Learning to Fly & First Solo.

After flying with Hans back in January – I quickly got to thinking about how cool it was to fly, and how accessible it was to do so. I had tinkered with flight simulators a lot when I was a kid, but I always just assumed it would be utterly unthinkable to actually consider flying a real airplane.
It turns out that learning to fly is not cheap, but it is doable. Since it takes a while to learn, the cost can also be spread over a few months. There are various numbers out there, but think about between $10k to $20k to obtain a private pilot license at the current time. I also live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which increases the cost some.

The first thing I did was to figure out which of my friends had any contact with the aviation community and find a good instructor. I had worked at Viant after Vance Cochrane was there. Vance recommended Dominique Marais as an instructor at West Valley Flying Club – so I took a discovery flight with her in an old Cessna 172. Since I wanted to broaden my horizons a little, I also took a discovery flight with Tim Stingle in a Diamond Katana. My flight with Tim was much more intense than the flight with Dominique, as he took more of a “drop you in the deep end” kind of approach, plus the Katana is really a very light and maneuverable plane. I like the variety of planes that West Valley has available, and I think Dominique’s teaching style works better for me – so that’s how that decision was made. In retrospect Diamond Aviation is no longer listing the Katana’s on their site, and I more often fly out of Palo Alto, so I’m very happy with my choice, and Dominique is a great (and patient) teacher and a fun person to be around.

The next issue I ran into was getting a TSA clearance to learn to fly. Since I was still a green card holder when I started my training I first had to get a new UK passport, and then apply to the alien flight student program. You don’t need this for your first “discovery flight” with a flight school, (you can also log your discovery flight, so get your logbook first), but for any subsequent flight training in the air, you need this. I kept my frustration to a minimum by doing a lot of ground study while this was going on.

My early training was thick and fast. The learning curve is steep at the beginning – and there are a lot of things to remember, and new things are introduced almost every lesson. This makes the process very rewarding, and the first time you execute a takeoff, or a steep turn, it is all memorable and fun.

After a few months of training, Dominique felt that I was ready to solo, and my confidence level also started to improve to the point where that was possible. I left it a little late getting my Medical certificate. This was a big mistake. The fact that I am asthmatic meant that I had to go to the hospital for a ~$2000 set of lung tests before I could get my medical certificate. Having done that, I’ll have to have the same batch of tests done again this year, since they only issued me a single year certificate. The delays and issues with getting this done meant that it took about 3 months from start to finish and was quite stressful and difficult to organise.

Having gotten my medical and preparing for the solo phase check; naturally all my skills fell apart in a ball of nervousness and anxiety; so some more time was then spent correcting this.

Finally, on November 2nd, 2007 I did my first solo. 3 laps of the pattern at Palo Alto airport. This was a huge moment for me and I enjoyed it immensely. I’d always messed around with flight simulators on the computer when I was a kid. I never even considered it would be possible to actually learn to fly. I also didn’t expect it to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.

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