Off we go for instruction in various forms of flight

UP FRONT

June 11, 1998|By Glenn McNattShani Dinovitz/CONTRIBUTING WRITER | Glenn McNattShani Dinovitz/CONTRIBUTING WRITER,SUN STAFF

Summer is here and the wild blue yonder beckons. Learning to fly an airplane, glider or balloon can be one of life's great adventures. Sport flying today is safe, fun and affordable. And the season's brilliant skies and endless days make it the perfect time to get started.

There are any number of places in the Baltimore area that offer flight training, aircraft rentals and ground school instruction. They range from mom-and-pop operations on grass airstrips in the country to full-service aviation schools at major airports.

The cost varies depending on where you fly and how often. Generally, flight schools charge separately for the aircraft rental and the instructor's time.

Most training aircraft, like the two-seater Cessna 152 and the four-seater Cessna 172, rent for between $30 to $75 an hour.

Instructors charge an additional $20 to $25 an hour. So depending on the aircraft and instructor you choose, an hourlong lesson will cost between $50 and $100 an hour.

It's especially important to choose the best-quality instruction you can - in the air and on the ground. While all instructors have meet certain Federal Aviation Administration standards, it's important to pick someone you personally can work well with and, above all, trust.

Instructors are people and no two are alike, so don't be afraid to shop around for one you feel is simpatico. No matter how technically competent an instructor may be, trying to learn from someone who is intimidating or impatient can be frustrating and discouraging. Look for someone you feel comfortable with and stick with him or her.

If you plan on getting your private pilot's license, it's advisable to attend a ground school to prepare for the FAA written examination, which covers such topics as basic aerodynamics, weather, navigation and federal aviation law.

Most flight schools offer step-by-step instruction to prepare you for the FAA written test. If you choose to study for the test on your own - several home-study courses are available - your flight instructor will have to sign your application to take the exam.

Although the FAA requires a minimum of only 40 hours total flight time for the private pilot's license, most students require about 65 hours before they are ready to take the FAA flight exam. The written exam can be taken at any time during the 24 months preceding the flight test. You must be at least 16 to fly solo, and at least 17 before you can take the flight test.

Once you've found an airport and an instructor, you're ready for your first flight. The first lesson usually begins with a thorough inspection of the airplane on the ground. Your instructor will explain the functions of the aircraft's controls and show you how to check the fuel and oil.

As a student, you sit in the left-hand seat - by tradition, the pilot's chair. You and your instructor may wear headsets so you can hear each other during the flight. After you both are securely strapped in, you start the engine and taxi to the end of the runway. One thing that you have to get used to immediately is steering the airplane on the ground with the rudder pedals.

At the end of the runway, you perform a final safety check and get clearance from the tower, if there is one. Now you're ready for takeoff. Push in the throttle, and as the plane gathers speed, pull back gently on the wheel and let the aircraft lift off.

As you climb away from the runway, you feel both exhilarated and terrified. Every sensation is new and sharp - a surreal separation from the familiar bonds of gravity.

A couple of thousand feet above the ground, you level out and perhaps practice a few shallow turns and dives. All this time, your instructor keeps up a steady stream of advice and encouragement. Almost before you know it, it's time to return to the field. Your instructor takes the controls and makes the landing seem easy. You taxi back to your parking spot and tie the airplane down.

Students generally begin to get the hang of it after several hours aloft with an instructor. But their rates of progress can vary widely, depending on how often they fly, the time of year, weather conditions and natural aptitude. Some people solo after less than 12 hours of instruction; others need twice that. Your instructor is the only one who can decide when you are ready.

Not every weekend aviator wants to be tugged around the sky behind a gas-guzzling internal combustion engine. For those who truly want to make like a bird, there is the magnificent silent sport of soaring. Sailplanes, with their long, slender wings and streamlined fuselages, bear the same relation to piston-engine aircraft as sailboats do to motorboats.

Because sailplanes don't have engines of their own, they have to be towed into the air behind a conventional plane. Once they reach altitude - usually between 2,000 and 3,000 feet above ground - they release the tow line and take off on their own.

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