I’m a doer. If there’s a way to do something I want to do, then I’m doing it.
My whole life I’ve wanted to fly an airplane but I never thought it was possible without spending like $10,000 on flight lessons or training to become a pilot. Or losing a ton of weight and undergoing plastic surgery to become some old rich dude’s trophy wife and taking his private jet for a spin while vacationing in the Caribbean. So you can imagine how stoked I was to see a $179 Living Social deal for a one hour beginner flight lesson out in Long Island. Once I read the words “…you will actually get to take off, land, and fly the airplane for one hour…” I was filling out my debit card information.
A couple of weeks ago I cashed in on this deal, convincing my friend/work partner Marcus to tag along as my official photographer. I thought maybe the world could benefit from some glorious shots of our plane going down in a rain of fire and metal. We took the LIRR for about an hour from Penn Station to Farmingdale, then walked 40 minutes through suburbia to Republic Airport.
Faced with the possibility of failed aeronautics, we stopped at an awful choice for our possible last meal—Chili’s. Then we trekked onward towards the watch tower but there was this massive obstruction called Walmart in the way. They had their entire property fenced off for as far as we could see, but just a few yards past that fence was the airport. We only had ten minutes to get over there so we started calculating our fence height to climbing skills ratio. Luckily this nice stranger, Jimmy, overheard us and offered to drive us around this Western Wall of China. I was hesitant about getting into a car with a complete stranger, but I was with a guy so I figured we’d be okay, right? Then I looked in the car and saw a car seat. Ahh, he had kids! He had to be a genuinely kind stranger just helping us out, right? That or he’s an expert kidnapper with a keen eye to detail.
We gave him the benefit of the doubt and got into the car. But I had a plan just in case he was trying to kill us. Before Marcus even opened the passenger door I jumped in the back and pretended that my jacket was caught in the door, so I opened it again just to make sure it didn’t have child-proof locks so that I could tuck and roll at a moment’s notice in case he did try to kidnap us. Thanks Mom for embedding paranoia into my brain for the past 26 years of my life. But you should feel proud that I at least have a plan B when taking chances, and know that we got to the airport unharmed AND untouched.
We were a few minutes late so we went right out to the plane to get started. I turned the key to what felt like an airplane prototype—the single engine roared as the entire thing rumbled and shook. Then the instructor had me run through a checklist of buckling up, checking the fuel gauges, basically making sure everything was in working order. Honestly I had no idea what I was checking but I was having a blast playing with all of the buttons.
After a few minutes of flipping switches and pressing buttons, it was time to drive the plane out to the runway. There was a yellow line I was supposed to keep the nose of the plane centered with. But on this plane there was no steering wheel. Instead I used foot pedals to accelerate, brake, and steer. It was weird getting used to it because unlike a car the pedals are big, you use both feet, and each pedal has two controls for each side of the plane. For instance, if you press on the bottom of the right pedal, the plane will turn right, but if you press on the top of the right pedal, the right side of the plane will brake. And the same goes for the left side.
Some twists and turns later we found ourselves waiting in line behind several planes, listening to all of the ATC correspondence on the headset. We pulled up behind a significantly larger plane and the instructor started talking about catching the backdraft, which made me start to wonder “am I going to be following this huge plane into the air?” and I started having visions of being sucked into the engine Canadian Goose style.
Before long we were sitting first in line, and at this point there were about 6 small airplanes in line behind us. The instructor told me to turn left around the corner to the runway, and then push the throttle as far as it can go. Then once we hit 60 knots, pull back on the steering and we’ll lift right off the ground. It all seemed far too easy, but just like that we were in the air.
The ascent. Talk about an amazing feeling. I could hardly see over the dash, but the nose of the plane was pointed to the sky so I knew we were going in the right direction. The feeling of the ground disappearing below was even stronger in the pilot’s seat, and every tiny wind or air pocket threw us several feet and shook us just enough to remind me that I’m only partially in control. Finally it was time to pull the throttle back and level out. Then I had to arm wrestle this giant lever attached to a heavy wheel between the seats to get it to click into place to adjust the trim and maintain a more level flight without having to sit with my hands on the wheel. After that it was smooth sailing, and there were definitely a few moments that I was so fascinated with the scenery that I forgot I was the pilot. Marcus on the other hand, well let’s just say that he suffers from anxiety.
We flew over the Long Island Expressway and headed up towards Connecticut, then we turned out over Fire Island when I finally realized what the compass did. The instructor would turn this dial and a yellow triangle would move to a coordinate on this numbered gauge that I hadn’t even looked at until now. Apparently this is where the plane is guided to, so every time it started turning automatically I kept thinking we were flying crooked and I needed to level out. So essentially I was steering against the plane this whole time.
Landing was probably the most challenging part because it was slightly unnerving to pull the throttle back and decrease the speed so quickly. Suddenly it was like we were in slow motion, and that was the first point where I realized just how fast we were going in the air. Before long we were aiming down over the Long Island Expressway with the runway in sight which was pretty amazing. It looks just like in the videogames. The lights on the runway signaled that I was coming in a bit high, so we continued to descend quickly until eventually we were hovering above the runway, then boom—contact. The wheels hit the ground and I think we all breathed a sigh of relief.
Overall I was very comfortable with the whole experience, if not completely enthralled. My mind began to race a bit while trying to level out because I couldn’t help but wonder if those jolts and drops were just turbulence. I began to think about how small the plane was, and noticed how easily the wind seemed to move us. But the feeling of being in control that high off the ground, looking down on tiny New York below us made me feel extremely at peace.
As a bonus, these lessons are good for life and I’m now one class closer to earning my pilot’s license. Maybe one day I’ll be “Pilot Kim,” galavanting the globe one maxed out credit card worth of fuel at a time!