I finally started flying lessons a few weeks ago, and it is so good. Although I am very familiar with Whiteman and Van Nuys airports, which are just a few minutes away from the house, I opted to take at least these formative sessions out of Santa Monica at Justice Aviation. I figure it’s good to have a landmark the size of, oh, the Pacific Ocean, to navigate from.

The main difference between learning to fly and learning to play an instrument is that there’s no aviation version of “Hot Cross Buns”. No beginner 3,500 feet. It’s just there, and you’re ballooning all over the place and trying not to perforate class Bravo (ho, ho, we’re talking about big jets bombing out of LAX, ladies and gentlemen. Not to be messed with!) airspace or crash into the Palisades. No “safe” warm up, like a quiet C scale, with steering on the ground. Oh no, your friend Emily was zig zagging like some sort of tarmac shark, overcorrecting for each wild swing in direction and, setting what must a Guinness (or at least Miller Lite) record for least relevance to the desired path along the solid yellow line, narrowly avoided wingtip to wingtip contact with other worried student pilots and their greying instructors. Learning to fly is like walking into your first cello lesson and the teacher puts a hand on your shoulder and says, “Behold: the Dvorak cello concerto”, and then you just throw yourself at it, in an educated sort of way.

It’s great! L often quotes an instructor who commiserated by saying, “It’s like drinking from a fire hose, isn’t it?” And it is, but just illustrates another side of the learning process that we musicians find so difficult. The brute force method, where you just accept the overwhelming nature of the task, and have faith that enough thoughtful repetition through difficult material in the hands of a good teacher will get you where you need to go. I also lucked out that my instructor:

1) is musically trained (score!)

2) looks like a member of my dad’s side of the family, thus creating a sense of familiarity

3) when I say something weird and Emily, he doesn’t suggest another teacher

4) lets me make just enough mistakes to get the feeling, but doesn’t let me get away with anything, thus preserving the population of the westside and saving countless hours of “Jaws of Life” time by the LAFD.

Another difference is that the lesson is your practice. Not like I can go home and climb in the ol’ 172 to work on climbing turns. So lessons are this hugely liberating flood of information, because you are doing as you are learning, with the workload gradually transferred from the instructor over to you. To keep with the Dvorak analogy, it’s like you’re playing through the concerto over and over, and each pass you get more of the notes; the bass clef first and the long notes, marking the rests is a skill too, so that’s good, now you try some tenor clef, etc., and if you miss something, your teacher is there, the whole time, playing under you, without you, along with you, gradually getting softer until all you have to count on is the memory of the sound they made to guide you.

I haven’t said anything truly stupid on the radio yet, but I’m sure that’s coming. What I can guarantee is that they, just like I, have heard it all before. That, too, is part of the learning process.

PS: The pilot of the 747 in the video must have subscribed to the “Better Dead than Late” philosophy.

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4 Responses

  1. Reading about your lessons.. I’m glad I don’t live in CA yet. I kid 🙂

    “I haven’t said anything truly stupid on the radio yet, but I’m sure that’s coming.” This could be fun, haha.

  2. The maneuvering stuff is pretty easy to get the feel for to a degree. The instructor can keep the altitude, trim the plane (set its disposition to either nose up or nose down depending on winds etc) and do all of the radio communications and navigation for you. They take it off and land it until you can handle just a little more. It’s better than a simulator and totally safe. If anything, I find that folks who do more simulator flying than actual practice aloft don’t react as fast to mistakes and dangerous habits because they are used to watching the session reload after a failed landing rather than having the grey hairs of actual experience. My opinion, by the way, applies to initial student instruction, and not commercial, twin, or airline ratings, just in case a pilot is reading this and thinks I’m a simulator snob.

    Hey Marisa, maybe I’ll do a fly over your place some day! My goal is a true cross country trek, you know…

  3. Got this story in my email today, although you probably have heard it:

    His request approved, the CNN photographer quickly used a cell phone to call the local airport to charter a flight.

    He was told a twin engine plane would be waiting for him at the airport.

    Arriving at the airfield, he spotted a plane warming up outside a hanger. He jumped in with his bag, slammed the door shut, and shouted, ‘Let’s go’.

    The pilot taxied out, swung the plane into the wind and took off.

    Once in the air, the photographer instructed the pilot, ‘Fly over the valley and make low passes so I can take pictures of the fires on the hillsides.’

    ‘Why?’ asked the pilot. ‘Because I’m a photographer for Cable News Network,’ he responded. ‘And I need to get some close up shots.’

    The pilot was strangely silent for a moment, finally he stammered, “So, what you’re telling me, is … You’re NOT my flight instructor?”

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