Features  / 12.12 /

Listening in

A day at the flight school

It’s early in the morning on a winter day at the Fargo Jet Center. A CFI walks out with a new student. The sky is clear. It’s cold, but not very cold. And, for this part of the prairie, the wind is nothing to remark about.

This is lesson number one—first flight day. CFI and student have already spent a half-hour in the office, getting the logbook in order, going over today’s flight. Now, slowly, they remove the thermal blanket from around the cowl and begin the careful preflight. Wings attached? Check.

I can tell from the student’s face that every bit of this morning is being memorized. He will tell the story when he gets home. He will tell it again when he goes out. He will tell it Monday morning at work. He will call someone on the phone—it doesn’t matter who—and he will tell them the story once more.

There are always stories.

Spend some time in the lobby or waiting room of a flight school and pretty soon you see “Wide-Eyes” talking to “Wry-Grin.” “Adrenaline” talking to “Reason.” Introductory flights, scheduled next to checkrides. “What If” talking to “Never Again.”

I admit this one bad habit: I linger here. It’s difficult to leave the flight school, which is also the rental desk, because so many stories leap into the conversation air. Instructors and students fill the whole range of experience and hope. So I spend a day lingering, with only three questions: Why do you want to be a pilot? What did you do today? How was it?

» Paul Omernik
30 years old; University physics department lab coordinator
Flight time: 0.8 hour

“I love to travel. You can say it’s in my family. None of my immediate family fly, but my great-uncle flew P-51Bs during World War II. I just love flying. I’ve been up in the Mustangs, so it’s pretty much been a childhood dream. I’m a photographer, too, so I hope to bring that in somehow.

“Today was my first flight. We took off to the south and came around in the traffic pattern and did a touch and go. It was windy! I’ve flown a lot in flight simulators, but having the tactile feel is a whole new level. We immediately had a crosswind that pushed us off the centerline. I think at one point we had a 41-degree-crab angle. That was pretty amazing.”

» John Heier
28 years old; CFI
Flight time: 850 hours

“I’ve always wanted to be a pilot, ever since I was a little kid. I don’t remember ever wanting to be anything else. I couldn’t handle a desk job, that’s for sure. My first time in a front seat was when I was in high school. Old junky airplane. I think it was a Piper Warrior or Archer. My second time was a Cessna 152. I got away from the lessons a bit in high school, so I got my private when I was starting college. I was 19.

“The challenge is the thing for me. Every day and every student is new. Every day is different. Everything about an office is something I could never do.

“Today was a pretty typical discovery flight. The guy knew a bit, understood the basic premise of flying. But even his eyes got big when we landed on one wheel in the crosswind.”

» Austin Langley
20 years old; college student
Flight time: 14 hours

“My dad and all his brothers and cousins are farm kids south of Devil’s Lake [North Dakota]. They all learned to fly in my dad’s yellow [Piper] Super Cub. I’ve been riding along ever since I was little, and I really, really wanted to take over the controls and fly. I even remember my first flight. I came home from kindergarten, and my dad asked if I wanted to go check on some cows. We took off and then landed right in the middle of a pasture. We gave a shot to a sick calf and then flew back. I’ll never forget that.

“Today we just did pattern work here and in West Fargo. That’s a small runway, just like a highway. It’s really nice out there today and the pattern work went great. Really easy day for touch and goes. Not many aircraft.”

» Hans Ahlness
50 years old; vice president of operations at Weather Modification Inc.
Flight time: 7,000 hours

“I was an airport rat. Even before I took lessons or had my license, all I wanted to do was fly in thunderstorms. I didn’t want to fly around and look at the beautiful rivers or trees. Storms were what got me flying. Last time I was up was a couple weeks ago in California training new cloud-seeding pilots. Took ’em up over the mountains IFR. It was great.”

» Nathan Musacchia
20 years old; college student
Flight time: 25 hours

“I always liked physics and the concept of flight. And I like to travel. Becoming a pilot puts together some of my interests in the best of all worlds. My first flight was last September. I think the whole thing is as difficult as I thought it would be, but once you get in the airplane it all comes to you, [it] becomes natural eventually. You start to feel bank and pitch.

“Today we stayed in and did a mock oral exam, went through the FAR/AIM. I think I did OK—most of the time we spent on questions I had to clear up what I wanted to say to the examiner.”

» Doug Grant
62 years old; retired pastor
Flight time: 56 hours

“This is something I wanted to do since high school and never had the time. My dad always knew people who had small airplanes and I was up in a lot of them. I definitely have more time in small planes than airliners. I have an uncle who was a bombardier in World War II. Richard Bong, the top ace in WWII, was a relative on my mother’s side of the family.

“I’m going for a sport pilot license. And I don’t intend to go beyond that. I’m not planning a new career or using this for essential transportation. I just like to fly.

“Today we did simulated short- and soft-field landings, touch and goes. We were going to go farther away, but with the low ceiling we decided to stay here. It went well. I impressed myself! It really helps to sit down and write out, so I can review ahead of time, the speeds and exactly what I’m going to be doing. Next week is a simulated checkride and I’m getting comfortable, so the week after that I should be ready. Now I’m heading out to meet a guy and fly in his [Flight Design] CTLS. What a day!”

» Carrie and Jeremy Wendt
35 and 38 years old; construction workers
Flight time: 0.8 and 1.1 hours

“It’s always been a dream of Jeremy’s—he’s always wanted to do it. His best friend is a crop duster. Some of our closest friends are pilots. Lots of time in small airplanes. He asked me if I wanted to do this with him and it was like I’m sure I’m going to say no to that!

“Today was his first flight. We went over how to trim, bank, turn. It’s a bit overwhelming, looking at all the instruments. But we’re excited. There’s lots of multitasking. It’s all smiles. I’m still reeling. Some major adrenaline going. I was nervous taking off. We’ve been married 15 years, that’s why we finish each other's sentences.”

» Alex Anderson
24 years old; CFII
Flight time: 1,100 hours

“I just always thought that it was kind of a cool job. I have a picture—it’s kind of neat—a picture of me and my aunt, who was a flight attendant for American. She got me up in the cockpit of some large airplane. This little kid in Zubaz and a sweatshirt looking at all these buttons. I think that kind of gave me the itch. When I was in high school my parents got me a discovery flight here at the Fargo Jet Center. That’s when I was hooked.

“I signed off a student for soloing today. I had three flights after that. Two were maneuvers for private pilots. Short and soft with one—just the basic pattern work with the other. In between them I flew with a student working on an IFR rating.

“It’s fun. It’s fun to see your student go from the person scratching their head to watching them progress in skill toward being a pilot. They amaze you sometimes. Leaps and bounds forward.”

» Steve Porter
26 years old; active duty Air Force
Flight time: 60 hours

“The thrill of flying has appealed to me ever since I was a little kid. There’s the whole thrill and challenge. Then again it’s relaxing up there. Eighth grade is when I first wanted to fly. I had an uncle who was a pilot. He had his own airplane and got me hooked. I joined the Air Force because I wanted to fly.

“Today was my private pilot checkride. I passed! I was little nervous, yeah, but not shaking nervous. Actually it was exciting. We did simulated cross-country, simulated engine failure, diverting to a new destination, a couple touch and goes, steep turns, stalls, slow flight. We did a go-around when I thought we were going to do a touch and go. It’s a beautiful day up there.

“It was good. It was all good. Now I plan to take my wife up and go somewhere, go somewhere for a weekend.”

W. Scott Olsen is an English professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.