I’ve loved airplanes for as long as I’ve loved cars. While it would take me until I was 24 to actually set foot on a plane, I wanted to fly for as long as I can remember. As a child, my dream was to become a pilot. I’m finally making that happen.
I wasn’t planning to take flight instruction; the opportunity was an awesome surprise from my significant other. She signed me up for what the flight school called a Discovery Flight, a ground school introduction followed by a 30-minute flight.
We arrived at Galt Airport in Wonder Lake, Illinois, on a sunny afternoon. I was nervous. I had been flying virtual planes in simulators for at least a decade, but this was the real deal. Could I do it? Would I like it? Would it be like meeting a hero and finding out they suck? I had so many questions that I didn’t have much time to ponder as my chariot — a 1975 Cessna 172M — arrived at the gas pump to be topped up. My instructor for the flight showed up a moment later.
The Discovery Flight starts off simply enough. The instructor walked me around the aircraft as we both checked every nut and bolt as part of the pre-flight check. When you learn to drive a car or motorcycle you’re taught to check your vehicle before every drive. Checking a plane before every flight is like that, but on steroids.
Every bolt holding the flaps (a movable part of the wing used to reduce the stalling speed) on has to be checked, and the same goes for the control cables for the rudder, the condition of the tires and even the quality of fuel in the wings. I checked the propeller to make sure it was free from major damage. It was honestly the most fun I’ve ever had making sure I wasn’t going to crash a vehicle.
When we were done checking every inch of the exterior, it was time to hop inside and switch on all of the lights. Yep, we needed to check those, too, to make sure everything was working. When we were done with that, we moved to the interior to do ... more checks.
Inside the Cessna we followed a very handy laminated checklist. Much like the exterior, the interior checks were incredibly thorough. As we worked through the list we made sure circuit breakers weren’t popped, fuel was set to feed from both wing tanks, batteries held a charge and that our controls worked as they should.
When everything passed checks we woke the Cessna’s engine from its slumber. But we weren’t ready to depart just yet. With the engine running we were able to work down the list, making sure all of the plane’s vitals were good to go.
This Discovery Flight was hands-on. As I learned how the plane worked, I worked with the instructor to prepare for takeoff. We went through procedures for handing control of the aircraft to each other. Then before I knew it, he began rolling the little plane down the taxiway, and my dream was about to come true.
After more checks, we prepared to enter the runway. Then there were some radio calls, and it was our turn to go. I still couldn’t believe I was at the controls of a real airplane. The Cessna lifted into the sky almost effortlessly at 70 miles per hour.
During the second portion of the Discovery Flight, the instructor introduced me to the basic dynamics of flight. He showed me how to fly by sight, using the horizon as a reference point for level flight. Then he handed control of the plane over to me and showed me how to perform some maneuvers. The controls felt far better than those of any simulator I’d ever flown.
The instructor had me perform some turning and climbing maneuvers to get a feel for the aircraft. He was so impressed with my plane control that he had me turn us around to head back to the airport. I guess those flight sims paid off!
After we landed, he said I was a natural. We parked the plane and went inside for a debrief. As he filled out my logbook for the flight, I concluded that I definitely want to get a pilot’s license. I scheduled my next lesson right away, and I absolutely can’t wait to start learning in earnest this week.
Flight school will be expensive, but I’m going to love every minute. Once I’ve racked up 40 flight hours, I can prepare to get my license.
If you’ve ever had even a passing interest in flying a plane, I highly recommend you take the equivalent of a Discovery Flight at your local airport. Even if you decide against flight school, it’s an experience you will never forget. You’re likely to see more of my adventures in flying in the future, including getting under the hood of one of these beasts.