Sunday, May 18, 2008

Where to fly and when to begin?

Since moving down to Ohio a year ago - wow, did that ever fly by - I have spent a fairly decent amount of time researching local airports that I can train at. From searching and posting on the AOPA (that's the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) forums to contacting local pilots through their Project Pilot mentoring program, I was able to gather lots of useful information. On a few weekends I took the time to drive out to many of these airports and talk with the flight schools and instructors as well.

In taking the time to figure all this out, I came to a few conclusions. First, there is no doubt that I'm lucky to live in the Midwest where there are quite a few affordable locations to train at unlike the very few (and expensive) airports in many areas of the country. Second, there are many nice local airports within a reasonable driving distance of my apartment. Third, the pilot community is very friendly and helpful and I appreciate all the thoughts and comments that were sent my way when I went looking for answers. And finally, I still somehow managed to almost overlook the wonderful airport where I will be doing my training. I'll come back to that last point in a minute.

While a lot of this research took place last summer, I was traveling off and on for work and did not really want to start training when I might have to miss two or three weeks of flying. It just does not seem like a good idea for me, as a very new student, to take that kind of break early on. However, I did decide to enroll in ground school with Wings on Wheels at the Green County Airport that is only about 10-15 minutes away from my apartment. What is ground school? One of the requirements for your Private Pilot Certificate is to pass a Knowledge Test (also known as the Written Exam) and in ground school you go over topics that are on the test like aerodynamics, navigation, weather, aircraft systems, airport procedures, and flight planning. The course met for about eight weeks and I thought it was a great way to enhance everything you learn while reading some of the many books out there for beginning pilots. People have different learning styles, but I really see a benefit in being in a classroom and hearing other people ask questions and make comments.

So fast forward to this spring when I was gearing up to finally start my training. Going back through some of the materials I collected from the various airports last year, I ended up online checking for updated information. Long story short, I managed to dig up a gem of an airport that was closer than some of the ones I was already considering. Don't ask me how I missed it before, because I really have no idea. Luckily I did indeed find the airport, a small grass strip known as Red Stewart Airfield in Waynesville, and took a trip down there to check the place out. It's been a family-owned airport for three generations and is full of history, both in the field itself and in the historic airplanes they have in their collection.

Compared to many other flight schools, they have a slightly different approach to initial pilot training - and it is an approach that I love and am very excited about. You see, most pilots starting out these days begin flying something like a small Cessna or Piper with tricycle gear, which is where there are two main wheels and then a nosewheel at the front. Stewart starts pilots out in aircraft like the Piper Cub (shown below) or Aeronca Champ that are taildraggers, also known as conventional gear, for their initial training. As the name implies, they have two main wheels and then a smaller wheel back on the tail.

Neither approach is right or wrong, just different, but I really am glad I will have the opportunity to train in both types of aircraft. I see this as a bit of an advantage because the general wisdom from pilots seems to be that you get a much better feel for the airplane and have to truly learn how to use the control surfaces (often referred to as "stick and rudder" skills) when flying a taildragger. Plus, it's just a ton of fun to fly historic aircraft like the Cub that thousands of pilots have trained in dating back to World War II. By training this way I will be flying the taildraggers until I solo and then will transition to larger, tricycle gear aircraft like the Cessna 150 or 172 for things like night flying, navigation, and radios. And I sure can't argue with the side benefit that the Cub and Champ are incredibly cheap in the scope of aircraft rental rates!

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