Love at First Flight

South Shore Living intern Samantha Anderson tosses fear to the wind to experience the thrill of learning to fly.

By Samantha Anderson | Photography by Jack Foley

The morning sun is shining brightly at Plymouth Municipal Airport as I watch my flight instructor perform a safety check on a TK-foot long Cessna 172. He checks the oil, removes the wheel blocks and flips a master switch. After ensuring that everything is in working order, he turns on the airplane’s propeller. Even with my headphones on, the sound is extremely loud. It is at this moment that my stomach drops. “No turning back now,” I think to myself, and take my seat at the controls.

Headquartered in Plymouth, Pilgrim Aviation has the only certified Cessna Pilot Center in the region. In operation since TK, the company has seven planes that are used for instructed flights, available with two or four seats. I signed up for an introductory flight experience, which includes 30-minute training on the ground followed by a 30-minute flight.

Jason Wall, my flight instructor, tells me to steer the plane down the yellow line that runs down the middle of the pavement. My feet barely reach the rudder pedals that are used to turn the plane while it is on the ground. Just before we reach the runway, we pull over to check the engine one more time. I turn the key to the right, back to center, over to the left, and back to the center again to make sure both magnetos are working. Jason makes a few adjustments to make the RPM (revolutions per minute) just right. I watch as a few planes land and then it is my turn to fly.

As we reach the straight portion of the runway and I have to catch my breath. Jason had already explained how we would do the take-off, but I was so nervous that it all flew out of my head. I asked over the radio one more time for the instructions and I was ready to go.

“You’re going to do this takeoff yourself,” Jason tells me. Great. “You know this is my first time flying, right?” I remind him. He laughs and reassures me that I will do fine. I put my left hand on the yoke, which is the flight steering wheel, and my right hand on the throttle. I take a deep breath and push the throttle all the way in. Speeding down the runway, I’m pretty sure that my heart stops. Jason speaks over the radio, saying things I don’t completely understand. “Okay,” he says to me, “start to raise the nose by pulling up just a bit.” His hand hovers just behind the yolk, ready to help, in case I need it. Slowly and cautiously I pull the yoke toward me and the nose of the plane begins to lift upward. I’m flying a plane!

Jason adjusts the throttle a bit by pulling a knob to slow down until we’re cruising at about 2100 RPM. In the air, I use the yoke to steer the plane. It’s difficult at first, learning how to use the horizon line to keep the wings even and the nose in the right place.

The view from 2,500 feet in the air is absolutely spectacular. Looking out the window I spot Plymouth Center, cranberry bogs and the bridges leading to the Cape. We stay close to the airport for our short flight, but Pilgrim Aviation also offers scenic flights that take guests out in a 25-mile radius of the airport.

Hitting turbulence in a small plane like one I’m flying is very different from what a person feels in a commercial airplane. At one point in the flight, as I turn the plane to the left, I hit some bumps and feel myself start to panic. Jason reassures me that there’s nothing to worry about; it’s just some hot air on a windy day. When it happens again, I remain calm. I’ve only been flying for a few minutes, but I’m already starting to feel comfortable being in the pilot seat.

Most people who take an introductory flight are “bucket-lister” students; people who have wanted to fly for a long time but didn’t have the time or money. “The majority of people who sign up for an introductory flight lesson are people in their mid-30s and 40s,” says Smidler. “But we have students of all ages, from 13 to 75.”

Serious students who wish to get a private pilot’s license must log 40 – 60 hours of in-the-air flight time. After 15 – 20 hours, the trainees can fly solo, starting close to the airport and progressively getting further away. “We teach them to navigate by the ground, GPS and iPad. But it is most important to know where you are by looking outside, says Smidler. As a pilot-in-training improves, they must do a “cross-country’ flight, which is a flight of more than 50 miles with an instructor.  After more practice, students must fly “cross-country” for 150 miles. To get a pilot’s license, students must also complete a written, oral and practical exam.

Before I know it, my own flight time is almost over. My instructor turns to me and says, “You get to land the plane all by yourself, too.”  I lower the RPM, turn the plane so it is parallel to the runway and slowly lower the nose of the plane. “This is a good descending horizon view,” says Jason. A lot of flying, I learned, is based on what you see around you.

As we get closer to the airport, I turn the plane toward the runway and prepare to land.  I brace myself and keep the wings steady. Slowly, I pushed on the yoke so that the nose of the plane dips down. We are now descending at a fast rate and I have to keep everything stable and straight in order to properly land. “Level off over the runway,” Jason tells me. As we near the ground, I straighten out the plane and slowly tap down.

Using a technique called a flare to gently slow the plane’s speed, pulling on the yoke to raise the nose up in little bursts. Once we are safely on the tarmac, I maneuver the plane to a parking space. Jumping out, I’m filled with adrenaline and a sense of pride. I can tell already, I’m hooked.

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