The following is a story about dealing with the ups and downs of learning to fly a bigger airplane. 

It was a chilly spring morning in Talkeetna, Alaska. An uncontrollable shiver racked me as I walked up to the gleaming Garrett Turbine Otter. Set against a pale sky populated by thin cirrus, the white airplane seemed huge, remote, and utterly imposing. This was to be my first session of flight training in the beast, with the intent of culminating in my first IFR 135 checkride. As a mountain guide on Denali, I’d been a passenger in the Garrett Otter before becoming a commercial pilot, and was well aware of their capabilities. To me they’d always seemed like the mightiest weapon in the off-airport kingdom: a fire-breathing steed that behaved like a Super Cub at 8,000 pounds…yet also was able to fly through the clouds, cruise fairly fast (for a STOL airplane), and ascend to the 20,000 foot summit of Denali with ease. It seemed like a big jump for a low-time pilot like myself. My shiver, I realized, was born of nervousness and not the cold.

The mighty mountain ship in its natural habitat. Denali Basecamp, Alaska. Photo by author. 

Our two check airmen are merciless in their flight training and testing. The FAA would be proud. The main instructor is a powerful CFI and one of those pilots that has that “touch.” It’s hard to argue with such talent. He typically employs the method of negative reinforcement. We have been good friends since far prior to my employment at the air taxi, but every spring we set aside our friendship until after the checkride. My hands were shaking as I climbed into the cockpit with him. He sat there in the co-pilot’s seat, clipboard and pen in lap, sunglasses on, his jaw set sternly. And then I began my very first engine start. As I was toggling the fuel enrichment switch, he remarked “…I don’t know how you’re getting it to do this, but you’re moving the whole instrument panel with the switch. Light touch, OK? Don’t white-knuckle it.” Get a hold of yourself, I thought.

The moment I’d been waiting for: takeoff. I’d seen it done many times. Now I was the driver. The whole ship shuddered and ripped into the sky after only a few hundred feet of takeoff roll. All of a sudden we were at 6,000 feet, maneuvering above a glistening scattered layer with the emerald valley below. The session went unbelievably well. My nervousness turned to sheer joy. I’ve got this.

Due to scheduling, a week passed before my next session. My hands still shook as I climbed into the cockpit with my fearsome friend, but I was more excited than nervous. However, things went poorly from the start. I couldn’t even taxi the thing. There were about a million people out on the ramp that day, and they were all watching me, the “girl pilot,” struggle. Everyone on the field has always been very accepting of me, but I do think that I get watched more closely. “You’re not inspiring confidence in anyone,” said my instructor as he looked over at the watchers. A harsh but apt observation. It took all I had just to get the thing to the runway. Inevitably, the distraction of the difficult taxi led to me making more mistakes. We sat in silence on the runway after I’d taken the active before completing the pretakeoff checklist. I listened to the powerful, rich hum of the turbine at high idle, ready to launch into the sky. “What do you think you should do?” he said. After a few seconds, I pulled the condition lever back. “I think we’re done for today,” I replied. He nodded silently. After a fight to get the airplane back to its parking spot, we shut down the engine. “What do you think you could have done better?” The classic CFI question. “I think something is broken on the plane,” said I. His thoughts were written on his face: excuses. I don’t get this.

I lay awake all night, contemplating my failure. A terrible voice played in my head: You think you’re a pilot? You want to fly like the best? Well, you’re nothing but a little girl, and you can’t even get the thing to the runway. And you’re a terrible instrument pilot. How are you ever going to take a checkride in this thing? But another, softer voice spoke through the murk: Maybe something really is broken on the airplane. Taking chances can lead to occasional failure. If you didn’t love the thrill, you wouldn’t have chosen this path. As fate would have it, a bushing in the tailwheel was the culprit. The thing steered beautifully after its replacement. It was time to rebuild my confidence.

When I began to write this, I had intended to share some advice on exactly how I managed to come back after such doubt. But in the process of writing, I realized I was joining the ranks of self-help articles. During my troubles, I read close to a million of those things on rebuilding confidence…and unanimously found them to be annoying and inapplicable to my situation/personality. So I’m not going to proffer any advice. All I can say is this: I simply decided that flight training is no place for self loathing. The line between confidence and arrogance is thin, and one that I’d probably taken too seriously. The doubt was degrading my performance. Standing in front of the airplane before my next session, I decided to let it go. It was an experiment in personality alteration…but what did I have to lose? And that’s when things started going really well for me.

A stiff crosswind was blowing the day of my checkride. The check airman was also the owner and director of operations, a fact that I found rather intimidating. Though an affable boss, he is every bit as stern with our flying as his henchman the instructor. With my new mantle of confidence, I managed to keep it together as I preflighted the dragon. “Just remember,” said one of my colleagues as I walked out the door, “…if you don’t pass this checkride, you won’t have a job and it’ll be really hard to find another one!” And, because I had chosen to be a confident pilot, I simply laughed.

Post-checkride and fully operational.

Leighan Falley grew up in Alaska and works as a professional pilot among the continent’s tallest mountains. She lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, with a family that includes a climbing ranger husband, two little daughters, and a rough-looking PA 22/20 on tundra tires.