Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Wave Magazine article on flying (and me too)

In May the The Wave magazine ran an article on learning to fly. They contacted me to see if I would be interested in answering some questions and taking the reporter up for a flight. Of course I was up for it (no pun intended) . I really wanted to leave a good impression on the reporter about general aviation and prayed the article would show flying in a favorable light. As it turned out the article was better than I could have ever hoped.

Learning to Fly
Our intrepid reporter takes a crack at flying a plane and learns an unexpected lesson or two.
By Damon Orion
No matter how many statistics you’ve heard about airplanes being safer than cars, you’re bound to feel a little antsy the first time you attempt to fly a plane yourself. Take our word for it. As we soar 5,500 feet above Mount Madonna between Watsonville and Gilroy in a 2001 Cessna Skyhawk SP, and flight instructor Mary Ann Dach encourages us to take the controls into our own hands and steer the plane to the left, we can’t help raising an eyebrow in self-doubt: “Well… o-kaaay.”
Dach, who has been teaching for the nonprofit West Valley Flying Club (WVFC) for just over two years, smiles reassuringly, reminding us that she has a full set of controls at her passenger-side seat, and that she’s ready to reclaim control of the plane if anything goes wrong.
One deep breath later, it’s on: We move the control stick to the left, and the plane turns accordingly. The dark cloud of apprehension passes, and we quickly learn two things: a) after making a turn, it’s important to balance things out by moving the stick back in the opposite direction a little, and b) steering an airplane isn’t half as intimidating as it sounds. Granted, it’s a simple maneuver we’re performing, but it feels surprisingly straightforward and comfortable – safe, even.
Back on land at San Martin’s South County Airport, the site of one of four WVFC offices in or around the Silicon Valley area (others are located at Palo Alto, San Carlos and Hayward airports), Dach comments that flying is far from the dangerous hobby many people think it is. Safety, she says, is really a matter of choosing the right flying club: “Does the place look shoddy? Where did they do the maintenance? Does the maintenance have a good history? Those are all things that are easily searchable.”
Mind you, preparation doesn’t hurt, either. Successful flying is the result of many hours of study and practice, both in the air and on the ground. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires students to spend a minimum of 40 hours of flight time to get their private pilot’s licenses. The actual number of hours in the air will vary from person to person, but the national average is 65.
Dach says any pilot-to-be should also plan to put in approximately two hours of book study for every hour of flight. “It’s really fun to come to the lesson and learn how to fly a plane,” she comments. “The hard part is reading the regulations, reading the manual, doing your homework. If people do that, it’s way cheaper and way easier. But because you have two kids, and there’s a recital, and you forgot, that adds hours to your training – not having done your homework.”
David Rodenhaver, a flight instructor at Palo Alto’s Advantage Aviation, backs up Dach’s assertions. “[Flying] is not like driving a car, where you can kind of figure it out,” he states. “You do have to really put time into studying to be able to learn to fly and pass the test. Most people who come down to the airport to learn to fly definitely have the ability to do it. The people who don’t make it are usually the people who don’t put in the effort, don’t study.”
In spite of all the hard work involved, diligent students can learn the ropes fairly quickly. Rodenhaver, a charter pilot for Advantage as well as an instructor, says that after only two or three lessons, most of his students are already making their first landings. “The planes aren’t so fast that it’s a super-critical point where you have to do everything perfectly,” he explains. “People wander a little left or a little right of the centerline – of course, always in the general vicinity of the middle of the runway – and maybe you bounce once or twice, but then you just go around and try it again.” He adds that by the time the plane reaches the ground, it’s traveling at a moderate enough speed to allow for a little bouncing, which the planes are built to handle.
Landing is a particularly daunting maneuver to many new pilots, but in Dach’s opinion, it’s all in the mind. “It’s like anything – if you play baseball, you have to kind of clear your mind and know that you’re practiced, and everything you’ve been doing is going to get you through this,” she states. “It’s totally letting go and trusting yourself that you’ve done the training for this.”
Dach and Rodenhaver both stress that once you’ve mastered the finer points of flying, it’s still important to stay in practice. “It’s like a language,” Dach offers. “If you don’t speak it, you lose it.” Rodenhaver recommends flying two or three times a month to keep in shape. “It works the same way in cars,” he says. “If you go out of the country and you don’t drive for six months, you come back, and you’re gonna say, ‘Wow! This is really weird.’”
We mull all this over as we head home in our car, somewhat relieved to be at the helm of a much more familiar vehicle. Scant hours later, we get a hair-raising email from Mary Ann Dach: While driving home from our lesson, she was in a major accident when a mattress fell off the car in front of her. After doing a 360-degree flip and landing back on its wheels, Dach’s vehicle was hit from behind by another car. Her car was totaled and the other vehicle seriously damaged – but by some miracle, both drivers walked away unhurt.
Hmmm... maybe flying really is the safer way to travel.

West Valley Flying Club County Airport, 13025 Murphy Ave., San Martin (408) 683-4102Advantage Aviation, 1903 Embarcadero Rd., Palo Alto (650) 493-5987
*This Article appeared in Volume 8, Issue 10 of The Wave Magazine.
Besides the great article they took some photos for the article and now I have some professional photos for my profile.