A couple of weekends ago I flew an airplane. As in I sat in the pilot seat and controlled the throttle, pitch, and direction of a single-propeller airplane. This experience came about when I gave Monica airplane lessons for her birthday last October, and there was no way I would watch her fly from the backseat and not fly myself. So I got flying lessons for both of us!
We went flying on January 29 at Crosswinds Flight School in New Jersey, just outside of Philly. The school was literally a small building next to Cross Keys Airport, which was a very small airfield with no air tower. We flew a 20+ years old single-propeller yellow Cessna. Before even starting the engine, there were a few pre-flight checks like fuel level, propeller, and route. Once those were checked off, we hopped into the plane – Monica and the instructor sat up front first and me in the back. I had a lot of space in the back by myself, but the front seats were tighter and was nice and cozy.
Before starting the engine, the instructor explained what all the gauges on the dashboard meant: altitude, rate of increase or decrease, wing levels, speed, and a bunch of other meters. After Monica turned the key to start the engine, we communicated through headsets otherwise it would be too loud to hear. The communication was only between us in the plane, but the instructor’s headset had an option to communicate with other planes in the area on the same frequency.
Monica flew the first leg from Cross Keys Airport to Millville Airport 20 minutes away and we did a switch-a-roo! While going from the parked area to the runway, the instructor let me control the plane during taxi-ing. It was controlled by two foot pedals that you step right to go right and left to go left. It was not as easy as it looked because there was a lag, but I found it very similar to steering a dragon boat so I was able to keep the nose of the plane more or less on the yellow line.
Once at the runway, the instructor took over for takeoff. How it works at these small airports is you communicate with other pilots in the area on the same frequency, and coordinate where you are in the air to avoid being in each other’s ways. There was no air tower so it was all pilot-to-pilot communication. Once airborne and clear of the airport, I took control over the throttle. Flying a plane was very much like steering a boat because the air had waves and pushed the plane around a little. Turbulence was definitely exaggerated in the smaller plane, but not to a point where I felt sick. I did a couple of turns and setting the pitch of the plane. The whole time I geeked out about all questions plane-related and asked the instructor a bunch of stuff. Apparently there was no safety check against me yanking the throttle and doing a flip; the only check was the instructor pulling the throttle back.
Controlling the plane was a lot easier than I thought. There were no lanes to follow like a car and we had a lot of space to ourselves. To turn, we looked left and right to make sure no other planes were in our way before initiating the turn. The entire time, we were not in contact with any ground communication but they could see us on their radar and know our pre-determined route. There was an altitude restriction of 3000 ft, since above that was Philadelphia International Airport’s airspace and we were not allowed to be in it. As we approached Cross Keys Airport, we were able to see Philly in the distance.
The flight lesson was amazing and definitely worth doing. It was only 20 minutes but honestly, you don’t do that much up in the air; it’s like driving a car 70 miles an hour on the highway. The instructor was very friendly and said that if we were to pursue a pilot’s license we would do well. Maybe I’ll invest time and a couple grands to get my license, and then another $20K+ for a small airplane. Then I would be able to travel anywhere I want! Who knows?