May 4th, 2012.
At some point I had read that famous quote by Leonardo DiVinci, that once you experience flying, your gaze will forever be upward towards the sky, as having been there you would always long to return. It was hard to believe it had been over a year, but I don't recall a day that went by when I didn't think about it. Almost exactly a year after that first flight I returned to Skypark and met with my new instructor for my first "official" lesson.
After going over a few pieces of business, getting my account set up and getting my flight training materials together we walked out to the hanger, opened the doors and rolled the Citabria out onto the driveway. You have to learn how to work everything, from the hangar door on if you want to fly from small airports, and there isn't anything you do that isn't part of your instruction.
The Citabria is considered an acrobatic plane and this one is orange and white, single engine, with a narrow fuselage and 2 tandem seats with an overhead single wing. It has "conventional" landing gear which means it has 2 wheels in the front and one at the rear of the tail, or empennage. A lot of pilots just refer to these as "tailwheel" or tail draggers. Apparently they are a little harder to learn how to maneuver than the standard "tricycle" gear found on other small planes like the more traditional Cessna, but then, that's par for the course with me, to start with something non-traditional. I'd soon find out why you need a special "endorsement" to fly them…
It was a fairly calm day with 8 - 10 mph winds, but there were gusts about that were obviously greater than that as we had all taken notice of them before going up. After getting my first lesson in learning how to "preflight" the plane, which for obvious reasons is done with careful inspection, I was soon starting the engine and on my way out for my first "run-up" as it's called. I didn't know quite what that meant yet, but I was certain I would find out.
Now, in a Citabria, as I mentioned, there are 2 tandem seats. As the student, I sit in the front seat with all of the controls and instruments and the instructor takes the back seat with a limited set of controls and no instruments. The back seat sits quite a bit lower than the front seat, and once strapped into the plane, you don't see the instructor again until you deplane on the runway at the end of the flight. From the moment you close the door and start moving, it feels like it's just you, and a calm voice in your head guiding you through some very foreign territory.
Of course, on this first trip out, the 'Pilot in Command" (that would be me) takes the plane out onto the runway and positions it for the run-up. The run-up is essentially done to assure the plane will fly once you get it off the ground. You run through various tests making sure things like oil pressure and temperature are where they should be, that the pistons will still fire even if one magneto or the other dies while you're in the air that the controls work freely and that things like the brakes work...all very important stuff. Once you've performed the run-up, you're ready to taxi and prepare for your final check before takeoff.
At this point, since I was completely green, my instructor talked me through the procedure carefully explaining each and every one, and then proceeded to take us down the taxiway. I was surprised actually that towards the end of the taxiway, he told me to take over the controls and taxi the plane for a bit. It wakes you right up to be sure, if you think flying a plane is extraordinary, you should try driving one, nothing prepares you for what that feels like, and the control of it is not even remotely familiar to anything I had ever done.
It was another beautiful day, but this time the wind gusts, although invisible, were obvious, creating some moderate turbulence as we climbed to about 5000 feet looking for some smooth air. Almost immediately into flight, my instructor passed the controls over to me. This is done with a simple 3 way conversation that goes like this, Pilot - "you have the flight controls", Student- "I have the flight controls", Pilot - "you have the flight controls". That 3rd one cinches the deal as at that point, the instructor actually disengages with the controls and the student, aka me, is actively flying the plane until such time as he gets the controls back through the same process. It's nothing short of exhilarating, to know you are piloting this craft 100 miles per hour climbing thousands of feet above the earth in a matter of seconds. Everything changes, and I mean everything. If you were thinking about anything on the ground, you're not thinking about it now, in fact, it seems all I was thinking about was how important it was to keep that plane in the air, everything else seemed quite meaningless.
A typical in air flying lesson lasts about an hour and consists of practicing, at first, a number of simple maneuvers, climbing, leveling off, descending, shallow banked turns, climbing turns, descending turns etc. On this day, while I was aware of all the instrumentation in front of me, the attention was really on the flying and what it "feels" like. It's definitely not about sight seeing as I remember seeing the ground on take off, but not again until I was standing on it at the end of my lesson.
As you read more and more you begin to understand things that pilots say, for instance there's flying, and then there's "coordinated" flying which involves paying close attention to attitude. Now it's important not to get confused here as attitude refers to the plane's attitude, not the attitude of the pilot, although as I found out in my next lesson, one can certainly affect the other.
In any case, it was beautiful day of flying. I learned a few things and proved to my young instructor that I understood the nature of both attitude and coordinated flying as he walked me through a series of climbing and descending turns until we gracefully made our way back to the runway where he performed what appeared to be a perfect landing in the shallow crosswind.
Again, I was elated, and I'd proven to both myself and my instructor that I had what it was going to take to learn how to fly. In his own words, "I think you'll do quite well with this, given the way you took to it today".
That's all my vanity needed hear, I was ready.