How I got a pilot license in 12 days
APOPKA, Florida — As an eight-year-old boy who dreamed of flying, the best I could do was obsessively play “Pilotwings” on my Super Nintendo.
When I was barely old enough to fly, I’d ask my mom repeatedly for lessons and her answer was always the same: too dangerous.
Years later as an entry-level employee at CNN, it was too expensive. After that, as a husband and dad, my wife said it was too expensive … and too dangerous!
This year, as part of my post-CNN career as a commercial drone business owner, I finally had a business reason to do it — and do it as quickly and inexpensively as possible. But a traditional private pilot’s license can cost upwards of $12,000, and require months to complete.
A light sport license could cost under $5,000 and take a dedicated student less than two weeks to finish. That sounded more like what I was looking for.
On June 7, I stepped — well, more like climbed awkwardly — into the cockpit of a small airplane and experienced my very first flying lesson, kicking off a whirlwind training program. I did nothing but fly airplanes, learn about the weather and Federal Aviation Regulations.
It sounds crazy, but only 12 days later, I came out of the program a full fledged light sport pilot.
The FAA’s light sport category is fairly new. Only approved in 2004, it allows students to learn to fly in half the time, and for half the cost of a traditional private pilot course of study.
Last year the FAA issued 398 light sport certificates, compared to about 14,000 traditional licenses.
“Our biggest demographic is middle-age males,” said Adam Valencic, President of First Landings Aviation, the light sport school in Apopka, Florida, where I did my training.
“It’s the guys who — when they were younger — wanted to learn how to fly, couldn’t afford it, and now have the time and the money.”
Huh. Sounds familiar.
Valencic started the school with only one plane and one flight instructor back in 2009, betting on widespread interest in the light sport category.
The difference in the privileges that come along with the FAA’s light sport certificate are significant.
I can only fly a plane that weighs under 1,320 pounds fully loaded, during daytime hours in “visual flight conditions” (good weather), and take only one passenger.
“You’re actually held to the exact same standards as the private pilot,” said Valencic. “The test at the end of the day is almost identical, you just have the extra knowledge as a private pilot for nighttime flight.”
Either way, I would be flying an airplane all by myself, and the license would satisfy the rules for flying drones commercially.
The new category even spurred a wave of new light sport airplanes — specially designed, lightweight two-seater aircraft.
Lesson No. 1
During my first lesson, I was nervous.
I’d ridden in one or two small planes and helicopters during my years at CNN and for other aerial photography work, but I’d never actually piloted one — and I’d certainly not been inside one this … tiny.
Our chariot — a Tecnam P2004 “Bravo” — was a two-seater airplane that weighs only 550 pounds empty.
Add fuel, a flight instructor and a student, and we were every bit of that 1,320-pound limit.
And, as my flight instructor Etian Contreras shuttled us down the runway, pulled back on the stick and took us skyward, I felt at home.
Our first lesson — straight and level flight. As in, how to fly an airplane once it’s in the air, and you’re not turning, climbing or descending.
Sounds easy, right?
It’s harder than you might think, but the thing I learned in the first 5 minutes was that the airplane — despite its tiny size — wants to keep you in the sky. We took advantage of those physics and learned how to control it.
Once I got the hang of “straight and level,” we moved on quickly to turns.
Apparently, as I learned that day, you don’t just throw the stick left or right. You also have to use the pedals to move the rudder, and do it in a coordinated fashion.
‘We reached “the stall” … and it was an odd feeling’
After turns we went to stalls — something I’d heard about for years, but never experienced for myself.
Just two hours into my flying career, we were basically practicing flying with no running engine, and climbing skyward faster than the plane could handle.
This is safe, right?
Sure enough, we reached “the stall” — the point at which the airplane is climbing too steeply to get any more lift over the wings, and it was an odd feeling.
If we didn’t correct this in just a few seconds, the plane might start heading for the ground …
… and not for a nice, soft landing.
But Etian is a pro, and within seconds, we were back to straight-and-level flight.
We finished the marathon day of flying with a few other maneuvers, and then smartly, he took care of the landing.
I was mentally and physically exhausted after that first day, but I was 5 hours closer to my pilot’s license.
The light sport license only requires 20 hours of flying time, and I was already a quarter of the way there.
‘Takeoffs are optional, landings are mandatory’
Over the next 5 days, we covered takeoffs, 45-degree bank turns, flying figure eights around a roadway, engine failures and most importantly, landings.
After all, as Etian always says, “Takeoffs are optional, landings are mandatory.”
It was the eve of day 7, and I could barely sleep. Tomorrow would be the first real test of the knowledge I had gained in the last week — the solo flight.
That’s right — only 7 days after I sat in the cockpit for the first time, this crazy guy was going to let me take the controls alone, while he stayed on the ground and — I’m assuming — prayed.
Together, we took off for the Leesburg, Florida, airport, and landed.
We went for a quick tour of the control tower, and then Etian stayed behind while I took the plane out for a few “laps” around the traffic pattern.
As I taxied the airplane down taxiway alpha, heading for “runway one-three,” my anxiety was palpable.
“You know how to do this,” I told myself. “You’ve done this a dozen times.”
I also couldn’t help thinking “but you just learned how to do this, like, three days ago!”
As I pushed the throttle to full, and started speeding down the runway, the nerves went away, and I was at peace.
I took off, hung a left, and got back in the box-shaped traffic pattern that surrounds the airport.
I lined up once again for the runway, and touched down. It wasn’t my best landing ever, but I was down.
Full power, flaps set to “takeoff,” capturing the center-line, airspeed 52 knots, rotate.
I was in the sky again for my next “touch and go.”
The next landing was better than the first, and the six that followed were even better.
As I landed for the last of my eight laps around the pattern, I have to say, I felt pretty good about myself.
Etian hopped back aboard, and we headed for home — Orlando Apopka Airport just a few miles away.
Waiting for me on the other end, was Valencic and several of the other flight instructors — with a “Keep Calm and Fly Solo” T-shirt.
They also had a pair of scissors to cut the shirt I was wearing off my back.
It’s a time-honored tradition that goes back to the days when flight instructors in open-cockpit airplanes would tug on their students’ T-shirts to tell them which way to fly.
When you flew solo, there was no instructor to pull on your shirt, so they made sure to do it when you got back.
The big test
Over the five days that followed, I did another 20 or so laps at Leesburg, and flew a 2-hour solo flight from Apopka to Crystal River airport on the Gulf Coast.
This “cross-country” flight is a requirement of the training, and it was one of the most peaceful experiences I’d ever had.
Peace turned into intense nervousness though as I landed, knowing that my “pilot examiner” was waiting for me.
It was time for the check-ride. The big test. The thing that would determine if I walked away from this program as a pilot.
We started with one hour of oral interview on the ground, questioning me on everything from the Federal Aviation Regulations to the type of oil my plane used, airspace requirements, weight and balance and engine maintenance.
Then, an hour-long flight where I performed one of each of the maneuvers I had learned in those two weeks, and a “surprise” engine failure procedure.
I passed. I managed to land the plane with no engine, simulate stalls, takeoffs, landings, figure eights around a road, steep turns, and everything else he could throw at me.
And when I landed, my pilot examiner gave a quick thumbs up to the crowd that had assembled in the flight school lobby.
That was it!
26 years after I set out to accomplish this journey, I was there. A pilot.
No more Super Nintendo flights. No more Microsoft Flight Simulator. Only the real thing.
And I did it in 12 days.
I ended up flying more than 30 hours during those 12 days — 10 more than required for the light sport certificate, and only 10 short of what’s required for a traditional license.
So, over the coming weeks, I plan to knock out those remaining 10 hours with my business partner and certified flight instructor Ben Kroll, because — hey, I’ve come this far!
After that, instrument rating, so I’m capable of flying in the clouds, at higher altitudes and in low visibility.
But in the meantime, I have a long line of friends and family asking me to take them flying, and for the first time, I can actually do that — just as long as it’s one at a time.
By Matt Sloane
special to CNN