First flight!

For about 40 years now, I’ve wanted to fly a plane. I grew up directly under the flight path of Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, and loved to watch the P-3 Orions, F-104 Starfighters, U-2 “atmospheric research” planes, and still more Orions. An avid airplane buff, I’ve always liked hanging out near a runway watching the planes take off and land. I’ve read every book I could get my hands on on the subject, and “flown” every version of Flight Simulator since Bruce Artwick wrote it for the Apple II and TRS-80.

About the only thing I haven’t done is been in the pilot seat. Why? Well, for one thing, I’m afraid of flying. Talk about irony! I had a few bad experiences in airliners, but I really don’t like turbulence and the sense of not having control over my destiny. I always wondered if being the one doing the flying would help, but I haven’t ever gotten brave enough to find out. Last week, I decided that had to change, and today, I took my first flying lesson.

I contacted Rich Acuff at the West Valley Flying Club at the Palo Alto airport, and explained my background and situation. This morning, we met at WVFC, and went over the morning’s plan. Rich is great, and I think we hit it off well. He was very patient with me, and made adjustments to his program based on the knowledge I had already picked up over the years.

After a half hour or so pre-flight briefing, we went out to the plane, a Piper Archer (a personal favorite of mine – Rich gave me a pretty wide range of planes to choose from).

getting the archer ready
Rich getting the Archer ready

After a thorough preflight, we got in a started the engine. Hey, it’s really happening! Everything got kind of surreal at this point. We pulled the Archer out and started taxiing.

The Archer's panel
The Archer's panel

We slowly taxied out to the run-up area, where we did final checks. Then we heard “Cleared for takeoff!” Rich said, “Okay, let’s pull out onto the runway.” It’s really happening!

Me in the pilot seat!
Me in the pilot seat!

I advance the throttle; Rich took care of rudder duty, but left the elevator and ailerons to me. (I’m sure he had his hand right by the yoke, but I had tunnel vision at that point!) We got off the ground okay and began the climb out. A 10 degree turn to the right (hey, I’m steering!) to follow noise abatement rules, and we were really on our way. We then turned left out toward the hills, Rich coaching me to keep my eye on the horizon and keep the plane level. We got to about 3,000 feet when I realized I hadn’t looked around yet! So I took a second to glance out to my left. (I wish I had taken a picture!)

We went through basic stability and turning exercises running back and forth between Los Altos and Crystal Springs reservoir. Once, we got tossed about a bit as we approached the hills (Rich described it as “light turbulence” – crikey!), but a 90 degree turn to the right got us out of it.We then practiced deploying flaps, experiencing the pitch and speed changes that accompany the deployment.

All too soon, it was time to turn back. Rich said, “Call the tower, and tell them 3576 Juliet, SLAC, India.” (That’s who we were, where we were, and the airport information we had just listened to.) Took me a few seconds to absorb and remember even this short message, because I was really into information overload at that point.

We got into the pattern, just ducking under the San Francisco terminal area, and then turned on to base. Coming up beside the airport, we applied the first notch of flaps. We took a rather long final, I think, so we’d have some time to line up and get the last notch of flaps deployed. Then it was landing time. There was a pretty decent crosswind, and I was having a hard time convincing myself not to point the nose at the runway, so Rich expended some effort trying to correct that. Then we were over the runway, and I was flaring the plane! A gentle bump, and we were down, with the tower calling “take taxiway Charlie.” Ooh, there it is, better get slowed down and turned! I know Rich was mostly responsible for that landing, but it felt like I was at least doing some of it, which felt great.

We taxied back, parked the plane and got it all buttoned up.

Saying goodbye to the Archer
Saying goodbye to the Archer

That was a really intense experience! There was so much going on, especially on landing, that it was impossible to take it all in. I hope to be able to do it again soon – I think I’ll be able to enjoy the next flight more, since I won’t have the worry of how I’m going to react to just being in the air, etc.

The takeaway, though (thanks, Rich!), was something I have wanted for decades – a logbook, with my name on it, and an hour of time listed. Hurray!

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