Taking flight lessons at a local airport may not be as difficult as you think. Our editor shares her experience of flying the friendly skies over Orange County
Riding high: Abel (left) and Quade negotiate the airspace over Orange County
Photographs by Holley Meister
I’ve always loved everything about flying. When I was a small child my mother incorporated the “airplane ride” into our nightly bedtime ritual. My sister and I would get bounced around while sitting on my mother’s lap in her oversized, spinning/rocking chair. My mother would voice the stewardess (in a sexy tone) and the pilot (in a more serious voice); we always looked forward to the inevitable turbulence (which was the best part of the “ride”). As an adult, even after 9/11 made flying so chaotic, I still couldn’t wait to get to the airport. Long lines be damned — soon I’d be airborne, with all its unique delights.
But actually fly a plane myself? Somehow that didn’t seem within the realm of possibility. It seemed too hard, too expensive — too much like something that other people did. So I was thrilled to put these assumptions to the test when I was offered the opportunity to take an introductory flight at Freedom Air, located at the Orange County Airport in Montgomery.
“The perception is that learning to fly is very hard to do,” says Chris Dancy, director of media relations for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “But it’s not. The instructors use the building-block technique, so you don’t have to digest everything all at once.”
Well, there certainly was a lot to absorb when my instructor, Gary Quade, launched into all the things we needed to do for the preflight inspection. Upon arrival, Quade — a no-nonsense, 50-something-year-old who for years ran a local flight school with his father — had introduced me to my plane: a single engine, four-seat Piper Warrior — apparently one of the most common planes used by student pilots. But I was having trouble concentrating: the plane was so small, it looked like a toy. Suddenly, my fear level ratcheted up a notch or two (or three). Still, I got through the inspection: checking tires, brakes, rudder, the twin gas tanks — the works. Finally, Quade deemed it “airworthy.”
I climbed into the cramped pilot’s seat and was immediately relieved to see that Quade was armed with his own identical set of controls. As we began taxiing down the runway, Quade opened his door to help combat the stifling heat (this plane had no air conditioning), which no doubt caused or contributed to the extreme nausea I felt at times throughout my flight. (Note to potential pilots: Avoid taking your first flight lesson on a 95-degree day.)
Safety first: Before takeoff, Quade reviews the preflight inspection checklist with his eager student
When we hit 50 mph, I pulled back on the yoke. Slowly, and a bit shakily, we took off, and soon reached our 1,300-foot cruising altitude. It was deafeningly loud in the plane (the heavily padded headphones seemed to help little), but Quade rattled on with a nonstop parade of information about the control panels, the difference between turning and banking (I’m still not entirely sure, but it seems that banking involves using the wing flaps to lean the airplane in one direction), and the Orange County airspace. At one point, before my first “bank to the left,” Quade announced that there were currently seven planes in our airspace. When I asked how he knew this — expecting to see the planes on a radar screen or something — I was shocked when he announced that he could tell by looking out the window. He went on to explain that Orange County Airport has no control tower (the airport in Dutchess County is bigger and does have one); the pilots “need to look around,” talk with the other pilots on the radio, and follow general aviation rules. This low-tech solution terrified me, but I had little time to think about it as we suddenly “banked to the left” and I was left completely disoriented; we could have been completely upside down for all I knew. “Try to look out the front, look at the nose, it will help,” Quade suggested. Little did he realize that I had secretly closed my eyes for a few minutes; I figured that, after all these years in the pilot’s seat, he wasn’t about to let this ship go down.
Once I opened my eyes again, I was finally able to start enjoying the view. The Hudson Valley is beautiful from any angle, but I now had a unique vantage point. There was West Point; in the distance I could spot the majestic Mohonk Mountain House; there were acres of hilly areas that I had never noticed before. All too soon, it was time to bring the plane down. I found the landing to be fairly instinctual (which is easy to say now, since the affable and obviously capable Quade was really at the helm) and twice as much fun as landing in a big jumbo jet. My legs were shaking after climbing out of the plane — it was a bit like the exhilarated, yet tired feeling you have after getting off a roller coaster. Overall, I felt great.
After my flight I did a little research on the different types of available pilot certificates and licenses. The traditional private pilot’s license requires approximately 40 hours of total flight time and costs, on average, almost $10,000. A recreational certificate requires 30 hours in the air, costs approximately $7,700 to achieve, and has certain restrictions (you can only have one passenger, for example, and you can’t fly at night). Introduced in 2004 and growing in popularity, a sport pilot certificate is reserved for those who only want to fly light sport aircraft — a specific type of one- or two-seat plane. Earning this type of certificate requires about 20 total flight hours and costs approximately $4,400. There are also restrictions on landings and where you can fly.
Okay, so flying wasn’t that expensive or that hard, but what about safety? “It’s a common misconception that small planes are dangerous,” says Dancy. “But small planes fly for exactly the same reason that a 747 flies; it is the exact same principle. It’s a very, very safe mode of transportation. Accidents have declined tremendously since we started keeping records. Most accidents cause far fewer fatalities than people think.”
And of course you don’t have to buy a spanking new plane once you have earned some type of pilot’s certificate. You can buy a used plane, share a plane with several people, or do what most people do: rent an aircraft when you need it. Usually, renters are charged for the amount of time that the motor is actually running, not by how far they fly. At Freedom Air, for instance, you can rent a four-seater Piper Cherokee, one of the most reliable and popular planes in the aviation world, for $83 an hour.
But you’ll never know until you try. “Everyone I’ve spoken to remembers exactly what it was like to take their first solo flight without an instructor,” says Dancy. “It is obviously not the life-changing experience that having a child is. But most people say that they remember every detail. They tell me: ‘I couldn’t stop smiling for a week.’ ”