Columnist Lynn K. Cooper: The thrill of learning how to fly

  • The Piper Warrior that Lynn Cooper is learning to fly lands at the Northampton Airport after a lesson Nov. 24. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lynn Cooper with her instructor, Longhao Chen, of Amherst, after her flying lesson at the Northampton Airport on Nov. 24. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 12/5/2017 8:04:21 PM

My hands steady on the yoke, I keep the plane level as my instructor and I fly to Mount Sugarloaf. Red and golden leaves frame the space outside the cockpit as the Connecticut River meanders in the valley below. I am grinning from ear to ear.

Flying near Sugarloaf, my instructor, Longhao Chen, who must have nerves of steel to teach beginners how to fly, tells me that he was on the peak recently and watched a wedding. I shared that my youngest son and his wife were married there four years ago on a perfect summer day. Wonderful as that day was, nothing can compare to the view from this four-seat Piper Warrior.

I am learning to fly at the airport in Northampton, where people are very friendly and happy to see me. No one looks or acts crabby. Maybe flying and life in the air promotes positive feelings and a good attitude. Perhaps when one knows how to fly, they are living the dream.

I have wanted to learn to fly for a number of years. Each time I drive on Route 10 past the golf course in Southampton, I intentionally move to the right to drive on the rumble strip so I can hear the sound the ridges in the road make on my tires and feel the vibrations beneath the car. It reminds me of taking off on a runway in a small plane. Driving on rumble strips for a few years told me to make my goal of learning to fly a reality. I was not getting any younger and rumble strips would not do it for me.

A dear friend recently stopped flying because he didn’t think he was as sharp as he was. That scared the heck out of me. He flew for many years and was instrument rated, and didn’t think he was as sharp? What does that make me, a total beginner with limited knowledge and background of flying except to know that I found it thrilling and wanted to learn how to do it?

Friends have asked me why I wanted to learn to fly. I told them I don’t have wings on my body. There’s a big sky out there and the only way I can make use of the space is to attach myself to the pilot seat of a small plane.

My oldest son, Brian, first learned to fly at the end of fifth grade when we sent him to flight camp that the Northampton Airport ran during the summer. He also went the following summer for two weeks and then we sent him to the NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. He loves flying but it costs money to do it. He and his wife have a baby on the way so he hasn’t flown for a bit, but is thrilled that I am learning. He encourages and coaches me when I ask him questions between lessons.

Being short, I sit on two cushions and have a third behind my back. The seat is as far forward as it can go so I can reach the brakes and rudder pedals. I have not used the radio yet because I have not taken full responsibility for taking off or landing, but that will come.

When I emailed my college roommate and told her that I learned to do steep turns in which the wings are at a 45-degree angle, she said, “You sure know how to make the most out of life.” I emailed back, “Let’s hope so. I keep trying. Life is short and if I want something to happen, I have to make it happen.”

My decision in learning to fly was a good one. It takes courage for me to do this, but you will never learn how to jump or dive off the high dive if you never venture down to the deep end of the pool.

Help from textbooks

I ask questions about how certain parts of the plane function as well as about aerodynamics. I bought a used textbook, Jeppesen’s “Guided Flight Discovery: Private Pilot.” The first part of the book that I read discussed the four forces of flight: lift, weight, thrust, and drag. The book has good illustrations and that was why I bought it. I am a visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learner, needing to hear, see and move in order to learn information easily.

I also own another book that I bought over a year ago, “Stick and Rudder,” that didn’t make as much sense to me until I flew a few times, mainly because it doesn’t have many illustrations and clearly I needed more background information. It makes more sense to me now that I am learning.

Although one can’t get the movement part of learning from reading a book, quite a bit of what is done in actual flying involves movement or controlling something on the part of the pilot. The pre-flight checklist, in which the inside and outside of the plane is inspected before takeoff, involves walking around and checking things, such as the quality of the gas and amount in the tanks, as well as checking the oil, among many other things which involve moving and touching. Each time the pre-flight is done it becomes easier because it’s an ongoing review. A checklist at the end of the flight ensures that everything is secure and turned off. The checklists are a sequenced set of procedures to follow.

Let me share that I never check the oil in my car. It’s synthetic oil and good for 10,000 miles. I keep tabs on the mileage to know when I need another oil change. So here I am, a woman checking the level of oil in a plane but not her own car. Go figure. Well, I don’t have a required laminated checklist for both the inside and outside of the car as there is for a plane. I simply get in the driver’s seat and go. My car is a six speed and I have never owned an automatic. An automatic would take the fun and feel out of driving. Hence, the kinesthetic part of movement and touch. I don’t want a car where I can’t feel the road beneath the tires — ever. This wanting to “feel” matter in motion is what I love about flying — it is constant.

I learned to use just my left hand on the yoke because one needs the right to control the throttle and engage the flaps. The flaps increase lifting efficiency of the wing and decrease the speed at which the airplane can be safely flown. All my life there have been so many day-to-day experiences that involve physics. In flying I’m getting a crash course in the subject. (Poor choice of words here because aerodynamics is involved, but a number of principles come into play when flying.)

I just love the feel of the plane with the yoke in my hands, paying attention to the level of the nose with the horizon. Making turns in the plane reminds me of horseback riding. As when on horseback and “looking through the ears of a horse” to make a turn, I look to the horizon when flying, to my intended course, all the while scanning for other planes in the air. Scanning for other aircraft happens almost constantly. There does not seem to be any down time and I don’t know how to do everything by myself yet. I can’t imagine how busy I will be flying in a number of months. There is so much to learn.

Flying over the Quabbin

We flew to the Quabbin Reservoir a few times, which is serene and beautiful and appears to sit in the middle of nowhere. Knowing the story of the Swift River and the four flooded towns breaks my heart each time I think of it. All those lives and homes uprooted from their initial places that tell their own stories — gone. Flying over the Quabbin the first time brought tears to my eyes. The tears were silent. No one knew but me, but my next task was learning how to make steep turns. That dried my eyes and gave me new focus. You can’t silently shed tears and fly a plane — too much work to do.

In making steep turns, I turned the plane at a 45-degree angle and flew 360 degrees in both directions, which was breathtaking to watch as the plane moved around. Life in the cockpit seemed lived at an angle — sideways. Flying in my first steep turn was a bit scary, but after I did it a few times it felt soothing. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was the beauty of it all and the constant but graceful angle of the plane’s wings in contrast to the horizon and ground below. Steep turns flying are a dance with an airplane.

Turbulence has an entirely different feel in a small plane. It’s lighter and bouncy because we’re not hauling a lot of weight. In some ways the bounce reminds me of riding my mountain bike in the woods. When the turbulence is stronger, which happens more frequently in afternoons due to more heat rising from surfaces on the ground, we climb higher to 3,000 feet to rise above it.

There is a noticeable difference between smooth and turbulent flying. When it’s turbulent it’s harder to control the plane and keep it level to the horizon, and takes more effort to hold and control the yoke. Using the trim tab helps to lessen the resistance you feel on the flight controls — it’s fine-tuning them. The trim helps at other times as well, especially when you need one hand on the yoke to fly.

I practice changes in speed as well as stalls. A stall in an airplane, unrelated to an occurrence in the engine, is when the lift created by air flowing over the wings is interrupted due to an unusual angle of climb. Stalls intimidated me at first, but since I practice them a few times during each lesson, I have a better understanding and feel for them. My timing has improved and Longhao tells me when I’ve done a good job.

One afternoon I helped land. I lined everything up and kept my hands on the yoke and my feet lightly on the rudder pedals. When we landed we bounced around and I laughed quite a bit, surprised that we didn’t end up off the runway in the grass. If that had happened I wouldn’t have been laughing.

Longhao, wonderful pilot and brave instructor that he is to fly with “newbies” day in and day out, saved the landing. Had it been totally on my shoulders, I would have had a lot of explaining to do. For years I thought driver education teachers had courage to get into a car with a beginner. Nothing speaks of the courage that a flight instructor must have to get in a small plane with one.

Each time I drive to a lesson, I wear a huge grin on my face. When things click in the air and seem to flow, I’m thrilled. That grin follows me as I make steep turns and other maneuvers and when the lesson is over and I drive home.

I sent my youngest brother a picture of me in the pilot’s seat and he told me that I looked like a kid in a candy store. Believe me when I say it feels much better than that — nothing can compare. I can’t recall learning anything new that has made me so happy and excited than flying. What could be more thrilling?

Each one of us probably has something on our bucket list that we want to learn, experience, or accomplish. Being mortal, we don’t have forever to do this. Make it a reality and not a pipe dream or something written on a list of paper or in your head. Do it before you get too old and find you’ve run out of time.

In our own small way we can make our lives thrilling. Do something that thrills you and makes you feel so alive and see if you, too, are grinning from ear to ear like a kid in a candy store. As for me, I’ll keep flying so the grin stays alive.

Lynn K. Cooper, of Westhampton, is a writer and retired teacher.

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