Learning to Fly

I belong to two different online flying communities. The first focuses on our plane, or all of the planes by the same manufacturer. That’s the Diamond Aviators Net. It is very relaxed, informal, and very polite.

Statistics on Cirrus accidents showed that if the pilot was not a member of the online community of owners and pilots they were 80% more likely to be involved in an accident. That made me love my online pilot community and when a fellow Diamond pilot switch to Beechcraft airplanes and said that his new community was also great, I joined up.

BeechTalk is full of wisdom. A lot of it is specific to their aircraft, some of which I still read because it is interesting, but a lot of it is just about being a good, responsible pilot, how to get the most from your time in the sky and have the best time on your trips. I respond on threads here and there, mostly where it is a question of overall aviation or local knowledge (what is the airport at Catalina like?).

One of the recently active threads was from a fellow looking to start his training. He was thinking that it might make sense to buy a Beechcraft Bonanza, or older model, and do all of his training in it. People started writing in their ideas for how he should go about this. I read a bunch and formulated my own plan, which I wish I could have followed back in 2005. For reference, he said he was closest to the Elmira airport in upstate New York. (And the last paragraph is a reference to him saying that he wanted to buy a Twin Bonanza to fly his family in.)


All advice is autobiographical, so I suppose if you went down to the airport and talked to a few pilots to find one whose situation is closest to your own you, might get better navigation hints for your journey. I have read quite a bit on the web, a lot of it in blogs of fellow pilots. I really enjoyed following Swayne Martin’s journey toward professional pilot, which has a lot of information for anyone just starting out even if their goal is not necessarily to start a career.

I’ve landed at Elmira, that’s a nice field and I would have enjoyed training there.

1. Get your third class medical.

This requires an authorized FAA medical examiner. Google is your friend for finding one nearest to you, although local pilot knowledge is sometimes really helpful for filtering the results. If you are hanging out at the flight school you could just ask the next couple pilots who they use. (If you have any medical issues, research online before your appointment to see if any of them are things that will pose a problem. It’s possible you will want to switch off of a medication or have a more detailed, medical description of a condition before you are in front of an FAA doctor. Getting the medical is necessary to solo the airplane. If you can’t get one, there’s not a lot of point in investing in the rest of the process.)

2. Complete the written exam.

Order King’s Online course and complete the work for the written. I really wish I had done my PPL written on my own, at my own pace. Instead I was fed pieces of it and then we’d go flying in a Cherokee Warrior III. (Some people dislike the King series, since a lot of the video footage is very dated. There are more modern courses from Sporty’s and I think some free study aids from AOPA.)

3. Interview local CFIs.

Find one you like, do a demo flight. Make sure s/he challenges you, but that they work well with your learning style. I had no problem with my primary instructor by my brother hated the way the guy tapped his yoke when you were moving it in a direction he disapproved of. My CFII was a lot better, so much easier to learn from, so calm, and I wish I had done the PPL and Multi with her as well.

Where you are located in upstate New York, it should be easy to do a bunch of fun flights to build the cross-country time you need to pursue the IFR. I had a job in Las Vegas, so I did over a dozen flights that were 1:45 in each direction. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was great experience with low risk (the skies are not crowded over the Daggett VOR). I bet people at your airport will have a bunch of suggestions, and I can certainly recommend KELM to KHTO. It’s great to fly from the rolling hills of upstate to the eastern tip of Long Island, stroll out onto the beaches facing the Atlantic.

I read Photographic Logbook, a beautifully shot blog by a pilot in the same area as you.

4. Get your PPL.

I would get set up with an electronic flight bag with an iPad. Download Foreflight, LogTen Pro, and perhaps purchase the Stratus II device. These items are cheap in aviation terms and you leap over a bunch of paper stuff. Get a Lightspeed Zulu PDX headset, which is top of the line but for all of the hours you are flying it will pay for itself in comfort. I cycled through increasingly expensive headsets before realizing the difference during a few hours in the plane was immense.

If you like the intro flight and you have the money, go buy a plane. We bought our DA40 the moment our first family trip (Yosemite for Thanksgiving) was a success. I wish we had the nerve to buy it sooner. You can go inexpensive and get a steam gauge DA40 then get a mount for the iPad to do your moving map. You can do a lot of fun trips in that plane and it is incredibly forgiving. I think only a single post-crash fire and I don’t think the fatalities are in the double digits yet. The carbon fiber egg surrounding the passengers (and the double spars bracketing the fuel tanks) make a huge difference.

Order books to do the IFR written portion (or use the Shepard System, which everyone says is amazing). Find a local mentor who is rated and talk IFR every week. I wish I had done that when I was first certificated for VFR. Talking about the system with someone would have really helped the knowledge sink in.

Subscribe the NTSB Reporter. Over breakfast read the sobering accident reports. As you train, try to answer “Why wouldn’t this have been me?” You are trying to stretch your luck to live past hour 350 in the plane. Then you are out of the Killing Zone. (One of the statistics the author of The Killing Zone doesn’t give enough play is time flown in the past 60 days. Reading the NTSB it’s clear that you can be a 20,000 hour pilot and if you’ve dropped to 20hrs a year and haven’t flown in 60 days you are rolling the dice when you climb in the plane.)

Now you’ve got a lot of cross-country hours, you’ve made friends with all the people at the airport, and some of the surrounding airports and in some online community. You might have even started reading some blogs and reached out to those authors. Just by spending some time learning about flying online, and joining a forum, you have decreased your chances of having an accident. You will do better at selecting your CFII than you did picking your primary instructor because you will know more about how you learn and how you fly.

5. Get Instrument Rated

One of the options for getting instrument rated is to do an intensive course. They are advertised online and in aviation magazines. “In one week we will get you an Instrument Rating!”

I wouldn’t have been comfortable flying my family if I had done an intensive course. I believe the time in the sky is critical to a comfort in the environment and in developing your situational awareness. If I had done an intensive IFR course, I would have wanted to go out and spend another twenty hours flying around in the clouds and doing approaches before I called myself ready to carry passengers. I know the FAA (and probably a lot of pilots) disagree with me. I am extremely risk averse.

6. Shortcut the Multi.

I did mine in a DA42 at Long Beach. I think I could have finished it in a week if I had worked harder. The DA42 is really simple (no mixture, no prop lever). Shutting an engine down is a non-event. Flying across the country to get here would be a nice trip, but there’s probably a school nearer you that has one and does ratings in it.

The moment you are sure that the multi-engine scenario doesn’t seem to complicated for you and that it doesn’t kill your joy of being in the air, get the purchase and build going on the TwinBo. I was in one two weeks ago. They are absolutely stunning planes. I cannot believe what you can get for your money; it’s essentially a miniature airliner from the 1950s. There are a dozen people on Beechtalk that will help you. If I were building one I’d go with steam gauges and an air stair, but I know it’s all very personal. Just make sure you get an airframe that can take the latest autopilot. Apparently it’s all about the STCs.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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