For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to fly a plane. I've flown simulators for the 787 Dreamliner and the F-35 Lightning II, but I longed to actually control one — in the air, with my own hands. On Friday, I finally got that chance.
Going back to my toddler years when my Dad had a Cessna 172, we pretended I was his co-pilot in the right seat, but he sold the plane when I was three or four years old. He also worked for an airline, so we did a fair amount of traveling. Back in the 1980s, it was totally okay to visit the flight deck during a flight, and I did that on several occasions. My most memorable cockpit visit was on a PanAm Boeing 747. My little brother and I got to go up there, right around sunrise, while making the first Atlantic crossing of our lives. I was in 4th grade, and by this point, the aviation bug had bitten me hard.
Fast-forwarding 28 years, one of my coworkers casually mentioned that he's a private pilot, and I said "I wanna go!" A few months went by, and I didn't really think about it much until early this week, when he said he was planning to go up and invited me along, free of charge.
We met at Centennial Airport (airport code: APA) which is about 18 miles south-southeast of downtown Denver. He grabbed the plane's logbook from the office, a headset for me, and we set out across the ramp until we came upon our ride — N505JF, a Diamond Aircraft Company DA-40 Diamond Star. He opened the canopy, which lifts up and forward, like the hood of a Corvette. The canopy is a huge bubble, providing a seamless panoramic view. He unhooked the tethers at each wingtip and the base of the tail, and completed the rest of the preflight checks, then we pulled the plane by hand out in the sun to let it warm up for a few minutes.
Next, we climbed in, buckled up and he started the engine. We taxied over to an engine run-up area. On the way, he proved how little I know about flying a plane by telling me to keep the plane on the taxiway line. Seems simple enough, so I grabbed the stick in front of me, between my legs. The nose started to veer right slightly, so I pushed the stick left to correct the movement. Nothing happened. He reminded me that you steer the plane by using the rudder pedals. Duh, Paul... I KNEW that - but in the excitement of the moment, I had failed to remember it. I've never had any flight training, and this flight wasn't a lesson, but he knew that I was interested in flying the plane since I had never done so.
Garmin G1000 panels in a DA42 (nearly identical cockpit) by Matthew Piatt
After the run-up, we received takeoff clearance and took off, making our way toward downtown Denver. He did all of the flying at this point, as well as the radio communication. The plane was equipped with a sweet Garmin G1000 avionics system. The left panel showed out altitude, airspeed, heading and communication info, while the right panel was our GPS, and traffic identifier, as well as fuel, oil temperature and pressure gages.
Flying near downtown at about 1,200 feet above ground level, we saw the state capitol, and some other notable buildings including the Broncos' stadium: Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Next, we turned south and headed toward Chatfield State Park.
This is the part where I got to fly! He gave me control of the plane, and I death-gripped the joystick while keeping the plane going straight and level. I handed him my phone to take a picture of me, because of course I want photographic proof, plus it's one of the coolest thing's I've ever gotten to do. Next, I got to practice some turns. I used a little bit of stick and rudder to roll the plane about fifteen degrees right and then left, while keeping the nose level. It was only a precious few minutes, but I can finally say I have flown a plane.
I think I've got the hang of it, too! Okay no, not really. But it's not as hard as people might think it is. At least not in this small, single-engined plane. Then again, (and I realize I'm being extremely general here) all planes pretty much have the same control functions, but varying greatly in size, speed, and capacity. Do I want to be a pilot? Absolutely! Will I ever get a pilots' license? I feel like the most realistic answer is sadly, no. Why not? Because it's too damn expensive.
Being a married guy, a father, and on the old side of my mid-30s, it just seems selfish for me to go joyride around at $100-120 bucks an hour, when there are more important priorities on which to be spending money. It makes me sigh to even think about this reality, but there it is. You're now required to accumulate 1,500 flying hours to get an airline pilots' license, which amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you plan to fly commercially, you can look at the expense as an investment, like a medical degree. Pay a bunch now, in hopes of making a bunch several years from now.
Not to sound defeatist here, but that's my reality. If it's something you're going for, and you have the time and money, then I highly encourage you go for it. I am thrilled that this writing gig has brought me some pretty amazing opportunities, like riding in the Goodyear Zeppelin, and aerobatics with Kirby Chambliss, so I really have nothing to complain about.
Top photo, the Diamond DA-40 that I flew. That is not me in the cockpit.
Paul Thompson is a aviation journalist with over 13 years of experience working in the airline industry, who maintains the website Flight Club for Jalopnik.com. You can contact Paul to submit story ideas, your own "Plane Porn" photos, and comments regarding this or any other aviation topic via email at Paul@Jalopnik.com