Learning to fly…

Yes, a long time since the previous post, but the last 10 months have kept me fairly busy. In addition to welcoming to the world a daughter and maintaining a good workload from a professional side (we just announced the latest version of CorelDRAW), I had the opportunity to realize a childhood dream: becoming a pilot!

Ottawa avion aout 2009 038

And what a great time it has been to go through the process. I earned my Private Pilot License (PPL) on January 15, 2010 in about 10 months and wanted to share the journey for those who might be interested in doing the same. While this post is based on the Canadian regulations, PPL licenses seem to be fairly unified around the world and the comments here might still be of interest for you.

First step first: Find a flight school. While you will get the same overall curriculum in all of them as the Transport Canada requirements are identical for everyone, take the time to look at the different ones available in your region and find out which one works best for you. In my case, I was looking for a place where I not only would get professional instruction, but also a place where I would have fun and enjoy spending time at. Selecting the people you will learn from is very important as you will be spending at least 17 hours with them in the plane (the legal minimum… it will be quite a few more hours in the end), plus quite a lot of time on the ground for school and briefings. I was also looking for a place where I could rent planes going forward for an hour, a day or a week once done with my formal training.

You certainly hear a lot about glass cockpit these days, and if you want to learn from the get-go with the latest and greatest in technology, then that will also have a price (if you can find a flight school in your region). I decided that I wanted to learn the traditional way (with the “six-pack” instruments), so that I know the basics first, just like I learned to drive a car with a stick, even if I know have one with an automatic transmission with GPS and on-board computer.

There are a few places in and around Ottawa, and I opted for the Rockcliffe Flying Club (RFC) based at the Rockcliffe airport (CYRO) next to the museum of aviation in Ottawa. I have to say that I don’t regret one second my choice. The instructors are really fantastic, the other club members are great to spend time with (the tagline of the club is “where friends come to fly” and you feel it from day one) and they have a a choice of Cessna 152 and 172 to rent (I did go for the 172 all the way as I am rather tall). As I found out later in my training there is an extra bonus. Because CYRO is an uncontrolled airport, you don’t have to wait for a clearance to get in the air (quite important as you pay by the hour of “engine on” time, not “in the air” time).

Rockcliffe Flying Club

Once you selected the club, your instruction will really be split in three main parts, all happening in parallel: Theory, Paperwork and Practice.

Part of the PPL, you have to pass a written exam (actually a multiple-choice questionnaire). In order to prepare for it, you also have the requirement to do at least 40 hours of ground school. At the RFC, this is done over approximately three months, with 3 hour evening sessions twice a week. The ground course is broken down into various sections (meteorology, air law, navigation, …) for quite a few more hours than the legal minimum. In addition, once you have done the ground school, you can always attend the lectures again to keep up-to-date. In addition, I was really happy to see that the classes where not focussed around “passing the exam” (that is a side effect), but much more to provide you with all the information needed to become a safe and proficient pilot. I won’t say it was easy to pass the written exam (there is really a lot to learn), but I was well prepared, and the teachers are readily available to answer questions outside of the class-room (most of them work in positions related to what they teach from what I understand, which is a plus). After the ground instruction, I took a little break from studying to welcome my daughter (actually the last evening was the day after her birth, you can imagine how hard it was to get my brain to understand anything 😉 I finally passed my Transport Canada exam in November.

Regarding what I put under “paperwork”, you need to get a medical certificate in order to be able to fly solo (and for your license to be valid). My recommendation: Get it done as soon as you start the training as it can take a while. First, you will find out quickly if there is any medical reason you could not fly, and second, you don’t want to be ready to do your first solo flight and not be able to go because you don’t have your medical certificate. An other part of the paperwork is the English proficiency test (they can do them at the club), which takes about 20 minutes and is really really easy if you speak decent English. You would usually do this towards the end of your training, just before doing the flight test.

Still under “paperwork”, I will add the Restricted Radio Operator license and the PSTAR. The Radio license is another multiple-choice exam that gives you the right to use a radio on the frequencies reserved for identified flying objects (remember, everything is confidential and comes in 3). The PSTAR is yet another multiple-choice exam… but this one is even easier: you get the questions and possible answers before hand (and there are great sites with detailed answers). An exam where you have the answers beforehand is really paperwork that requires a little work to prepare 😉

And now for the fun part: Practice.

Part of your selection of the flight school process, you really should arrange for an intro flight. First, it will confirm if you really want to go through with everything, especially if you haven’t been on a single engine aircraft before. If you are rather tall, ask to be on a Cessna 172 instead of a 152 for your intro flight (or whatever larger fixed pitch single the flight school uses). And the good news is that you can count the intro flight towards your dual flight hours in case you decide to stick with it.

Training is really broken down in 3 parts: Pre-Solo, cross-country and emergency procedures. The first part is really about the basic handling of the plane (on the ground and in the air), the basic procedures (walk-around, pre-takeoff checks, in-air checklists, …) and be able to take-off / land the plane safely without having the extra weight on the right seat (also known as an instructor). And don’t worry, the person in charge of your training will not let you go on your own until he is certain you will bring the plane safely back (and use enough right rudder). I did my solo on June 23, 2009… as for every other pilot, it is a moment that I certainly will remember vividly for quite a long time. It is really surprising how faster a plane climbs when it is lighter.

The cross-country phase is a lot of fun and comes after having turned around the airfield for many hours doing touch-n-go practice with different types of techniques (short or soft field). Getting to another airport outside of the 25nm radius you stayed before that point is really a great feeling. And having done the trip with your instructor before you get on your own, you shouldn’t get too much lost on the way.

Somewhere between Cornwall, ON and Ottawa

The final part of the training is all about emergencies and how to react correctly. This is not really a distinct section of the training as it happens all along (the first time the instructor pulls the power on you when in the circuit and comes out with a simple “simulated engine failure” over the intercom, you better remember what to do quickly). It makes a lot of sense to spend a lot of time on this, even if the small single engine planes are very safe (no this is not a message for my wife, it is the truth).

Once you’ve gone through all this, you will start the finishing steps with a pre-flight test and ultimately the flight test itself. My recommendation for everyone: Over-prepare the forced approaches and diversions. And if you trained all these procedures before the first snow, make sure to get some extra training when everything is white… it really looks differently from up there once the snow has arrived (I write from experience on this one).

Here are a few tips I would finish with that might be useful for everyone interested in getting their ticket:

  • be well prepared before the briefing / flight lesson… read the related chapter / section in the flight training manual and come up with questions for the instructor.
  • be ready to spend quite a few hours reading books / preparing for the written exam and don’t just learn for the exam. I might have over-prepared, but I am certain that what I learned then will serve me a long time.
  • You can sit in the plane for free when it is on the ground to review emergency procedures and make sure they become almost second nature.
  • If the weather is not well within your personal limits & comfort zone, especially for the flight test, re-schedule. Yes, your dream is almost there, but it might be wiser to go a few days later. I did my flight test on a windy day with a fairly strong cross-wind, and in retrospect, I should have told the examiner that we need to reschedule. Remember that you are the Pilot in Command for the flight test.
  • You might want to book flights in the regions where diversions are normally done for the flight test, so that you can get a good feel of how things look like at 1000 ft AGL and where the closest airport is.
  • On the subject of diversions, make sure to mark you CFS so that you can quickly find the info you need during the procedure. This is also true when you fly after the test. And remember to not only fly the heading to your new destination, but also to adjust your airspeed according to the simulated conditions.
  • Enjoy every step of it! While there is a lot to learn, the time to and from the practice area is really nice. I remember one late afternoon when coming back to the field in the fall when all the balloons were taking off from Gatineau, and started to blow exactly between myself and the airport towards the city.

If you always wanted to become a pilot, then go with it… it is worth it. I can’t wait to continue my training with a night rating (will start it in the coming weeks) the VFR OTT and later the Instrument Rating. And if you see a small plane doing circles above your heads, you no longer have to go and hide in a safe place according to Transport Canada, at least not when I am up there 😉

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