My first flight was scheduled Wednesday April 28, 2010 at the Columbus Municipal Airport. I had been to the airport plenty of times in the past; the restaurant there is a great value, and the food is pretty good. I had sat many times watching planes out the window, and had never once thought: “I can do that”.
Now, here I was, getting ready to “do that”.
I met my instructor at the Columbus airport; he went a bit earlier than I did to do some preparations. When I got to the airport, I saw him standing out by an airplane, but not knowing procedure, I didn’t quite know if I was just allowed to walk out to the plane. Certainly I didn’t want a big burly security guard or TSA guy to tackle me and send me to Guantanamo. But he motioned, and I went.
I’d soon learn that small airports like this, there is no “security”.
The airplane we would be flying was a Cessna 172, a small 4 seat airplane that probably looks familiar to most everyone.
Probably because it’s the plane they always show pictures of on the evening news that happened to crash on the highway. Okay, not really, but at this point I was pretty nervous about the whole thing.
I trucked on, though. At least I was with an expert flyer.
First, we did a thorough preflight. The preflight consists of using a checklist to inspect a lot of details on the outside of the airplane. The inspection is basically a visual check that everything looks as it should. No major nicks, dings, holes, etc. Also, checking to make sure the moving pieces all moved. We also visually check the fuel level in the fuel tanks, oil level, tires, and lights. It’s all of the stuff you should check on your car before you take a drive, but the difference is that with an airplane you can’t pull over to check when something fails. Best to do it on the ground.
We also did something that was pretty strange at the time. The fuel tanks are in the wings, and part of our preflight check list involved “sumping” the fuel. Under each wing were 5 “holes” in which a special device got inserted and a small amount of fuel would drain out and collect inside this test-tube like device. 3 more holes were also below the belly of the plane for the same thing.
The idea is this: it’s possible for water (or other liquids) to contaminate the fuel tanks. This could happen either because the place you just bought fuel from has water in their tanks, or because water leaked into the plane tanks. If the engine of the plane takes a big bite of water, it will stop running. That’s a bad deal, especially if you’re just taking off. However, water (and many other contaminent liquids) is heavier than plane fuel, so it will settle to the bottom of the tanks. This device drains a very small amount of liquid, and allows you to see if there is any water that has settled, and if so, it gives you an opportunity to drain the water out.
So before every flight, and especially after refueling, you need to check these drains for water.
Next, we climbed inside and did a set of preflight inspection and preparation checks as well. When you climb inside and sit down, this is what you see:
Are you confused yet? There’s 15 circular things to look at, a ton of switches, a couple of push pull controls, and a stack of electronic devices. Holy cow, this is complicated.
We followed the remaining steps of the checklist, and then moved to a new checklist: the startup checklist. This contained a set of steps on how to start the airplane. While it starts just like your car (there’s a key), you need to do a handful of things prior to that to make it work.
With the engine started, he briefed me shortly on how to use the headsets to talk to each other, and the volume control. While sitting there, he went over a few details of the instruments, but said for the most part to ignore them and we’d cover them later.
We then used the radio to tune in a broadcast of local weather. The airport has a local weather reporting station that broadcasts out over a frequency the current time, wind speed, temperature, and “altimeter setting” (we’ll come back to this another day).
Then he told me what to say to the control tower in order for us to taxi out.
What he told me to say: “Columbus tower, Cessna November Two Three Zero Four Nine on the ramp, ready to taxi with the one minute weather”
After a short stumble of nervousness, what I think I said: “Columbus Tower, Cessna…uhh..what is it…uhh..oh, Two Three Zero Four Nine is uhh..we’re sitting here in the parking area…uh and we’re ready to taxi”.
At that moment, the guy in the tower knew exactly that I was another newbie student.
Tower Responded: “November Two Three Zero Four Nine, Columbus Tower. Winds Two Three Zero at Three, Altimeter Two Niner Niner Seven, Taxi Runway Two Three Via Alpha”
Of course, I had no idea how to respond. My instructor told me to just repeat what I heard to confirm, but at this point I couldn’t even remember what had just been said.
So I said: “Roger”, because that seemed like the right thing to say.
And we taxied.
On The Move
If you’ve never taxied a plane before, it’s very unnatural. You use the throttle with your right hand to make the engine rev up or down, and that starts you moving forward. However, you steer with your feet. The control wheel in front of you doesn’t drive the plane on the ground – your feet do. The first few times you do it, it’s tricky. You overcorrect a lot. And, there’s no “power steering” like in a car. The effectiveness of how well the control works is directly proportional to how fast you’re moving. If you’re going really slow, it doesn’t work as well – because it’s all affected by the wind moving past it.
So we slowly taxied and he was describing a bit about what I was seeing along the way. Eventually we reached the end of the taxiway and got to the spot where it merged onto the runway. There we stopped, and followed yet another checklist: the before takeoff checklist. This checklist involves a number of followup checks, like making sure you’re set to use both fuel tanks, that the radios are on and set, that the instruments are reading properly. It also involved a “runup”.
The runup is something you do before just you’re ready to take off. You increase the throttle to a certain engine speed, but keep the brakes on. Then you do a few checks of the fundamentals of the engine – magneto checks (again, will come back to this another time), oil pressure, certain temps. It’s basically a last check of “when I get ready to take off, make sure there are no surprises”.
Runup check done, we were ready to take off. Again, I had to call the tower, but I wasn’t quite as nervous that time. I announced we were ready to take off, and he told us we were clear to takeoff, so we taxied out on the runway. My instructor handled the takeoff, but he described to me what he was doing and had me hang onto my controls to feel them.
Up in the air, and the next 45 minutes were a blur. My nerves were shot, I was trying to get a feel for the situation, I had 20 different sources of information in the plane I didn’t understand how to read, and I got that feeling of dread like: “What do I do if he passes out?”
We did a few basic maneuvers, practicing climbs and descents, and turns. He also explained some of the instruments, and what to expect to see from them during these maneuvers. Mostly it was just about me getting comfortable, which I never did.
We headed back to the airport, where I had to do a check of the weather radio again, and then call them up to report we were coming in for landing. I nailed exactly what I was told to say, feeling like I was already getting comfortable with the talking portion of flying. There was also a pre-landing checklist I had to go over and verify everything was ready.
As we got close to the airport, my instructor took over the controls to do the landing, again having me follow along with him and verbally describing what he was doing. When you’re piloting, you’re using quite a few different senses to interpret the situation. More than just visually, you’re also listening. The engine roar is loud, and let me tell you, when all of a sudden you hear it get quiet, you perk up. In this case it was expected, as he had reduced the throttle back to slow down for landing. But when you’re not used to it, and when you don’t expect it, it’s very startling. The engine isn’t even shutting off, just turning slower so you can descend.
That reduction of power made me very uncomfortable. I’m thinking “why would you suddenly do that”, but it’s obvious: if you don’t slow the plane done, you can’t get it on the ground. To this day, when I’m flying with someone who isn’t familiar with the process, I will warn them before we get ready to land that I will be reducing the power back and that they’ll hear the engine get quieter as a result.
He flew it in, describing the four million things he was doing, and we got on the ground and taxied back to parking. We tied the plane down, I went home, and felt like I was going to fall apart. I was so completely overwhelmed, excited, scared, and frustrated. For the most part, it felt like it was going to be impossible to ever master piloting. There were just too many things to do, too many things to know and remember.
The drive home was overwhelming. I couldn’t stop replaying everything in my head. Once home, I really felt like consuming alcohol, coupled with just needing to go right to sleep, mixed with my mind racing about what I had just gone through. My internal emotions were running rampant with my sudden deluge of all of this information.
Overwhelmed, I determined to give it another go, and try again for another flight.