Happy Pilot Birthday

1 08 2010

Today, Sunday, August 1st, 2010, we celebrate not only Switzerland’s birthday (its 719th) but also my own birthday – as a private pilot. Ten years ago today, I climbed into the left seat of a small aircraft and took the controls for the first time – and I have never looked back.

Can't wait!

The decision to learn to fly was long in the making, but the logistics of life, including the lack of three essential ingredients of which one needs to have a great deal for this kind of project  – time, patience and money – kept getting in the way. I’ve wanted to pilot an airplane since I was six, and spent most of my life till I was 16 preparing myself for the aerospace engineering education I was going to get at MIT and the astronaut career I was going to have with NASA.

Until a crotchety, old, mean-spirited 12th grade physics teacher with thick glasses and a plastic pocket protector stopped me in my tracks. In the two short weeks I was enrolled in his class he manged to convince me I had the intelligence of a rock. My career in aviation was O-V-E-R before it began.

Nine years and two aviation-unrelated university degrees later, a friend’s uncle let me dream again. He gave me my first ride in his own two-seater Cessna 150. He had built himself two crossing runways on his farmland in western Canada and he kept his little bird in an oversized garage right next to the combine. It took another five years after that short flight across endless green and yellow miles of Manitoba canola fields for me to get my act together. When I saw Uncle Ron in July 2000 again, I had already registered for ground school and scheduled my first lesson.

On that sweltering August afternoon, with waves of heat rising off Berlin-Schoenefeld’s runway 25L like a mirage and with an instructor at my side, I was up and away. My ride on that auspicious first flight was D-EHPF – an orange-and-white striped Cessna 150, almost as old as I was. The chips in her beige plastic interior paneling and the comfortably worn upholstery on the seats indicated several generations of student pilots had passed through this trusty workhorse before me. And none had killed it.

That first day was a lesson in endurance and survival. The temperature inside the cozy cockpit reached well over 95 degrees F. Thermal heat ascending from the forests below made for a bouncy first flight that had me reaching for the sic-sacs more than once. We flew to an old military airfield just east of the city, today often used for landing practice. The grass strip is almost 9,000 feet long – more than enough space for pretty much any student pilot to safely get a plane on the ground somehow. (And those who couldn’t were advised to quit trying right then and there.)

Thirteen circuits later and rather green in the face, I unfolded my 5′ 10″ frame out of the miniature cockpit and gasped for air. My landing attempts had been painful for all concerned – the pilot, the passenger, the aircraft and the audience. My oh-so-patient instructor assured me after those first two hours of flight training that I had “potential.” Meaning:  I would probably not kill his bird either unless I flew it vertically into the ground. Little did we know at the time that it would take six instructors and countless more hours of patient, painstaking coaching before any instructor had the guts to send me solo. But that is a story for another day.

Happy Birthday, Switzerland! And many, many more happy landings, Evelynn Starr!

D-EHPF & me. Isn't she a beauty?

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3 responses

21 09 2010
A fellow aviator

I believe I had the same “crotchety, old, mean-spirited 12th grade physics teacher with thick glasses and a plastic pocket protector” pull me aside one day after taking one of his tests, and recommend I consider a career path other than the engineering one I had always aspired to pursue.

Well, here I am, 23 years later, with a mechanical engineering degree from one of the best engineering colleges in the area, a six-figure job working with aircraft engines, and a pilot’s licence to boot. Glad I didn’t listen to that old man.

Happy birthday, and many many more.

22 09 2010
Evelynn Starr

Hello Fellow Aviator… yeah, he was awful wasn’t he? Congratulations on proving him wrong. And thanks for the good wishes. 🙂

PS. I thought you were working on ships? You are on to aircraft now? Wow!

28 10 2010
Kerosene Dreams « Evelynn Starr

[…] its fascinating shapes and forms. The F/A-18 “Hornet” fighter jet was a far cry from my Cessna 152 single engine piston trainer, and not on the list of aircraft I ever thought I’d get to know up […]

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