Flying an Airplane isn’t Rocket Science. Wait…

19 July 2014 by Paige Brown Jarreau, posted in General Science, Physics

Shutterstock. Cessna.

Shutterstock. Cessna.

FromTheLabBench note: My little sister Angie (a to-be undergraduate student at the University of Vermont) recently flew an airplane ALL BY HERSELF. If some of my readers don't know this about me, I am terrified of airplanes. So as soon as I heard she had landed safely, I did the first thing you'd expect me to do. I asked her to write a guest blog post here!

“Are you good to go? No questions?”

My flight instructor, Ron, asks me with a grin. We are in a tiny Cessna Skycatcher 162, sitting on the ramp that lies in front of the taxiway at a tiny airport in central Indiana. He is getting ready to climb out of the aircraft, and leave me alone in it for the first time. Ever.

“Uh, yep, I think I’m set…” I reply, smiling to hide the anxiousness. He climbs out, slowly, showing his age in the way he uses his hands to work his legs out of the tiny cockpit. He closes the door, and I latch it from the inside, and watch him walk away.

I look back at the controls, and for a split second my mind goes completely blank. What am I supposed to do now?? I take a deep breath, put in some power and take my feet off the brakes so I can turn back to the taxiway. Quickly turning on the GoPro my father had stuck to the dashboard to document my first solo flight, I start laughing, feeling giddy. I make my first solo radio-call, “Indy Exec, Cessna five-five-zulu is taxiing from the ramp for departure on 36, Indy Exec”.

It takes me a few minutes to reach of the end of the mile-long taxiway, and when I do, I stop at the hold-short line of runway 36, which points directly north. Talking to myself, I spout off my to-do list, “First notch of flaps, set. Mixture, rich. Carb heat, off… That’s it.” I call out on the Unicom, “Indy Exec, Cessna five-five-zulu is departing runway 36, Indy Exec.” And I pull out.

Making sure the runway is clear of incoming aircrafts, I maneuver my plane to the middle of the runway. Suddenly I'm off, quickly, with a full throttle and my ailerons pointed into the mild crosswind coming in at 320 degrees. Using the rudder pedals to keep myself straight, I finally reach about 50 knots, pull back on the stick, and I'm in the air, quickly retracting the flaps.

Wow, I can’t believe I actually did it. I’m flying, in a thousand pound hunk of metal, alone. [In a quick Google search, this plane weighs in at 830 pounds, with a 129 mph cruise speed.] Who would have guessed such a thing from an 18-year-old, homeschooled girl from Indiana? Five years ago, I certainly would never have imagined.

But regardless, here I am, steadily gaining elevation, and praying nothing goes wrong that I'm not equipped to handle. Later on, when I watch the GoPro video, I’ll find out that I was laughing or grinning for most of the flight, becoming serious whenever I had to make a radio-call or another action, then immediately back to my stupid grin. In reality I felt confident, but also very nervous. In my head I was repeating little prayers toward my plane, “please stay okay, please be okay…” I thank that little Cessna every day for not giving me any trouble.

This first flight was meant to be short, staying in the traffic pattern to immediately come back and land on the same runway. I make the turn Crosswind, then soon after another turn Downwind of 36, making a radio-call stating my actions and plans for anyone in the vicinity to be aware. I look back down at the airport, and can see the red of my dad’s shirt, watching me from a thousand feet below. I also see some other smudges, which later I find out are the father and brother of my boyfriend, who came to cheer me on. As I reached the point parallel to the end of the runway where I’d be landing, I pulled back the power and put in one notch of flaps to begin my descent from 1,800 ft. I will have two turns to the left before I’m in-line with the runway.

As I reached the point of the first turn, called Base, I made a call. “Indy Exec, Cessna five-five-zulu is turning base for landing runway 36, full stop, Indy Exec.” Then I turn Final at around 500 ft AGL [above ground level], make another radio-call, and prepare to land.

I watch the runway get closer and closer, hoping to God I can make a soft landing. In case no one has ever told you, landing is one of the hardest parts of flying, and I’m still getting the hang of it. I’m getting lower and lower, heart beating fast, speed at around 65 knots… At around 10ft above the runway, I start pulling the nose back ever so slowly, not wanting to balloon back into the air.

This plane has three wheels: the nose wheel, in the front, and two main wheels under the fuselage. The goal is to land on the main wheels first, minimizing damage to the nose wheel. So I pull back and pull back, and finally feel the small jolt of the main wheels hitting the tarmac, then comes down the nose wheel, with perfect timing. I pull back the throttle and push on the brakes to slow down and clear the runway.

Deep breath, and that’s it! I did it! After 17 hours flying with an instructor, I actually soloed an airplane. The feeling is tremendous, and I feel completely (excuse my French) badass. My hard work has paid off and I’ve accomplished what used to be an impossibility.

Now all I can think about is when I can get back up into the air again…

Angie and her flight instructor.

Angie and her flight instructor.

I hope she doesn't decide to do any of these soon!

Animation by Pasi Nikkanen, Miikka Hult and Tina Juslin:

Animation by Pasi Nikkanen, Miikka Hult and Tina Juslin, Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences.




3 Responses to “Flying an Airplane isn’t Rocket Science. Wait…”

  1. Kenneth Watman Reply | Permalink

    Terrific. Congratulations.


  2. Susan E. Swanberg Reply | Permalink

    Great story! It seems that both you and your sister inherited the writing gene.
    P.S. I'm not crazy about flying, either.

  3. john Lyons Reply | Permalink

    I joined the RCAF in 52. To be a fighter pilot! Ended up first being a radio tech and then an aircrew radio type scouring the north Atlantic. Finally in my late fifties I put in 58 hours over 30 months. No ticket (medical) but was glad to do it. I still fly the Cessna and only the Cessna on the flight sim. Well done, by the way.

Leave a Reply

× 3 = fifteen