectator’s perspective from the other seat, it appeared pretty straight forward, just like the feeling of taking off from a commercial airliner, but bumpier and quicker, since the plane itself is lighter. Not going up in terrible weather probably helped, though I’m obviously just guessing here.

Once in the air (and somewhat removed from civilization), I had a chance to take control of the plane and “fly” it. And here, I encountered the thing that surprised me the most about this entire experience: flying (in comfortable weather with slow winds, once I was in the air) feels fairly intuitive.

So there’s this handle/wheel thing (which, apparently, is called a yoke or a control wheel). You turn it left/right to make the plane turn in the respective directions (like a car — I believe this is called roll), but unlike a car, you can push it in or pull it out. This forward/backward motion seems to control the horizontal angle of the plane (I believe this is called the pitch), and it leads the plane up or down in the air.

The up/down elevator controls felt surprisingly intuitive after a few minutes. I was occasionally surprised when I changed the pitch by mistake, but other than that, it seemed, dare I say, straightforward.

Then it came time to descend. The CFI turned the plane around back to Purdue Airport, communicated with the control tower there, and brought us back down, again, without much drama. Thus, my first flight in a small airplane came to an end.

There’s one last thing that struck me through the entire process, which is the religious (and probably very helpful) reliance on checklists. For every situation — starting engine, taxi, takeoff, before-landing, and after-landing — there’s a list of checklist items that we referenced to make sure nothing was being left out. I was familiar with the idea of checklists in flights, because I know how critical this reference is in keeping procedures in line during emergency situations in commercial flights. But this matter-of-fact, natural trust and usage of checklists left me thinking, wondering what other professions would become more effective or safer with checklists where human error could go wrong.

I’m not sure if I’m going to follow through and learn to be a private pilot. Primarily, it’s an expensive affair. To get the license (which typically requires 50–60 hours of training), it runs just about $10,000. And after that, flying is an expensive hobby without aircrafts handy from a family member or a friend. That, combined with the time commitment required, makes this a very nontrivial decision.

But, if we’re talking about lasting experiences during a gap year, for me, few things can top learning how to fly. So … we’ll see where this goes.

But man, was this a fascinating, learning experience for me. If you live near Purdue, the demo flight costs $99, and for a complete beginner like myself, I think it’s a pretty cool evening trip down to the airport.

Oh, and thanks to Isaiah for a pretty cool demo flight!

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In praise of the analog world

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