(Written by Jeff)
On my 37th birthday, I was able to live out a lifelong dream: to pilot an airplane. Caitlyn’s Christmas present to me was a 1 hour beginner flight lesson and tour of Chicago; the lesson allowed one guest to join us, so Caitlyn would be in the plane with me. After finding out about the lesson, we scheduled the flight in April on my birthday so that weather would be more pleasant, and it would be a wonderful way to spend my birthday. Caitlyn knew this would be an extra special gift for me, as I’ve spent hundreds of hours on flight simulators.(
The day started with a two hour drive to the Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling, Illinois. Upon arrival, we had a short wait for our instructor to arrive. Once our instructor, Mike, showed up, we were able to get started. We entered into his office, and went over all the information we’d need to know. Mike showed us the weather reports pilots use (www.aviationweather.gov), and taught us how to read aeronautical charts.
Mike gave us a brief tour of the facility, then lead us onto the tarmac to start the preflight check of the plane.
We looked over the entire plane for any large cracks or defects that may be a sign of damage or fatigue. During the inspection, Mike talked about plane-related vocabulary, and while I am very familiar with the parts of a plane, I was too nervous to remember all of them. The preflight check also included checking the fuel levels and testing the tank for water. The fuel tanks in each wing have a special hole that allowed us to drain a little bit of fuel at a time into a little shot glass-sized cup, hold the glass up to the light, and look to see if there are any water bubbles.
We finally were ready to get in the plane, but there was a lot more to check and set before we started the engine. Starting a plane is nothing like a car; first, you have to turn on a few switches to get the plane powered on, then you have to listen to the weather radio to make sure your dials are all set to the right air pressure. This step is important, as the altitude gauge works with the air pressure. If it's set wrong, we would have been at the wrong altitude and could have entered into restricted airspace, or worse, the ground won't be where we thought it was when we tried to land.
Once all the dials were set correctly and enough switches were on, the servos and things started to make noises, and Mike told me to turn the key to start the engine. Then, with a couple more checks and switches and even more checks, Mike contacted the tower to declare our intentions and get cleared. The tower cleared us to taxi to the runway, and Mike told me that the plane is in my hands. I don't recall at what point I got excited, but at this point was when I got nervous, scared, anxious, and excited, almost like the first time I drove a car.
Once we were cleared from the tower, we taxied onto the runway, applied the breaks, increased the power (or throttle) to full, let the RPMs increase and released the brakes. The whole time I had controlled the plane, and if Caitlyn (who was sitting behind us) could have seen my face, we would have a picture of the biggest smile ever to come across my face. Once we were up to speed, Mike instructed me to pull back gently on the yoke. After some corrections and turbulence, we were high enough that the ride smoothed out. Mike told us that because the winds were so calm, our flight would be very smooth, but the city would be a little hazy. It was calm enough, that once we “trimmed the plane”, we took our hands off the controls and let the plane fly itself, which afforded us some time to sightsee and enjoy the city of Chicago from a unique point of view.
We flew south along the lake shore, past Wrigley Field, downtown, over Navy Pier, and past Soldier Field; we then turned around and headed back north. When we were north of the city and into the wealthy areas with the fancy homes on the shore, we dropped down to 1500 feet and got a good view of the roofs. We then turned west, and followed one of the east-west roads until we were directly north of the airport. Mike called the tower, and requested clearance to land. He took over the plane and landed us safely.
We returned to Mike’s office for one final piece of paperwork: the certificate that proves that I have now piloted a plane.