The first lesson

This story was too good not to share. It’s a student’s impression of the first lesson. She’s graciously agreed to share it with us, if for nothing else than to remember the feelings we had when first experiencing flight. – Ed

I took my first flying lesson, ever. It took me ten years to get up enough nerve to call a flight instructor. I scheduled Tuesday morning at Edmond Guthrie Regional Airport but the clouds were too low so we cancelled. Same for Wednesday. I was relieved. Then we rescheduled for the next available opening–Thursday at 3 p.m. Around noon I came up with excuses to cancel. I felt nauseous. It was too hot. And of course, it was my mother’s birthday. I called my husband, Bill, and told him I might wait until next week. I hoped he’d say, “You’re right. It’s too hot.” But he said, “It’s your choice. Whatever you want to do.” Lot of help he was.

A pitch-hitter flight training course is for those of us who don’t want to be a pilot unless we have to. Since I fly with Bill several times a month and hopefully we’ll fly many more years, it seems like a wise investment. Just in case something ever happens to him, I want to be able to land the airplane.

So here I go. I expect hours on the ground learning the technique. I’ve already read through and watched the first few chapters of The Complete Private Pilot book at home. I try to tell Glenn Crabtree, the instructor, that I’m lost when it comes to pitch and yaw and angle of attack. I have no idea how that plane gets off the ground. Aerodynamics is a foreign language.

Glenn spends a few minutes drawing pictures on the chalk board. I nod my head. Then he says, “Are you ready to try it?” Try what? Fly?

I meekly follow him to the airplane. A small, four-seat Grumman. We go through the meticulous checklist. It’s not like you can pull over and check the oil in the air. I choose to sit in the co-pilot seat instead of the pilot seat. I can’t imagine why he even gives me a choice.

I expect to relax and watch Glenn fly while he explains everything. Wrong again.  He shows me how to taxi to the runway and we weave back and forth down the yellow line. I decline to use the radio. I’m not ready to go public yet. Then he tells me to keep my hands on the steering wheel while he takes off. Oops, it’s called a control wheel or something, although I’m not sure why. I’m definitely not in control here.

We aren’t even 1,000 feet off the ground before Glenn says, “Now you take over.” I almost panic, but I can be brave when necessary. Doesn’t seem too hard. I follow directions and turn it a little bit to the right. Of course, he controls the throttle, the instruments, the flaps, the rudders, and whatever else it is a pilot controls.

After we bank to the right, (see I’m getting the lingo) he shows me how to increase altitude, or in my terms, go up. About that time, he tells me to turn right and he takes both hands off the control wheel. Now why would any sane instructor do that with me in the cockpit? My heart beats unusually fast and I speak into the headset, “I can’t do it.”  He looks at me and calmly says, “Is something wrong? Are you sick? Do you want to go back?”

I take a deep breath and say, “No. I’m just nervous.” I don’t want to tell him I just panicked, although he probably suspects. Then he tells me go in a 360 degree circle to the right. At my wide angle, we could be in Kansas City before we get turned around. As soon as we make it back to facing east, he says to go around left. Probably the widesta circles he’s ever made.

Next he explains how the rudder helps, and by golly, he’s right. It does make a difference, especially when I get the left and right rudder backwards and we skid through the turn.

By now, we’ve been in the air an hour. He says to start descending. He reduces the throttle and the nose dives downward. I pull up. An automatic reaction. We descend to 3,000 feet but must be at 1,900 feet for final approach. We miss the runway and have to circle around to get lower.

All right, I need more lessons, but we made it safely to the ground. That’s important, isn’t it? Glenn originally said we’d work on stalls next, but now he says we’ll practice circles again.

One thing I did learn. This is more fun than I ever thought it would be. Just don’t tell my husband. He might take his hands off the control wheel sometime. And that would not be good.

–Kathryn Spurgeon

  • Andrew

    Hey Kathryn! As a fellow pilot, I am always excited to hear of others first times. I think you had a great experience! It sounds a lot like my own except I wanted to be a full pilot, not just when needed.

    I had gone to the airport expecting my instructor to do everything close to the ground and I might get to “play” when up high. I get to the airport and he goes, “So, we could spend an hour going over how to inspect the plane, and do a briefing, or we could just go out and fly, what do you want to do?”. What do I want to do? You’re the instructor, how am i supposed to learn this stuff? He says we’ll just go fly and see how it goes.

    We walk out to the plane, and he shows me the checklist and asks me to verbalize everything as I go through it and of course, I was terrified of flipping any switches. I don’t know what I was expecting to happen. I remember trying to taxi for the first time and trying to use the yoke as a steering wheel in a car. I had such a difficult time at first (negative transfer of learning 😉 ). We get to the runway, do a quick runup, and I remember swerving all over the runway while accelerating. I remember what speed he said to try to lift off at, and I felt like if I didn’t “yank” it back, we’d lose control on the ground! We climb out and we just fly. Nothing special. He tried to get me to just hold a heading and altitude and gentle turns basically.

    I know as a VFR pilot, you really should be using the horizon as an attitude indicator, but my eyes were so glued to the instrument panel. I remember him saying “Ok, adjust the throttle to this rpm”… ok. “turn right” far? “stop now”. I remember him saying ok, adjust throttle more (more? add more or take away? What are we doing?), I just guess and pull more out, and he says to add some flaps and slow down. OK… Turn left.. ok… turn left… Then it hit me. “Oh crap. I am landing. that runway is right in front of me.” I don’t think that landing was pretty, but I was practically doing everything from the beginning (he was controlling rudder while flying and doing radios).

    It was a unique experience that will last a life time! Great Story and keep it up!

  • Kathryn

    Thanks, Andrew, for the encouragement. I haven’t given up yet!

  • David

    Good job Katharine! Hope Martha does the same some day!

  • Patrick Collins

    Katherine, being a fellow “student” pilot at the moment brings to mind one little saying…If you keep it up, and stay the course, one day that AHA moment will occur, and it will all fall into place. I am a few short weeks away from taking my Private Pilot exams, and can’t wait! I started in avaition back in 1971 as a young 14 year old in a Piper 140D my Uncle owned. I went into the Army, and had the oppotunity to fly helicopters for a couple of years..what a feeling. Now going after my fixed wing ratings, I am having a blast. My wife tells me that I am POSSESSED, I think OBSESSED is the right statement. Hang in there, each time you go up the confidence factor will increase. Good luck, and remember, “Have Fun”.!

  • Kathryn

    Flying lesson #2 went much better. At least, I thought so. Glen said I looked more relaxed than last time and he never asked if I wanted to return to the airport.

    I went through the pre-flight inspection myself and got most of it right, expect when I embarrassed myself by pointing to the flaps when it said fuselage. There are more parts to a plane than a person’s body.

    We worked on taxiing. If you see a small Grumman wobbling like a drunk man, it’s me practicing how to go left and right on the ground. It made a big difference when I pulled my seat up close enough to reach the top of the rudder. Still seems like a strange place to put brakes to me.

    My oratory skills are lacking – so much to learn – because instead of “Guthrie Airport, Grumnan eight nine uniform,” I said, Grumnan eight nine uniform Grumnan.” Oops. At least, I tried this time.

    Finally in the air, we practiced the same thing as the first lesson. Ascending, circles, and descending. Or as he wrote – climbs, glides and turns. Not smooth, and only messed up seriously a few times on the rudder. If he would have said left rudder when turning left, and right when turning right, that would have helped. Maybe he assumed any logical person would know that. Who said an accountant was logical? Or maybe he said it and I missed it during the trauma of the first lesson.

    Glen added our first maneuver. “Maneuver” sounded a little scary, but we did ground tracking. Never heard that term before, but he said to circle the town of Crescent. Since he didn’t say which way, I assumed he meant a left circle since we had just circled right, so I lost sight of the darn town pretty quickly. Couldn’t see anything out the left side of the plane since I’m still sitting on the right side. I bull’s eyed city hall.

    We landed safely, and although he said to stay with him on the landing, I allowed him the privilege of being in control. As if he wasn’t all along.

  • Brad

    Well it only took eight months from idea to phone call, but that happened today. Planning my first discovery ride in a week or so and couldn’t be more excited. Hearing your tale here gives me hope that some day my wife will also step up and ride on the left once I’ve been up and around for a bit. I can only imagine the fun we could have swapping legs of different journeys on our own flying carpet.

    Thank you for sharing your story – it has given me hope and, if possible, inspired me even more to move forward with becoming a private pilot!