You have just enough hours and experience to pull it off in ideal conditions after a final assessment at the airfield on the day in the prevailing conditions. It is a tremendous feeling and achievement – not just for yourself – but for the school and your instructor.

Read my rememberance of the momentous day HERE. (PDF file)

It probably took over a week for me to come down from the high!

Dreadful weather Sunday. A 90 knot wind shear over the airport on Sunday had SouthWest divert all flights elsewhere. I took a friend to the airport this morning to get back to San Francisco but didn’t really think I would get my lesson in – but no – there was a quiet spot over the airport. In a double block lesson today – 14 landings.

First block we did 4 but then had the flaps not fully retract on the climb out. They did when we cycled them but we went down to talk to the mechanic. Of course we couldn’t find anything wrong. Perhaps a little frozen moisture in the grease on the tracks. So after another preflight – up we went again.

We carved around the sky over Providence with thick murk all around but not in our little bubble over the airfield. Crosswind landings, into wind landings, short field landings, extended downwinds and go arounds when a Lear jet came whistling in too fast behind us. I had one “bounce” which needed a go-around but otherwise at the end I was told – “you are now doing ‘safe’ landings”. Meaning they are nothing to write home about but I won’t break the plane! Hey I did an 11 knot full on cross wind landing – the airplane is only rated up to 14. I was quite pleased with that one!

Last climb out the instructor was so off the controls – I thought he had messed with my trim when I wasn’t looking to see what I would do when the plane pitched wrongly. I re-trimmed quite significantly and told him to stop messing with me but no he hadn’t – the flaps didn’t retract properly again. We cycled them and they went up fine. Down we came and back to the mechanic. We finally traced it to the switch that drives the motor – not to the actual flaps themselves.

Still – I am now making “safe” landings….. It has only taken about 50………..

A classic line heard on the radio this morning. A passenger jet having just taken off from Providence and leaving the airspace….

“Providence Departure – this is Flight1234 – sorry – I’m having a senior moment – what altitude did you want me at?”…..

I can now fly the plane in an elementary way and am considered “safe”. I can check it over, start up, talk to ground control, get it off the ground and put it where it is supposed to be in the sky – without falling out of the sky – and I can do the basic emergency drills to a degree considered OK – though the truth is – they all involve looking for a soft spot to get down on after you have blown out the fire with a dive or tried to start the engine and it has not. The local beaches are good emergency runways though we pull out at 500ft and don’t actually perform the (simulated) emergency landing!

Lesson today. Landing is the HARDEST part and it is all we did today. You have to do it again and again and again. I did 10 approaches today. On 2 we deliberately flew the length of the runway just 5 ft above it. This is to practice slow flight control and to “feel” the plane just before it touches down – which you can as it rides in a cushion of air between the wings and the ground. It is actually quite hard to get it to sink through this last bit.

Of the other 8 approaches – on one – the plane ahead of us on the runway did not get off the runway fast enough and so we flew a “go around” where you power up to full power and go back up – which is not quite as simple as it might seem because you have the plane all set up to go down – not up. On another – another aircraft to the north did something wrong and we went around to stay out the way.

When we were “in the pattern” around the airport and not landing the jets taking people to other airports were taking off and landing. Oh and just for fun – the National Guard showed up to practice touch and goes in their C-130 transport aircraft. It was a busy 90 mins and 6 actual touch downs later I finished my lesson.

Double lesson on Saturday to practice……….more landings. Damn they are hard!

We are going to Minnesota for Thanksgiving. I’ll miss my lesson. I search around on the web and find a flying school at Crystal Airport just north of Minnesota. It is called “The Flying Scotchman”. It is surely fated that I fly here. I email them and a nice CFI called Steve Fischer agrees to take me up for a lesson on the Friday.

Got to hand it to these guys for their winter flying. Plough your way to the hanger door and pull the plane out. Take it over to the pre-flight hanger – heated. Pre-flight. Check survival gear in the back. Open door push out, start up and GO. A tip at preflight from Steve who also teaches gliding. Shake the wings. He rigs gliders a lot after towing them to a field on a trailer. You shake the wing to make sure it is firmly bolted on. Doesn’t do any harm on a Cessna to make sure it is still attached too!

We fly north over the lakes to sight see. If you are looking for an emergency landing spot – pick a field – there are a ton to choose from. Just don’t pick a frozen lake. We let down at a strip at Cambridge. It is about 50% snow and ice but this doesn’t seem to bother Steve. After our first landing another aircraft in the pattern calls down and asks about the braking effect. Steve replies it is “good”. I look at him. “Well for this time of year” he says to me!

Got to play with Carb Heat for real (at Providence we are fuel injected and don’t have it) and the ADF. There are fewer VOR’s around here and still quite a lot of ADF stations. We do a few landings at Cambridge and head back to Crystal. Steve gives me some tips about landings. A great lesson on a beautiful clear day.

My girlfriend has been very supportive of this undertaking. I talk to my instructor and he agrees she can come on a lesson in the back seat to see what it is all about. Realistically we will not be performing all our normal manouevers as it can get a bit rough in back. It won’t be a wasted lesson because all time in the air is good. But I should understand that he won’t introduce anything new and we will keep it simple. That’s fine with me.

Funnily enough my girlfriend is a little less keen on my idea! But she is game and comes along. I’m six lessons in and just begining to handle the radios – she catches a picture of me setting up. Afterwards she smiles and says I was welcome to keep flying – she however will wait till I get my license and can fly in the front seat before repeating the experience!

Lunchtime – I arrive at Airport Road in Warwick – having driven past the usual airport entrance and around the end of the field. There are hangers behind the fence, a big “Learn to Fly Here” sign on the end of the big hangar. A trail of little yellow airplanes painted on the sidewalk leads to the school door in the old control tower building. I go through the door. A counter – I’m immediately greeted by a young guy called “Chris” – according to his name badge. There are aviation prints, flags from around the world from people who learned at the school, a case with headsets and aircraft models, some seats and magazines.

We do some paperwork. Chris detects my Scottish accent. He will need to perform a background check on me before I am ever able to solo. A legacy from 9-11. I explain I’m actually an American and produce a US Passport. Clearly this has just saved a ton of extra paperwork. Big smile from Chris. We talk about flying – what else?

My instructor is finishing up with the last student – he will be right with me.

Someone appears through a door telling the person who is clearly a student what they will do next time. The student leaves and I’m introduced to Greg Hamelin. He grabs me a guest headset from the school’s loaner pile, grabs a flight box for an aircraft and takes me down to the classrooms on the side of the hanger. Each desk has a computer, books and some aviation print or similar. We sit down at his. We go over what is about to happen. We are cautiously sounding each other out. We turn to the computer and get a volume of information from it – don’t worry – it gets easier with time – Weather – standard briefing, radar picture, METARS, TAF’s, TFR’s and NOTAMS all written in code and requiring interpretation. I note the website we are using for later study. We do this before EVERY flight. Especially TFR’s – Temporary Flight Restrictions – they can pop up at a moment’s notice and leave you grounded or in big trouble if you fly.

We go out to the aircraft. Cessna 172′s and 152′s – they are all parked in a neat row with their nose wheels over one of those little yellow painted aircraft symbols. We go up to N2459Y – a Cessna 172. Greg produces a checklist and we give the aircraft a thorough preflight inspection. This cannot be rushed or compromised and in fact the first few lessons it probably uses up 30% of the lesson while you understand the importance and implications of everything you check over. We get in – Greg putting me in the left – pilot’s – seat and he gets in right seat. I picked the larger and slightly more expensive 172 aircraft for comfort. Let’s say you had better not mind being close buddies – the smaller 152 – must be cramped.

More checklists – getting ready – more checklists – starting up – Greg’s hands are a blur on the radio panel – switching and setting and GPS programming and VOR settings and clicking and “check check” in my ears to make sure I hear him. We taxi over to the runup pad – Greg driving from the right seat. Swing into wind to keep the engine cool and another checklist. Runup, dials and needles checked, switches pulled and flicked. I’m prompted into performing some of the actions because I can reach the switches more easily from my seat. Radio calls for clearance. My familiarity with the phonetic alphabet from a past life at sea and an undestanding of how runways are marked means about 10% of the chatter is intelligible. Otherwise I would be lost. Apparently we are cleared to taxi. We start moving and Greg suggests I might like to try steering – with my feet on the rudder pedals. I’m hardly capable of staying on the yellow line all the way to the taxiway. I keep instinctively trying to steer with the yoke in front of me – like a car wheel – it does exactly squat for my heading. I’m told I will get it in time.

We arrive at a runway. More checklists, radio chatter and switch flicking. I think I heard we were cleared to take off. We pull onto the runway and I’m told to try flying her off – he is kidding – right? Full power, keep her in the middle – when that needle gets to 55 – pull back gently. OK – he has a set of controls too and he is clearly shadowing me – but off we go and amazingly I seem to get her into the air. We turn – that way – I’m looking at the Directional Gyro – like a ship’s compass. I can do this bit and I point in the right direction as we climb out. no no – stop looking at the instruments – only for a moment – look at the horizon – look outside – see how the plane makes an angle with the sky. Another flurry of radio activity, switch flicking and we climb out to the Newport Training Area. We level off and fly along. Another checklist.

We do some simple turns and climbs and descents. I’m told not bad. A lot of emphasis is placed on “Your controls”, “My controls”, “You have the controls”. There is going to be no doubt or ambiguty as to who is flying the plane! We perform clearing turns, try slow flight with flaps and perform a stall or two. “It is just another manouever – not fatal.” I know in my mind that there is a qualifer to that. You need to be high enough to get out of it – but we started at 3,000ft and only seem to lose a couple of hundred feet. Looking around I can see we are being blown across the sky by the wind. This is like ferry gliding in a tide. The visual cues are all the same with the advantage that you can look down on some of them.

Time to head back. We are cleared for runway 34 and I can see it and relate to it on the Directional Gyro – which we keep correcting because it precesses. This is the first thing of the day that I have “got” and which I can relate to. Everything else – all preconceived notions have been blown out the window. I even understand we are being blown across our heading slightly and start correcting with a crab angle so we proceed directly to it. Now I just do as I am told – pulling out power, pointing the nose down, adding flaps, pointing the nose down at what seems a truly disastrous angle that must lead to an impact with the runway. We are bucketing around a bit in the turbulence and suddenly Greg’s hands are a blur on the yoke as he corrects for the gusts in the last few feet and I pull my feet away from the rudder pedals as he dances on them too. We are down. More radios, switch flicking and we pull off the runway. I try taxiing back to the school. I’m not much better – lurching and wobbling along and missing the yellow line I am supposed to be following about 80% of the time.

Greg takes her back and by looking at some marker that he can see in his mind – I have no idea what he is actually looking at – he parks her. When we get out – the nosewheel is bang on the little yellow airplane. We run through some more checklists to secure the aircraft. I manage to put in the wheel chocks without making a klutz of myself.

Back into the classroom. What do I think? Do I want to try this? Do I want to buy the lesson pack now or wait till I have had another couple of lessons and then make my mind up? I buy the pack on the spot – I get a flight bag with a pile of books, a syllabus, reference material, some very intimidating looking question packs and a plotter, an E6B calculator and a logbook. We fill in the logbook – though I ask Greg to leave the first two lines blank so I can fill in my Battle of Britain weekend lessons from a couple of days before.

On my way out the manager has a quiet word in my ear. Am I happy with Greg or do I want to try another instructor? There is nothing wrong with Greg he emphasises – just that a personality match on such an expensive undertaking is pretty important. I can try flying with others if I want. Greg has been thouroughly professional, I understood everything he explained and I felt quite safe. He looks a hair older than the other youngsters who I saw in the classroom. I am happy to stick with Greg and say so.

Oh and I’ll take a copy of the checklists too – Looks like I have a lot to learn there.

16 Spitfires flying over Duxford airfield - 70th Anniversary Battle of Britain Airshow

A passing comment from my niece in Scotland about “Spitfires on Radio 4″ – I recalled standing in London for the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain while Spitfires and Hurricanes flew up the Mall and over Buckingham Palace. Now it was the 70th anniversay – I’m planning on learning to fly – starting next week. I couldn’t resist and flipped over to the UK for the weekend of 4/5 Sept.

I was able to get two lessons at the airshow. One in a 1941 Tiger Moth primary trainer and a second aerobatics in a AJ6 Harvard advanced trainer. Hopefully these will whet my appetite for the haul through flying school that is coming up.

Here are some of my photosets from the Airshow at Duxford.

Duxford 1940

A composite of shots to illustrate my Saturday lesson in the 1941 Tiger Moth

A composite of shots to illustrate the Sunday aerobatic lesson in the Harvard

The RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

The Red Arrows!

The Aerostars!

The Scottish Aviation DeHavilland Dragon Rapide

P51-D Mustangs

B-17 Sally B / Memphis Belle

The Messerschmitt 109

The Hurricanes!

The reason for coming…. SPITFIRES!

To open the show the Red Arrows roared in from behind the crowd and did a near flawless display. The spare pilot on the ground giving the commentary and he patched in the radio at times so you could hear the calls the lead pilots were making “Roll left – NOW”, “Smoke on – NOW!”; “Formation Spitfire – NOW!” (A special formation for the day to represent the planform of a Spitfire), “BREAK!” Only the “Now’s” and “Break’s” were very short staccato squawks to get everybody moving at the same moment.

A Hawker Sea Fury and Grumman Bearcat represented the last of the propeller age. Two P51-D Mustangs flew a tight formation all over the sky – Then the B-17G bomber painted as “Sally B” on her port side and “Memphis Belle” on her starboard side (she is really the first but played the role of the second in the movie) flew a display and at one point the Mustangs joined to offer protection against marauding Germans – if there were any about. As the Mustangs stayed to finish the element the B-17 disappeared over the horizon. Just as the Mustangs were landing he reappeared – left wing low and both port engines trailing smoke – shot up and “Coming in on a wing and a prayer”. He made a slow pass across the crowd – “In memory of the Eighth Air Force” from the commentator. The 8th was based at Duxford from 1943 and their Memorial is also at Duxford. The B17 lifted his wing – turned off the smoke generators and landed.

From behind the crowd the Battle of Britain Memorial flight roared in low over the control tower – The Lancaster, Hurricane and Spitfire racing cross field in a tight formation before displaying the Lancaster and fighters separately – The Spitfire landed to join in later and the other two left.

Then from out of nowhere the flight line of Spitfires was attacked by a lone “Messerschmitt 109” (A post-war Spanish Hispano Buchon) which made three strafing runs before a section of four Hurricanes scrambled off the flight line to go after him. I have to say that at the end of the wheeling dogfight over the airfield I have an enhanced and enormous respect for the Hurricane pilots who in 1940 were told to “leave the fighters and attack the bombers” and who hoped that someone had remembered to send some Spitfires along to cover them from the German fighters. As they wheeled in a mock dogfight over the field they had to break to get the Me109 off their tails as he could zoom climb away out of trouble compared to them. It was a stunning display and when you counted them up – we had seen 5 of the 6 remaining airworthy Hurricanes in the UK in the past few minutes. The “Me109” disappeared and as three of the Hurricanes landed the fourth flew a series of victory rolls over the field. The number of movie buffs in the crowd who could be heard quietly chanting “Never fly a Victory Roll over my airfield again! Do you hear me?” was an amusing testament to one of Christopher Plummer’s lines in the Battle of Britain movie.

Some lovely classic “filler aircraft”, the “Scottish Airways” Dragon Rapide, more Harvards, A desperately slow but agile Gloucester Gladiator which was Britain’s front line defense till 1938 gracefully tumbled around showing how inadequate a defense it would have been if still in the front line in 1940. A DeHaviland Wasp, the “Aerostars” civilian display team of YAK-6′s bought from the Soviets, painted up and flown by airline pilots for fun; a PBY/Catalina amphibian. A Belgian F-16 pulling stall turns on reheat to represent the 32 Belgians who fought in the Battle of Britain – then the line of Spitfires all started firing up and the crowd was on its feet.

They all taxied off down to the end of the field. The Mk1a starting up last and cutting the corner on the others – its small oil cooler not being up to an extended period of ground running. Then “Squadron Scramble” – and all 16 roared off down the field till they flew off to the east – filling the sky with roaring Merlin and Griffon engines – and off over the horizon out of sight.

Then like the support act to a more popular band – an aerobatic tumble from a small Bucker Jungmeister and Jungmann for a few minutes while the commentator rambled on about it being built by the Germans for the Swiss Airforce in 1938 and blah blah blah…… It was a nice routine – but I don’t think anyone was really watching it. Everyone waited in anticipation. Churchill’s “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” speech was rebroadcast across the field. As it finished we were asked to rise for a minute’s silence for the fallen and as we did and with impeccable timing – four modern Hawk trainers from RAF 19 squadron – the first to be equipped with Spitfires in 1938 – flew slowly down the line in diamond formation – the lead broke for the heavens to represent the “missing man”.

Then the 16 Spitfires gently came in – split into four sections of four. As they flew off the end of the field the minutes was up and they pushed their throttles forward and hauled around to do it again – only this time roaring low and close and positively thrilling the crowd with their supercharger whines and growls and a serious beat up of the airfield.

Splitting into two teams of eight they then started wheeling around the field from opposite ends passing just in front of the crowd at 50ft and then wheeling around to do it again.

A pair split off and started to fly Cuban Eights on the line while the rest kept wheeling through – for over 10 minutes. Then as oil temperatures started to rise one by one they would break for the ground and fly the curved approach back down to the field. Finally there was one left – my Mk IX friend from the morning lesson – who flew a positively awesome aerobatic display over the crowd while those who had landed lined up on the taxiway on the flight line.

As the aerobatic came into land – the Spitfires taxied along the taxiway in line ahead – snaking along as the pilots kicked their rudders back and forth to see around their noses and not run into the guy ahead. The crowd was on its feet – clapping loudly in a typically British way (no whoops and cheers – but very enthusiastic). Good Weekend – aerobatics with the Spitfire being the completely unexpected, unplanned bonus.

“What are we going to do next year?” – posed by my girlfriend. She was just back from a trip to Italy.

I was mulling over the fact that four different friends or clients were facing battles with cancer. I had hit the big 50 this year. If I didn’t do it now – I was never going to do it.

“I’m going to learn to fly – starting now” – I announced. A dream fuelled by 43 years of making model kits, Radio Control airplanes and a shelf of books on the topic – mainly about the World War II – Battle of Britain. The childhood memories of a movie and “Spitfires!” that saved the UK from German invasion. I have a part complete control panel from a Spitfire on my office wall. I’m under no illusions – this is going to be a hard slog to get my aging brain to fly an airplane straight and level. Soaring through the clouds performing aerobatics is a long way in the future – if ever.

“and where are you going to find the money for that?” was her down to earth response.

“I’m not going to pay anything into my pension for a year.” was the only reasonable source I could come up with. A glance at the “Livestrong” band I am wearing for my friends and I get approval.

I search around the internet for the local flying schools. After some research I decide that if I am going to do this right – I’m going to do it at a Part 141 school. A school that has stricter FAA oversight. In return I will be on a definite syllabus, there are classrooms, simulators and this can lead to learning to fly in less time. This is a midlife brain stretch – the equivalent of a year in college and I want to be challenged. The nearest Part 141 school is Horizon Aviation at T.F.Green – the regional (occassionally International) airport across the bay. You have to mix it with cargo planes and regional carriers flying to all destinations in America. That should keep it busy. The school has a relationship with New England Technical College’s aviation program. That seems good.

I make a call and book an “Airman’s Flight” – an introductory lesson September 9th.

Photography Year in Review – Click the image.