It was on a mild, flawlessly-blue, September 29, 1995 day that I pulled into the modern State University of New York-College of Technology at Farmingdale Aviation Center on Long Island’s Route 110, experiencing a degree of trepidation, that I began my Private Pilot Flight Training Program. That it technically constituted a “class” required for my Associate in Applied Science Degree in Aerospace Technology, shared with others I knew from the main campus facilities about two miles away, significantly extended the realm of experiential education beyond what could have been considered “routine.” That I had already had a decade-and-a-half international airline career at JFK International Airport certainly qualified it as a life-consistent theme. However, I was about to assume the pilot’s seat this time.
Greeted by my Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), I was told to take the apocopate Pilot Operating Handbook (POH) from the Aviation Center and deposit it into the respective aircraft on the ramp. My initial and introductory lesson would be in a Cessna C-172 Skyhawk, registered N73334, a high-wing, four-seat, general aviation airplane powered by a single 160-hp, dual-bladed Avco Lycoming O-320-H2AD piston engine. Its design and performance parameters were many: its maximum useful load was 910 pounds; its maximum take off weight was 2,300 pounds; its fuel capacity was 43 gallons; its maximum speed was 125 knots; its sea level rate of climb was 770 fpm; and its service ceiling was 14,200 feet.
Checklist in hand, I made a clockwise pre-flight inspection, from propeller to flight surfaces to sumping the fuel to verify its clarity, before assuming the left seat and shoulder- and seatbelt-harnessing myself in it.
“Prop clear!” I yelled to alert anyone in its vicinity of its imminent start, resulting in the engine’s grunting and grounding into slipstream-generating, elevator-bathing life. The aircraft felt alive and I was in control of it.
Requesting taxi clearance from the Aviation Center on the Republic Airport Ground frequency, I released the toe brakes without pushing the power lever further in and the rotating propeller naturally pulled the aircraft into movement along the ramp at a brisk walk’s pace.
Temptation to steer with the yoke had to be resisted: it only deflected the ailerons for in-flight banking and did nothing on the ground. Rudder pedal movements ensured the nose wheel’s direction.
Nudging onto the run-up pad near Runway 1’s threshold, I performed a full flight check-from brakes to magnetos to freedom of flight surface movement to adjustment of the altimeter’s current barometric pressure–and then switched to the Republic Tower frequency, inching on to the runway and receiving take off clearance.
Full engine power deafened the cockpit, sent a torrent of air over its aerodynamic surfaces, and propelled the high-wing aircraft into acceleration. Almost immeasurable rudder pedal pressures enabled me to keep the nose wheel on the center line, while the wheel itself, beginning to jump off the ground, was the Cessna’s signal that it had gained enough speed to surrender to flight.
A gentle pull of the yoke and a right rudder pedal depression to counteract the propeller’s torque, released it from its gravity constraints several thousand feet before the runway’s end, as I “rode the ball,” trying to keep it centered.
Ignorant of procedure, I banked to the right, upon which my flight instructor advised, “Maintain runway heading until you clear it.”
The ground receded and the sky’s blue purity became the new dimension of flight.
Climbing to 2,200 feet and reducing power to level off, I crossed Long Island to the Northport Stacks, as my instructor demonstrated banks and descents. The one-hour introductory flight passed rapidly.
Re-approaching Republic Airport, I radioed, “Republic tower, this is Cessna 73334, inbound for landing.”
Clearance was given to “continue.”
Unable, in my novice state, to actually execute the landing, I was nevertheless given the opportunity to fly a right-hand pattern, consisting of downwind, base, and final legs, the latter of which required progressive trailing edge flap extensions, which could only be counteracted by a push of the yoke to avoid the nose-rising tendency. A power reduced round out and flare reprofiled the aircraft into its immediate take off rotation angle and stripped it of its airspeed, enabling it to gently touch down on its main wheels. Brake application-assisted deceleration and a turn off to the taxiway preceded a frequency change to Republic Ground, which granted clearance to return to the Aviation Center while I “cleaned up” the aircraft by retracting its flaps. A pull of the power lever starved the engine of its fuel and all vibration, noise, and slipstream ceased.
A debriefing and logbook entry took place inside.
The following week’s lesson entailed operation of the smaller, two-seat Cessna 152, registered N67856, with a takeoff from the reciprocal of Runaway 1-in this case, 19-and a cruise to Long Island’s south practice area over Jones Beach-connecting, erector set resembling Captree Bridge. The return required the radioing of, “Republic Tower, this is Cessna 67856 over Captree, inbound for landing.”
The five-session, 5.7-hour flight training course, designated “Introduction to Flight I” and running from September 29 to October 27, also involved aircraft N757AA, another C-152, and the curriculum entailed the four fundamentals of flight, minimum controllable airspeed, 30-degree banks, approaches to stalls, descents, and landings on Runway 14.
The succeeding six-flight, six-hour “Introduction to Flight II” course, running from February 27 to April 19, 1996, entailed all Cessna 172 aircraft, although in two registered N734HD and N1517E I had not yet flown. I was also introduced to a new flight instructor.
Although the standard curriculum included such practice maneuvers as traffic pattern flying slow-flight, and coordinated flight, a man-machine merge in continually changing meteorological conditions created some challenging moments.
A half-hour sector on Marah 15 in aircraft N734HD, for instance, prompted a rapid return after take off in rain and nothing more than a traffic pattern circuit because of low, visual flight rule (VFR)-threatening conditions.
Coordinated flight on April 12 in aircraft N1517E over the north practice area was made amid a soupy overcast and 35-knot winds blowing from the forward, right side, buttressing the Skyhawk and rendering it difficult to maintain control.
And the following week’s sortie, with N734HD on April 19, entailed the grinding roar of the engine when it was throttled to a setting above 2,200 rpm, leaving the flight instructor to take control and immediately return to Republic Airport from the south practice area, all the while at a slight climb angle. An engine inspection was clearly in order afterwards.
The fall 1996 semester’s “Primary Flight I” course, with the same flight instructor and the Cessna 172s with which I had now become familiar, entailed eight sectors and 8.7 hours during the September 19 to December 5, 1996 period. It included some of its own surprises and challenging situations.
On two occasions-September 19 and November 1-both with aircraft N734HD, I flew 15,.5 nautical miles airline-reminiscent sectors from Farmingdale’s Republic Airport to Islip’s Long Island MacArthur and landed before return. During the first, I made crosswind take offs and landings, the latter with only ten degrees of flap, and was introduced to radio communication in Class C airspace. Upon return from the second I made a left downwind turn beneath clouds that were at 1,600 feet, experiencing moderate turbulence, a 50-degree crosswind at 25 knots gusting to 32, wind shear on final, the incessant blare of the stall warning horn, the left wing’s continual dip to the ground, and insufficient rudder travel, causing my flight instructor to desperately assume control and correct each lateral axis upset until enough airspeed had been bled off to flare and snatch Republic’s Runway 32 with its main wheels.
The rest of the fall curriculum involved the more “mundane” maneuvers of airspeed and configuration changes, 45-degree banks, s-turns, and turns-around-a-point.
The spring 1997 continuation of “Primary Flight I,” spanning the four-month period from January 27 to May 12, included eight sectors and 7.7 hours, and the re-introduction of my original flight instructor. The first three flights were made in aircraft N734HD, with the remaining five in N1517E, all obviously Cessna 172s. Its lessons included climbing and descending turns, tracking, air traffic control procedures, straight-and-level flight, airport entries, an inadvertent plunge into cloud-causing instrument meteorological (IMC) conditions, and a rapid, short-final descent from 1,200 feet to Republic Airport’s Runway 14.
Coupled with a private rental of a C-172 Skyhawk from Republic’s Nassau Flyers fixed base operator (FBO) back on January 30, 1996 (registered N5700E) for a one-hour Long Island South Short cruise, during which one of my airline colleagues constituted my first “passenger,” my flight training program concluded with 32 sectors and 29 hours in my logbook.