Up, up and away by piloting a plane

Local airport offers bargain flight lessons for beginners

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Sports - Activities - Events

February 17, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Flying an airplane isn't exactly like driving a car, but it is more similar than you might think.

Taking the controls of a Cessna 172 SP - a four-seat, single-engine airplane - in Maryland skies feels pretty familiar, despite the altitude and the speed.

The trip was an introductory flight lesson by Freeway Airport near Bowie. For $60, the airport's flight school will tuck a novice pilot (meaning someone with no experience whatsoever) and a friend into a tiny airplane and send them up with a flight instructor for a 30-minute joyride. The friend squeezes into the plane's back seat.

Students aren't in charge of any of the tricky stuff. On this flight, a 22-year-old pilot named Andy Conner sat in the co-pilot seat with an identical set of controls and navigated the takeoff and landing.

But moments after zipping off the runway, he leveled the plane and handed over the control.

"The Bay Bridge is over to the left," he said calmly. "That strip down there is [Route] 50, and the Naval Academy is over there."

The flight school barely covers its own costs with this ride, but it is a good way to attract possible students into their formal learn-to-fly program. There is no age restriction for the flight, but head instructor Marcel Bernard said, "To really be productive, [you] have to be able to reach the pedals on the floor."

Freeway's flight school schedules these flights seven days a week during good weather any time the sun is up. They sell a lot of flights as gift certificates. They do between 300 and 500 of these flights a year.

Once aloft, it was easy to see why the program is popular. At 1,500 feet, the container ships lined up in the Chesapeake Bay were miniature boxes. Annapolis was crisp and bright, like something from a picture book. The Naval Academy was a toy-sized cluster of buildings.

With the plane's controls in hand, the flight felt smooth and steady, but this was probably due to the craft's design. The Cessna is known as a beginner's airplane. "You can literally let go of [the wheel], and it will fly itself," said John Johnson, who manages the airport office.

Every once in a while the on-board radio came to life - a rapid sequence of letters and words - and Conner responded with equally incomprehensible chatter.

He explained that nothing really bad has ever happened on these flights. Sometimes when the ride-along friend is filming with a camcorder, airsickness sets in. But there haven't been any crashes or harrowing moments.

After coasting along the shoreline and marveling at the large homes on the water, Conner said it was time to head back toward the airport.

As the plane approached the landing strip, Conner took back control of the plane and slowed down to 80 knots, then to 70. The quickly approaching runway began to look awfully short. But the plane touched down with only a slight bump.

Freeway Airport is at 3900 Church Road near Bowie. Call 301-390-6424 or visit www.freewayaviation.com.

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