Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Ahhhh the first flight. The day I’d been waiting on for the last 28 years finally arrived and it couldn’t have fallen on a nicer day. Clear blue skies, 80 degrees, no wind. Perfect.
My flight was scheduled for 1500 in the afternoon and I remember driving into work with somewhat of a fear addled mind. I wasn’t the slightest bit afraid about flying, not even close. I was just worried that, like every other time I had to be somewhere at a specific time of the day, I’d have a trauma present to the Emergency Department 5-minutes before it was time to leave. On a normal day I’d be looking forward to a chaotic day in the ED, running around with my hair on fire with 15 emergencies happening at once, all requiring quick treatment decisions and forward thinking, but today was definitely different. Apparently, word got out that I was slated to leave on time so I could meet the Breitling representatives and take my first flight, because on this sunny Tuesday afternoon the residents of Kansas City decided not to
shoot each other, get in car wrecks, or have heart attacks. It actually turned out to be a pretty slow day and I was miraculously able to walk through the ambulance bay doors towards my car at the precise minute I needed to leave. One quick pitstop at the house to pick up my son, daughter, wife, and Mom and then it was off to Air Associates of Overland Park Flight School where I would slide out of the cockpit of my Mustang (Ford, not P-51…yet) and into the driver’s seat of a Cessna 172!
My family and I arrived at the airport and were greeted by my instructor, Austin Palmer.
Roughly 30 seconds later, I looked through the lobby windows to see a beautiful red and yellow 2-seater Extra 300 adorned with the Breitling logo taxi to a stop right outside. Stepping from the cockpit were David Martin – Breitling’s US aerobatic pilot (2001 US National Aerobatic Champion, former F-4 Phantom and F-16 Viper pilot) and Patrick Cawthorne – Breitling’s United States South Central Sales Representative. We gathered in the flight school’s conference room for introductions before moving out to the ramp to get some photos in front of “my” Cessna and the Extra 300. Shortly after this, we returned to the conference room to hold a pre-flight briefing before moving out to the 172 for the pre-flight inspection. This first pre-flight was especially fun because my son and daughter both helped out in making sure the plane was ready for Daddy to go fly. Maybe there’ll be a couple more pilots in the family in a few years 🙂
With pre-flight complete we said goodbye to David and Patrick, and Austin and I climbed into -53XRay to take flight.
Flight #1 — 1.0 hrs
Total flight time to date — 1.0 hours
Engine start. Checklist complete. Time to get ground clearance and taxi. So begins my first official flight lesson. It feels amazing, here I am sitting in the left seat of a Cessna 172 and I’m actually fully in control. It’s a little bit of a paradigm shift using the rudder pedals to control the plane on the ground and I end up going through a series of overcorrections before settling in somewhat. Taxiing requires basically the same number of simultaneous inputs as driving a car, but everything is out of order and it’s almost as though you’ve got to develop a new neural pathway to develop the coordination needed to do it smoothly. Instead of controlling the speed with my feet and direction with my hands, in the airplane I’m controlling the direction of the plane with my feet (rudder/nosewheel steering) and the speed with both my hands (throttle) and feet (brake). It’s a slightly odd feeling but I settle in and start to get the hang of it (for the most part).
Ground control grants me clearance to taxi via taxiway Bravo towards Juliet where I’m then approved to cross the runway to Alpha for a full length departure. I make it to the end of the runway via Alpha (which feels like it takes forever) and turn into the wind for the final pre-flight check. Since the Cessna is powered by an air-cooled engine, turning into the wind will increase the amount of air flow to cool the horizontally opposed 4-cylinder Lycoming engine. I apply full brakes and increase the RPM to 1,800 and everything is looking good. A quick check of both magnetos reveals a ~150 RPM drop each. Perfect. A quick call to the Tower “Executive Tower, this is Cessna 1053XRay ready for takeoff with a Northeast departure”. The tower clears me to depart runway 36 and I move carefully onto the centerline of the runway. I slowly come to a full stop and shimmy the rudder pedals to make sure the nose wheel is tracking straight ahead and then slowly apply full power. I understood the concept of P-factor and the torque generated by a propeller driven aircraft so I was ready to compensate with a little right rudder as my speed increased. What I wasn’t ready for, however, was the amount of right rudder I’d actually have to apply. As the speed continued to increase, the P-factor became more prominent and the plane really started drifting to the left. I eased more right rudder into the roll and we tracked back towards the centerline again. Airspeed indicator reads that we’ve hit 55 knots so I slowly draw the control yoke backwards to lift the nosewheel off the runway. We roll a couple hundred more feet and we’re airborne! “Newton’s law? Ha! I scoff at you Newton because I’m never coming down” I think to myself as I ease the plane upwards trying my hardest to maintain the best rate of climb (Vy) at 74 knots. This is kind of tough to do at first because the natural inclination is for me to want to continue to let the nose drift up to gain altitude. But climbing too steeply will bleed airspeed which could induce a dangerous stall, especially bad when you’ve just left the runway. Austin coaches me on lowering the nose to hit my mark of 74 knots again and we’re off.
We decide to take a scenic flight for this first lesson so we depart to the Northeast towards downtown KC where we’ll do a low pass over the Downtown KC airport (MKC). One of the first things that strikes me is that my perception of distance is completely shot from up in the air. The airport I’ve just departed from is about a 30-minute drive from Downtown, but as soon as we hit an altitude of 1,600 feet I can see the KC skyline rising up on the horizon. Our current altitude makes it look like the city is only a few miles from us and I realize that I’m going to have to retrain myself and develop an enhanced perception of distance. Luckily, the GPS tells me that we’re about 15-nautical miles from the downtown airport but I really don’t want to have to rely on this to find my way, especially if I were ever to experience power failure while in flight.
In what feels like a few short seconds, we’ve already been cleared on final approach to runway 3 at MKC. Austin instructs me to do a low pass over the runway, keeping the plane just above ground effect until we clear midway point at which time we’ll turn to the East to make a couple of circles around the city. Flying in on approach, I’m amazed that Flight Simulator (Microsoft FSX or Laminar Research X-Plane) actually does a great job in recreating the experience. I practiced a few landings on the sim at home a few days before my flight and I couldn’t believe how closely the physics, airplane handling characteristics, and visual flight cues actually matched up! As we neared the airport I picked a target on the runway and then lined it up with an imaginary point, aka gunsight, on my windscreen. The low pass goes well and we make our turn to cruise around the city. It’s getting close to dusk at this point and the golden hour light makes the city look great, making me wish I had my camera with me. Unfortunately, mental pictures will have to suffice for now. I spot my hospital just to the south and I have to point and laugh at those stuck working while I’m up flying. I feel bad for a bit, 0.002 seconds to be exact, and then the feeling yields to unbridled joy once again.
We start our turn back to Johnson County Executive (OJC) where we’ll ultimately land on runway 36 assuming there’s not a dramatic wind shift before we get there. First though, Austin gives me an introductory lesson in flight characteristics and the effect that various control inputs will have on the plane. My favorite demonstration was one where Austin placed a pen on the dash, entered into a climb and then abruptly nosed over to induce a transient state of zero G. Talk about fun! I can’t remember what I did when I felt the gravitational force melt away, but I think I may have squeaked or something. It really made me hopeful that one day I’ll be able to get my own plane (warbird or aerobatic) so I can experience that feeling to a much greater degree and much more often.
Fast forward a few minutes and we’re on final approach to OJC for a landing on runway 36. I’m still in control of the plane at this point and I get really excited that I may actually get to land the plane on my very first lesson! Sure enough, I’m allowed to guide it on in! I drop a notch of flaps to help us reach our touchdown speed of 65 knots and we slowly touch down. I’m sure Austin was helping me out with some control input at this point in the game, but it was still an exhilarating feel nonetheless. After touching down I taxied back to the Air Associates ramp, moved the mixture control to idle cutoff and shut her down, thus ending my first lesson. If I could describe the experience in one word, it’d be “absolutely freaking amazing”!
In the end, it was an exceedingly awesome day. David Martin and Patrick Cawthorne were amazingly nice individuals and I really, really appreciated them making the long flight from Texas just to come up for the first flight. It was a blast talking to David about flying, especially the parts about what it was like to strap on an F-16 and fly in full burner. Amazing. Patrick, the resident photographer of the afternoon, was also an exceptionally interesting individual and he even brought me some awesome Breitling gear loaded into a sweet Breitling backpack! That backpack has now become my flight bag and I carry it with me on every flight!
I’d like to thank David and Patrick once again for taking time out of their busy schedules to meet my family and myself and I’d especially like to thank Katie Adams, Breitling’s US PR and Events Coordinator for making this all happen. She has been absolutely fantastic throughout this experience so far and I look forward to working with her throughout the flight training process!
Next up: Lesson 2 – level turns and slow speed flight.