While many students battled long lines at airport security checkpoints en route to spring break vacation destinations, I was strapped in and cleared for takeoff in the cockpit of a single-engine Warrior III airplane at Hanscom Field in Bedford, Mass. A complete novice in the area of aeronautics, I maneuvered the aircraft into position on the tarmac, my palms more than a little sweaty.
My flight instructor, Maurice Morneau of the East Coast Aero Club, checked the bevy of dials, knobs, and switches on the instrument panel with a trained eye as air traffic control gave our craft the green light for takeoff. Nudging the throttle, the propeller sprang to life and the craft sped down the airstrip. I couldn't suppress a wide smile as the ground fell away and the plane crept into the sky.
The East Coast Aero Club is one of over 3,500 flight schools listed through Project Pilot, a directory from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association that links interested flyers with flight schools around the country. The site boasts accessible, affordable flying opportunities with an FAA-certified flight instructor where you control the aircraft from takeoff to landing. Having never set foot in the cockpit of a small aircraft, I was shocked and surprised by the amount of control given to the trainee during the lesson. Although my instructor was ready to take control in the event of the unexpected, I was encouraged to execute many of the maneuvers during the time spent in the air.
"If you can handle Hanscom Field, you can handle any field in the country," said Morneau, who fell in love with flying while serving with the U.S. Army in Germany. "It gets as busy as Logan [Airport]." Now retired, Morneau takes to the skies in one of ECAC's 32 aircraft to accompany would-be pilots and enthusiasts during the 40 hours of required flight training to obtain a pilot's license.
After takeoff, we spent a few minutes getting oriented within the aircraft. Confronted with the sheer complexity and number of dials within the plane, there's an intense urge to keep your eyes locked on the instrument panel rather than watch where the plane is heading. Morneau reminded me time and again to keep my eyes over the nose of aircraft and look toward the horizon. Coming from a lifetime of lackluster flights from commercial airlines, the view from the Warrior was quite spectacular.
Once oriented, Morneau explained the process of a turn. The mention of rudders, altitude, and airspeed were a bit much to grasp at first, but it became apparent that a coordination of control stick and foot pedals were required for proper execution. Our first attempt was a 45 degree turn to the right. Checking for other airplanes in the area, we began to roll the aircraft to the right. Even with a modest background in trigonometry, tilting a plane at 45 degrees is much more intense than expected. Unlike a car, a plane will not pull back to center during a turn, and we spent a few minutes effortlessly circling the sky above Bedford. Leveling out, Morneau reminded me again to keep my eyes on the horizon to fight any feelings of vertigo.
In the little under an hour spent in the air, we experimented with altitude, discussed airspace restrictions, and completed a more daring 55 degree turn. With the clear weather, the ocean was visible against the horizon as we navigated back to Hanscom Field. The runway in view, my thoughts drifted to numerous failed attempts as a child to land properly in Nintendo's Top Gun. Again given the green light by ATC, Morneau and I brought the aircraft to a surprisingly smooth stop on solid ground. Adrenaline pumping, I exited the aircraft with my limbs — and lunch — intact.
Back at the terminal, Mark Holzwarth, owner and president of ECAC, explained the flight training process. "With two, three-hour chunks [of flying time] a week, you can have your license in three to four months." Licenses are valid for life with biennial flight reviews. Prices start at $85 an hour for aircraft rental, and ECAC lists instruction rates starting at $25 an hour for a helicopter and $45 an hour for an airplane.
More information on Project Pilot and the East Coast Aero Club can be found at projectpilot.org and eastcoastaeroclub.com.