Before we took to the air Jon gave me a brief tutorial about the four forces that act upon a plane: thrust, which is controlled by the throttle; drag, which opposes thrust and is controlled by the angle of the plane; lift, which is created by the angle of the wings; and weight, which depends on the amount of fuel and number and size of passengers.
As my mind churned through then promptly forgot all of the above information, we made our way outside to the plane we'd be flying -- a Piper Archer, a small, bullet-shaped four-seater that was built in 1977. "1977!?" I exclaimed (It even had ashtrays in the back -- a sure sign of a bygone age). Jon assured me that, unlike used cars, planes have very stringent inspection requirements, and even planes from the disco era are still in top shape.
After Jon performed a pre-flight inspection, making sure the ancient bird was indeed air worthy, we climbed inside, and I plopped down in the pilot's seat. It may be a small plane, but the Piper Archer hits you with a daunting array of controls and gauges. Jon explained that the layout is essentially the same as on a jet airliner, just on a smaller scale. I looked around for flight attendants and bags of pretzels, but didn't see any so I began to wonder if he was trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Despite the plane's crowded dashboard, I was advised there were really just three main gauges I needed to me mindful of -- the air speed indicator, heading indicator (essentially a detailed compass) and the altimeter, which indicates altitude. After running through the pre-takeoff checklist, we taxied onto the runway, Jon gave her some throttle, and suddenly we were airborne. I soon forgot about the missing flight attendants.
The flying experience on a small plane like this is far more tactile and immediate than the experience of being in a commercial jetliner. Every turn, change in altitude or air pocket -- no matter how slight -- is acutely perceptible. It's an exhilarating, dizzying sensation, one that you literally feel in your gut -- which, thankfully, was a part of my body that stayed intact. Once we leveled out to about 2,500 feet and 110 knots (125 mph), Jon turned over the controls to me, and via our headsets, coached me on how to fly the plane.
Resisting the urge to maintain a death grip on the yoke, I used subtle, slight movements to steer the plane. The yoke, when turned left or right, controls the "ailerons" (the movable surfaces on the outboard portion of the wings), which cause the plane to bank one way or the other. This worked much like a car's steering wheel, so it was pretty simple. However, in conjunction with the yoke I also had to engage the foot pedals, which control the rudder, and help keep the tail in line behind the airplane during turns, so you have to coordinate both movements. Although it was a little daunting at first, I soon got the hang of it, and only whimpered like a frightened little girl once or twice. It was when Jon had me pilot the plane through changes in altitude that I really started to sweat (literally) and wished I had gone to church more often.
The yoke, when pushed forward or pulled backward, moves the "elevator" on the tail, which raises and lowers the nose, controlling the pitch of the airplane and the wings, thus controlling the amount of lift. As I pushed the yoke forward, and we dropped a few hundred feet, I literally felt like I was falling, and had to fight the instinctual urge to reach out and grab onto something.
The plane's flaps also affect the amount of lift. These are located on the inboard portion of the wings and are controlled with a lever in the cockpit that looks like a parking brake. Lowering the flaps simultaneously adds lift and drag. To counteract drag, you give the plane more throttle, which controls thrust. If all this sounds like a lot to contend with, it is. In fact, one thing that struck me during my lesson was how many different things a pilot has to do simultaneously. In addition to flying the plane -- no small feat in and of itself -- they have to constantly monitor the gauges and controls, communicate with air traffic controllers, and keep an eye out for other aircraft. The cockpit is definitely not a place to daydream. Or flirt with flight attendants.
After cruising around for about 30 minutes, we landed at the nearby Monroe Airport, and I decided to try my hand at flying the plane during takeoff. Using the foot pedals to steer the nose of the plane, I lined us up on the runway, and after getting the go ahead from the air traffic controller, engaged the throttle. As we picked up speed I pulled back on the yoke, the nose began to lift, and once again we were off. By this time I was starting to settle down a little bit and could take in and appreciate my surroundings. As we made lazy passes over hundreds of acres of Union County farmland and the orderly, suburban patchwork of cul-de-sacs and aboveground pools, I could just make out Charlotte's downtown skyline on the horizon. Not a bad way to spend the morning. We soon touched down back at the Goose Creek Airport, and I climbed out of the plane invigorated, glad to be alive, and with great big sweat stains under my arms. Thankfully, my underwear remained unsoiled.
Contact Sam Boykin at [email protected].
To earn a pilot's license, it takes an investment of at least 40 hours and between $3,500 and $5,000, depending on how often you can take lessons and in what region of the country you live. There are a number of affordable options for taking to the air once you earn your license. One of the most popular is rental clubs, which you can find at most flight schools. For a small down payment and a monthly fixed fee, members can rent various aircraft for a discounted price. It's an easy and economical way to leave all the airport hassles behind and launch your very own airborne adventures -- a new one is always just over the horizon. Be a Pilot offers a special promotion deal that includes an introductory flying lesson for just $49. The promotion is offered at over 2,100 independently owned and operated flight schools in the US and Canada, including Long Aviation, which offers rentals, all types of flight training, as well as storage for privately owned aircraft. Long Aviation also offers special holiday gift certificates. Other Charlotte flight schools that participate in the Be A Pilot program are Metrolina Flying Club and Wilgrove Airport Flight Instruction.