Is Becoming a Pilot Difficult?

Becoming a good one is. It’s a complex journey, one for which there is no straight line. It takes real work to maintain proficiency. There are no shortcuts around the experiences that sharpen the blades of aptitude and competence.

But with this struggle comes reward.

After I earned my private pilot certificate in 2012, I spent years flying my wife and friends to and from small airports for lunch, to the beach or over the city’s skyline. The novel freedom of these experiences helped me connect not just with myself but with others.

I have sat in rush-hour traffic for more than an hour on the way to the airport to spend another 20 minutes pre-flighting an aircraft in my work clothes only to cancel the flight due to unexpected weather, absentee instructors or mechanical failures.

I’ve experienced the sputter of a partial engine failure at night over absolute darkness, and have seen the pulsating lights of emergency vehicles staged near the runway as they awaited the outcome of my landing.

But I’ve also flown over Napa vineyards and the Golden Gate Bridge as it sat shrouded in low-level stratus.

I’ve logged landings at the small midwestern airport where I first became captivated by airplanes back when my hands were no larger than tangerines that clutched at my father’s pinky.

All of these experiences are intertwined into something resembling pride, passion, agony and nostalgia.

I continue to work at this state of being good.

I’ve navigated the hills and valleys of the instrument rating and have logged dozens of hours flying with view-limiting devices over my eyes. I’ve spent parts of an Italian vacation flipping through written exam questions and studying electrical schematics. I continue to sit in rush hour traffic on my way to the airport when I’d rather be at home or doing anything else.

It’s something pilot just do.

Overall, becoming a pilot is a simple path. The FAA publishes its set of requirements and subject areas that students must master throughout their training. Students are subjected to a written exam, and later, a private pilot checkride with an examiner. 

Training can be punishing if you find yourself with a difficult instructor or flight school. Some students become frustrated to learn that “real world” flying is not as it appears in movies and other media. The vast majority of student pilots who start training –– about 80 percent, according to some estimates –– will not finish. 

Accordingly, successful completion of private pilot training is a highly rewarding accomplishment for those who push through and commit. After this state of becoming, though, comes the state of being.


Friday, August 9, 2019

Earlier this week I set out to fly with another instrument student. As a safety pilot, my job isn’t much more than to make sure the person flying doesn’t make any critical errors while flying without reference to the terrain. It was 97 degrees when we departed Austin. I enjoyed sitting in the right seat, taking a more casual and hands-off role than how I’ve been flying for the last year or so. The student was exceptionally proficient so there wasn’t much for me to do other than offer advice and reassurance from time to time.

The Autumn Light

Today a friend told me that she looked forward to mid-August because the sunlight begins to change into something more reminiscent of autumn. In Austin, this solar change can be deceiving — even distressing — as it rarely accompanies a change in atmospheric temperature.  In short, it begins to look like fall but still feels very much like summer. Growing up in Illinois, I remember autumn as intense with color and temperature change. The sun shines a deep, golden light. I always knew this as real, but never really explored why light changes with the seasons.

The Seattle Times explains it:

The position of the sun in the sky is changing. That, in turn, alters how we perceive color and light. In the height of summer, the sun is as far overhead as it gets. But the sun drops and drops after the summer solstice in June — and the change speeds up at the midpoint toward winter. Right about now.

The seasons are the result of the tilt of our planet on its axis as we orbit the sun. Picture a tennis ball on a pen, with the pen held at a 23.5-degree angle. Now rotate the ball (Earth) on the same angle, fixed around a stationary object (the sun).

The farther from the equator, the more obliquely the sun’s light strikes Earth — that’s the longer, slanted light we are bathed in now, instead of the full-on beams we bask in at high summer.

And the journey will continue in the progression toward winter, taking us into shorter days, with the sun even lower on the horizon.

But not first without this gleaming farewell, through the golden hours of this season.