“It’s a lot, I know,” said pilot Kyra Becker. “I promise, it’ll all make sense as we start flying more and more.”
“A lot,” I said sighing. “Yeah.”
I never intended to go for my pilot’s license, despite the fact that I love to fly. I love the promise of adventure, to land in a world drastically different from my own. To experience the new people, places, foods and culture, and to travel a long way from home.
To me, planes mean promise. The promise of a new journey. They mean excitement, newness and thrill.
I just never thought I’d end up in the cockpit.
If you’re new to Cessnas, they’re usually somewhat old. There are new planes, but you’re likely to encounter a tweed cushion and off-white painted interior, with a 1970s color scheme and instruments that have been used a few times. Frankly, sitting in my first Cessna, I questioned whether she was up-to-date with all of her tune-ups and modernizations, but I trust Border Air and their mechanics: they’re obsessed with what they do.
“We’ll never put you in a plane I wouldn’t put my children in,” said Franklin County Airport manager Cliff Coy.
The seats in the Cessna 150L N11554 are tight, and since both Becker and myself are small in stature, we fit just fine. But even with the close vicinity, headsets and microphones are absolutely essential for communication between pilots.
You don’t really look at each other at all, either: a little curved mirror on the dashboard helps both of you look directly at one another without turning your head, so your eyes can always be on the ground, on your instruments, on your horizon and on your points of reference, such as grain silos, mountains and landmarks.
But before you even get into the airplane and before even opening the door, first you have to make certain the plane’s exterior is okay to fly.
“Run your hand over the surface of the prop to make sure there aren’t any big nicks,” Becker said during our walk-around. “If there are, you probably shouldn’t fly.”
Pre-flight inspections include looking closely at the plane for any larger scale corrosion, checking gas and oil, checking for low air in the tires and making sure the empennage (tail section) and rudder surfaces are good to go.
There’s an extensive checklist you have to make certain that you go over with a fine-toothed comb about three different times before you take to the skies, because once you’re up, there’s nowhere to go but down.
The engine grunts to life with the turn of a key and just like in the movies, the propeller begins to spin. The sound of the plane rumbles through the tiny cabin as Becker releases the brakes.
“Ready?” Becker said.
“Ready,” I said.
Becker is a professional pilot: unlike every pilot I’ve met in the terminals of airports around the world, Becker is 19 and already holds her private, commercial, instrument and instructor’s licenses, technically her CFI and CFII (Certificate Flight Instructor and Certificate Flight Instructor with Instrument licenses, respectively). She said she hopes to one day fly larger aircraft, and plans to make it her career.
But watching and listening to her radio the airport and Franklin County Traffic, you’d think she’d been doing this for decades. The complexity of the language, which is foreign to anyone outside of aviation, the codes, the calls, and knowledge of the interactive maps showing other aircraft and their precise location is both impressive and daunting.
Her craft is an entire field of study that is both intimidatingly complex and nuanced, and yet she’s already mastered it.
“Franklin County Traffic Cessna 11554,” she announces into her microphone before looking around to make sure we aren’t crossing anyone’s path.
She brings more power to the engine, and the propeller spins louder as she releases the brakes entirely, and the plane hurtled down the runway before smoothly leaving the pavement and sailing gracefully into the air, climbing above the tree-line.
“Pitch for airspeed, power for altitude,” Becker said.
I can never remember that.
Learning to Fly documents staff writer Kate Barcellos' weekly experiences pursuing a pilot's license.