FLYING INSTRUCTORS and pilots are a breed apart. They speak with passion of things most of us view with caution from the airtight window of a 727 – smooth highways of clear, blue skies; pulsating specks of people and treetops; the abstract arabesque of entire city blocks. They seem possessed by their ozone oceans. They admit to chasing birds on high.
Before attempting to write this column, I wanted to experience flying the way they experience it. So I signed up for a lesson. With some apprehension, 1 waited for my instructor, Dan Hathaway of Four Winds Aviation, to tell me all about dials and graphs and mathematical goulash that I knew I could never understand. I was prepared to report the following: “If you have a navigator’s mind and physicist’s flair, consider flying lessons.”
Instead, from the time our red and white Piper Warrior lifted off the runway until we touched down again at Love Field, I was enchanted. The ride was smooth, and though nothing was taken lightly (my instructor checked and re-checked every part of the plane before and after takeoff), it seemed so easy. Before I knew it, the pilot had briefed me on the workings of the plane – rudders, the yoke, the throttle -and invited me to take over. He pointed to a bug smear on the windshield, told me to keep it level with a selected point on the horizon, and…I was flying!
I made turns to the left and turns to the right, ever keeping my bug smear aligned with the horizon. It was a clear autumn day, with visibility at seven miles. We flew east from Love Field, across White Rock Lake. Somewhere over Lake Ray Hub-bard, Dan stalled the plane, and the propeller-which I hadn’t been able to see since we took off-gradually slowed and became frighteningly visible. Dan kept saying, “See, see how we’re dropping?” “Yes,” I sputtered. “I see. I see.” Then the plane’s alarm sounded, meaning, Dan explained, that the plane had buffeted and was no longer producing lift (i.e., it was sinking like a rock). The aircraft began to shake. Finally (about the middle of the 23rd Psalm), Dan increased the power of the plane and lowered the nose. This increased the airspeed, and the plane automatically leveled its flight. Learning how to recover from a stall and what causes a stall -letting airspeed drop so low that the plane can no longer produce lift -are important parts of a student pilot’s training.
Dan is instructing while he accumulates the hours he needs to become a professional pilot. He has confidence in the safety of flying because, he says, “in piloting an airplane you are safe to the degree that you are prepared.”
Getting ready to fly a small airplane is reassuringly similar to inspecting an automobile; engines in some smaller crafts are actually less complicated than the average car engine. Dan checked the plane’s engine for loose wires; the dipstick showed plenty of oil, and all three fuel tanks (five hours worth) were full and clear of water and muck. Once we had completed our inspection checklist, we took off. Dan says that if a pilot carefully follows all the checklists and watches for other air traffic, chances are he will be safe. He has time to watch for other planes, so it’s easier to fly defensively. “1 prefer flying to driving on Central Expressway any day,” Dan says. “Out there you are at the mercy of total idiots.”
Joan Golden, an instructor with Modern Aero of Texas Inc., says the qualities necessary to make a good pilot are a fair amount of intelligence, a good deal of motivation and incentive, and a very large degree of sound judgment and common sense. “But probably the most important of these qualities,” Golden says, “is the ability to leave one’s ego on the ground when one climbs into the cockpit.”
“A big part of being an instructor is determining whether or not a student is capable of making good judgments,” Golden says. “A good instructor can usually tell what kind of pilot a student will be after spending several hours in so intimate an environment as a cockpit. She usually can weed out the students who would become unsafe, unstable pilots. An airplane is certainly no place for an ego or temper.”
A pilot’s ego may be pretty well set by the time he reaches flying age, but he can improve his judgment and ability to fly defensively by completing a course often mildly titled “flight proficiency.” I visited Gene Soucy at his aerobatic center at Aero Country Airport in McKinney and enjoyed a sample of the sort of flights his students complete. This trip to the skies was more eventful than the first. Before we took off, 1 was outfitted with seat belts around each leg, two around my waist and a parachute strapped to my back. We spoke to one another through microphones on headsets.
At first I felt safe enough, with McKin-ney farm land all around. From the clear plastic cockpit of this little plane, the view was incredible. Then Soucy began maneuvers: half rolls, full rolls, hammerhead turns, four-point rolls, loops and a head-on snap. At some points during our roller-coaster ride, we were under pressure of up to 6Gs -forces even stronger than those on the most perilous drops of Six Flags’ Shock Wave.
Then Soucy decided to fly upside down for a while. After a few moments gripping the bottom of my seat as I approached vertigo, I listened as my pilot told me how safe I was. “This plane is built for this sort of thing,” he said, “and more people get hurt walking across their kitchen floors than they do, percentage-wise, flying aero-batically.” Still, I was relieved later that afternoon to be back in my Toyota, heading south on Central Expressway with the rest of the idiots.
Despite the years of my life I may have lost during that short flight, I don’t doubt Soucy’s selling points. It makes sense to know how to handle unusual situations and unusual positions if you plan to be a pilot. Soucy is the pilot in the left-wing position of the Eagles Aerobatic Flight Team and was the first pilot in history to win the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships three consecutive years (1970, 1971 and 1972). He says there have been no fatalities in aerobatic competitions and that “it’s a thousand times safer than driving a car.” He always wears a parachute during flight and thinks everyone should.
“If a plane tumbles out of the clouds,” Soucy says, “a pilot with aerobatic training will know how to recover. Repetition of these maneuvers reduces panic in emergency situations and the irrational decisions that result. Military pilots are required to train in aerobatics and, until the mid-Fifties, all flight schools required that their students learn to recover from spins. They did away with the requirement when it seemed the maneuver was scaring too many students away.”
But Soucy says spin-handling knowledge was the best thing for those young flyers. More than half the fatal accidents involving private pilots are due to stall spins like the one Gene took me through. Recovery should be simple, but often the spin costs the pilot his life.
The aerobatics course Gene Soucy teaches lasts nine hours and is spread across four days. His students must have flown solo before they begin his course, but a private pilot’s license is not a prerequisite. “People justify these lessons by saying they will improve their proficiency, and they will, but they will have a blast in the meantime.” Many of his students are sponsored by the companies they fly for and are sent to school to improve their emergency skills.
Soucy proved his faith in aerobatic flying about a year ago when he took his 9-day-old daughter on a flight. She has logged 200 flight hours with her dad since then, flying to air shows all over the country.
Averille Dawson, owner of Four Winds, says more and more people are flying for fun, not professional proficiency. “It’s just too expensive to become a professional pilot and, realistically, if you’re hoping to get on with an airline by the time you are 28 or 29, you better begin flying at 16 or 17. You can’t force yourself to become a professional pilot because you want a lot of money,” she says. “A doctor sees the fruits of his labor a lot sooner than a pilot in training.”
But a career as a professional pilot is not the most common goal for flying students. Pat Jetton, president and owner of Airport Flying School in Addison, says that learning to fly is a good thing for almost everybody. “The job market is such that the more skills you possess, the more chances you have of getting hired. If two applicants come to me with equal abilities but one has his pilot’s license, even if I didn’t need them to fly, I’d hire the pilot. That license indicates discipline and intelligence.”
The large number of businesses decentralizing (moving to smaller towns) makes a private pilot’s license especially marketable. Someone must transport employees back and forth from Dallas to Wichita Falls. Fitting a trip into airline schedules might take all day. Jetton says that if a company’s employees drive, the trip is three hours each way. “My airplane does it in 45 minutes,” she says. “It costs a little more in mileage, but time-wise it’s better to fly. A high-powered salesman is worth a lot, but not sitting behind the wheel of his Buick. Lots of people learn to fly never expecting to fly for business purposes; instead they fly to better use their spare time. If they have one weekend off, they can go to Padre or Denver in less than half the time it would take to drive.”
But if you do decide to use your private pilot’s license in your business, a commercial license is not necessary unless flying for a company becomes your primary job. If you are an accountant who occasionally flies co-workers to San Antonio, a private license is all you need.
The high cost of flying is often definitive in deciding where you’ll fly, how much you’ll fly and what kind of lessons you’ll take. If the price of a private license -we couldn’t find any available for less than $1,544 -is a serious financial obstacle, think twice before you invest so much in something you may not be able to afford to use later. Don’t imagine that once you get your private license, chances to fly will come at bargain rates. They won’t. Some instructors and salesmen say that it’s worth it to own your plane if you fly 350 hours a year. (Frequently, the price of renting a craft for lessons can be applied toward purchase.)
But, as with lessons, purchasing a plane is only the beginning. A new passenger four-seater runs $40,000 to $50,000. Then come hangar or tie-down fees, insurance costs, maintenance (10 times more important than in a car; you can’t just pull over at 2,000 feet and call Triple A) and fuel.
Whether or not you decide to invest in an airplane, consider the time involved before launching into lessons. Most schools recommend that their students earn their license within three months. The Federal Aviation Association (FAA) requires 35 hours flight time and 35 hours ground school. At the very least, this means a few hours two or three days every week. A student may be allowed to complete his ground-school time studying at home, but some schools hold formal classes.
Once you begin your lessons, you will probably find the actual handling of the craft no more difficult than the handling of a car. Most training time deals with learning to respond to emergencies that, if you’re lucky, will never occur.
Before enrolling in flight school, shop around. Check the list that follows and consider your probable flying schedule (the traffic you will face coming and going to lessons is an important factor), the weather and visibility common at the airport and the types of airplanes available to students for training. FAA approval means little except that, on paper, certain minimum requirements have been met. Prospective students often walk into a school asking for, in one round figure, the price of a license. Instead, ask how much time that school’s average student spends in training and what hourly rates are offered.
Before beginning lessons, you’ll need a third-class health certificate from an FAA-approved doctor. The certificate is good for two years and is required before you can solo. There are about 30 FAA-ap-proved physicians in Dallas; your school can recommend one.
Airport Flying School. This school lists its minimum FAA-approved course cost at $1,544. It includes in-flight instruction in a Cessna 150, solo practice in a Cessna 1509, classroom ground school and ground training. A Piper Tomahawk may be used in place of the Cessna 150 for the additional hourly cost of $1. Other costs (including medical certificate, books and taxes) come to $102. Airport Flying School does some pilot training through courses with Mountainview Community College. Addison Airport, P.O. Box 187. 661-2825.
Coker Aviation. Rent Cessna 152s or 172s for $31 or $39 an hour, respectively. Instructor flights cost $14 (in addition to plane rental fees). Ground school: $14 per hour. Cessna cassette ground school course: $100. Helicopter training: $69 per hour plus $20 hourly instructor’s fees. Cessna-sponsored course guaranteeing private license: $2,995. 3114 S. Great Southwest Parkway, Grand Prairie. 647-1103.
Four Winds Aviation. Special rates are available here for veterans, and credit accounts are acceptable. Four Winds flies Cessna 172s and Piper Warriors. Solo rental fee for Cessna 172s: $42. In-flight instruction, including rental fee in the Cessna: $53. Private-pilot ground school: $120. Love Field, 8034 Aviation Place, Suite 100. 351-3261.
Modern Aero of Texas Inc. This school trains with Cessna 152s, 172s and Pipers and has a contract with Mountainview Community College. Membership in the Modern Aero flying club ($50, plus dues) gives $5 to $6 off each flight hour on rental and lessons. Rental rates may be applied to purchase. Private instructor’s fee: $12. Average cost of a private license is $1,700 including 25 hours flying time with an instructor ($38.50 per hour), 20 hours solo time ($26.50 per hour) and $90 worth of Cessna graphs, charts and school materials. Introductory flight: $20. Redbird Airport, Lock Box 37. 331-8363.
Flight Proficiency Inc. This school’s main business comes from company-sponsored private pilots. A safety-proficiency course is offered for $350 (three-day, prop engine) or $500 (four-day, turbo-engine). Refresher courses and initial training is also offered, as are transition courses for pilots making a switch from one type of craft to another. 3250 Shorecrest. 352-3901.
Gene Soucy Aerobatic Center. Soucy calls his center a “sport airport”; he teaches safety proficiency and basic aerobatic courses. Safety-proficiency training includes four and a half hours in-flight instruction and three hours ground school. The basic aerobatic course lasts nine hours (flight instruction) plus five hours (ground instruction). Total price of the safety proficiency course: $592.50. Basic aerobatic course: $1,160. Rt. 1, Box 204, McKinney. 347-2207.
Soucy also sells and trains in Ultralights, the new canvas and snowmobileengine contraptions. After a pilot hasflown solo in a prop plane, Soucy willteach him to fly an Ultralight in three tofour hours for $200. Ultralights rent for$40 per hour and sell for $3,000 to $5,000.Soucy says that when Ultralights came outthree years ago he thought they were crazyinventions, but with all the safety improvements, he’s convinced they’ll bringabout a new wave of flying enthusiasts.Besides being economical, Ultralights canbe folded and towed by trailer behind anautomobile.