Learning to Fly

“That’s right. Look at that, you just took off,” said the flight instructor, with a tone calm enough to soothe a lion. The situation didn’t seem calm to me, but she was quite right – by following her instructions, we’d become airborne with a speed that would have made the Wright Brothers shit their pants with envy. Out the many large windows that curved around us, trees transitioned from towering to toylike – almost as quickly as on a commercial flight.

It’s not fair to compare this experience to flying on a jet, though. First of all, you are really surrounded, in the middle of the lifting and soaring experience. It’s like the difference between watching a movie in IMAX and watching one on your phone. The clear empty sky is just a few feet away from you in every direction – there’s no pulling down the shade and taking a nap here. And you are actually controlling the flight – another great reason not to take that nap.

This was my first time flying. We started by doing flight checks of various equipment – outside and inside the cockpit. Then we taxied. The yoke – a cross between a steering wheel and a video game controller – doesn’t do anything until you’re in the air, so on the ground you drive and steer with your feet. This takes some getting used to. Fortunately, like a good driver’s ed vehicle, the planes have controls on both sides, so your instructor can step in (with the foot pedals, quite literally) and take over if you have trouble. Then there’s that lift off – more than a little surreal to just gradually find yourself up, up and away.

Flight instructor Vicky Kuo

Flight instructor Vicky Kuo

I asked my flight instructor, Vicky Kuo, what sort of students she typically works with. Everyone from young people considering careers to retired folks looking for a new pastime might find themselves in her cockpit. She once had an engineer who helped develop rockets. “We kept telling him, this isn’t rocket science,” she remembers. “So you had a rocket scientist, what about a brain surgeon?” I asked. “Well, I used to do some brain surgery, so I guess we have that covered,” she responded.

Horizon Aviation is the only school cleared to operate out TF Green Airport in Warwick. As Horizon’s top instructor, Vicky has logged over 6,500 hours as an instructor. She came to flying later in life – after a career as a pathologist in biotech. For her, it started with a gift certificate she received as a present. After spending considerable time trying to overprepare and teach herself to fly academic style — by reading about it — she gave up on that approach and just came in for the lesson. It really took off from there: After her first flight, she was hooked. After her second flight, she gave her notice at work and changed careers – ascending through the ranks of licenses to reach instructor at breakneck speed. It’s a little surprising to learn about this overachieving streak, since the most powerful trait you pick up on when taking a lesson is her calm humor and we-can-handle-anything manner.

The flight school is owned by Zeke Valtz. He looks like a pilot from central casting – comfortable and confident in his manner, with sharp

Flight school owner Zeke Valtz

Flight school owner Zeke Valtz

eyes and an obvious but not overwrought zest for life. His path to the cockpit was equally indirect. “I grew up flying, being around it, and I loved it. My stepdad’s company had planes, and if I got good grades he’d … let me ride shotgun. But I knew I didn’t want to be an aeronautical engineer and I knew I didn’t want to be an airline pilot. Because those things are fine but weren’t a match for what I craved, although I didn’t know what that was. So I got my pilot’s license. But I went into business consulting and got a big fancy job, and eventually I got another big fancy job. I had the huge office in a Chicago skyscraper with floor to ceiling windows and the works, and I just hated it. My job was strategic planning. Big companies brought me to say, ‘What’s your goal? Where are you now? Where do you want to go and how do we get there?’ It’s astonishing to me how long it took me to apply those same skills and principals to my own life.

“I’d been flying all along. I bought my first plane a week before I bought my first house, because if one of the deals got messed up, I wanted it to be the house not the plane. I had my priorities straight. So I thought, I really like flying, but I really like business, and I like having problems to solve. And I really like teaching. What could I do that combined all that?”

Chris Porter is the marketing and outreach person for Horizon, the first to greet me when I came in. For Porter, flight was a calling from an early age – he “geeked out” on plane statistics and information as a kid, and scraped together funds for occasional lessons through high school and college. After some time away from it, he went all in and then traveled the world as an air show pilot, returning to RI when he got married and wanted to spend less time on the road (so to speak).

What’s involved in getting a pilot’s license? While flying turned out to be far less traumatic than I expected, it’s a long runway paved with lessons before you can start to go solo. The minimum requirement is 35 hours of flight time – but you have to do certain amounts of various kinds of flying in different quantities, adding up to that. With on-the-ground training and flight simulators — “In the plane is actually a terrible place to learn,” laughs Porter. “We do our core teaching and aerodynamic concept teaching on the ground” — you should expect to spend at least as much time on the ground as in the air. And the focus is not on hours served, but on whether students have developed the skills they need to be responsible – something the instructors assess as one goes along. Nationally, that averages out to around 70 or 80 hours. At Horizon, the average number of hours in the air for their students to achieve a license is 57. Most students space those out – a couple of hours a week is pretty standard.

The author’s first flying lesson

The author’s first flying lesson

When we were in the air, it was amazing how close everything seemed – in under an hour, we’d gotten out of the way of an official Patriots Jet, made it out past Newport, waved at Fall River and New Bedford, spotted the Boston skyline, calmly navigated my nervousness about ever pointing the plane’s nose downward, and returned to TF Green, all in well under an hour. “Once you get a license, you can do a morning flight out to Martha’s Vineyard with a few friends, have a lovely picnic Sunday brunch on the beach, and be back in time for the afternoon game,” advises Valtz. I was also surprised to learn how much you can look out the window, look around, take pictures. You have to stay alert, but unlike driving a car, you don’t have to keep your hands on the wheel or your eyes on the road … er, sky. You can text while flying, or sit back and enjoy the trip.

After my return to earth I felt several inches taller and more than a little giddy. “It’s normal to feel like you’re walking on air,” Porter reassured me. “And if you think that was exciting, imagine the first time you take one out on your own!”

Gift certificates are available through horizonaviation.com – and while they’re the only flight school operating out of TF Green, there are schools in Lincoln, South County and Newport, as well. A first flight / introductory package is $149, and each lesson after that depends on both air time and instructor time, generally running in the low $200 to $300 range. Over the course of achieving a license, you may be looking at about a year and around $13,000 or $14,000 – and student loans are available for the career-minded.

Horizon Aviation; 530 Airport Rd, Warwick, RI and 125 Access Rd, Norwood, Mass; 401-736-5115; horizonaviation.com

Newport Aviation; 211 Airport Access Rd, Middletown; 401-846-2359; flynewportri.com

Air Ventures Flying School; 300 Jenckes Hill Rd, Smithfield; 401-216-9359; airventuresri.com

North Central Flight Center; 300 Jenckes Hill Rd, Smithfield; 401-413-4093; ripilot.com

Parker Aviation; 150 Airport St, North Kingstown; 401-391-7890; parkeraviation.com

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