Preflight, cruise, pre-landing, shut down, emergency — to name a few. Aviation is full of checklists. So if you’re interested in learning to fly, what better way to plan for success than with a learn-to-fly checklist? When I first began my flying lessons I had little background knowledge in aviation. Walking into the hangar on the first day, I didn’t know what to expect, and a few of the following tips would’ve been helpful to have in my back pocket. If you have any additional suggestions, feel free to share in the comments section below.
Keep an open line of communication with your instructor from the start. At your first lesson, make your goals and expectations clear. Find out what you’re paying for — are you being charged for the time you’re in the air, air time plus ground time, etc. Be clear about when you’d like to have your certificate by (this also means time and dedication on your part). But also be realistic and realize that things like weather and airplane availability may push that date back. Continue to make your needs clear as you move forward in your training and build a trusting relationship with your instructor. They should obviously already be aware of which skills you need to improve, but don’t be shy about telling them what your thought process is while you’re doing different maneuvers. A good instructor will want to understand your thought processes so they know how to better teach and explain different concepts to you. As with any other service you pay for, you should be able to expect certain standards from your flight instructor, and if things do not proceed as planned you can take your business elsewhere.
Have your ducks in a row so you’re ready to get your third-class medical and student certificates. Be aware that some conditions or medications might require a special issuance or a conditions AMEs can issue (CACI) worksheet. In addition, although the FAA doesn’t publish a definitive list of approved medications, there are a number of databases that list which ones have been deemed acceptable or unacceptable based on individuals’ past experiences. The good news is, with the successful passage of medical reform law, most new pilots will now only have to get a one-time third-class exam from an FAA-designated AME. If you have medical questions, you can contact EAA’s Aeromedical Advisory Council and Pilot Advocate AMEs at 800-564-6322. The online application for your student certificate is fairly straightforward if you use IACRA’s new user guide, but if you have questions, ask your instructor or another pilot if they can help you out.
Whether you’ve already completed ground school or you’re taking it simultaneously with flight training, ask your instructor what you’ll be working on in future lessons and go back to your instruction books and/or videos to refresh your memory. This may not work best for everyone, but, for me, being able to make connections between the science and aerodynamics explained in my learning materials and what my physical actions are in the cockpit helps me make quicker and more informed decisions about how to get the airplane to respond the way I want it to.
Purchase or make your own kneeboard. This is one item I use now that would have been really helpful for my first couple lessons. Until I was comfortable with my radio work, I had multiple scripts written out for contacting ground and tower, with blank spaces to fill in taxi and reporting instructions. I also printed out and laminated a map of the airport to follow along with taxi instructions. If you want to supplement your flying with modern technology, there are plenty of kneeboard options available that fit iPads and other tablets. But remember, it is important not to rely too much on one tool when flying, especially one that can fail. So even if you choose to download apps like ForeFlight, make sure you still know how to use paper charts and can calculate things like weight and balance.
Consider buying a journal or making a document on your computer to supplement your logbook. Your logbook will have all the information you need to track different skills you’ve practiced and how many hours you’ve flown, but there’s not a lot of room to record specifics from a flight. If you’re like me, personal reflection is a big part of learning. Consider verbal and written feedback from your instructor, what you personally think you did well at or need improvement on — even if you don’t want to write, find some way that works for you to reflect on each lesson. Learning to fly won’t always be smooth sailing, so thinking through any frustrations might help you to make sense of how you need to change your procedures or mindset in the cockpit.
In The Cockpit
Look beyond the instrument panel. There is a whole world of reference points right outside your window, not to mention the views are pretty incredible. It can be easy to glue your eyes to one or two instruments and start chasing needles — I struggled with this for my first couple lessons and my instructor would frequently cover them up. Looking outside is also necessary to detect traffic or obstructions. A common rule of thumb is to divide the sky into 10-degree increments and spend at least a second looking closely at each part.
Even after you pass your checkride, never stop honing your flying skills. Continue to practice different maneuvers, takeoffs, and landings, and always be looking for that emergency landing spot. Yes, you’ll have your biennial review, but don’t let that be the only time you’re evaluating your flying skills and technique. A practiced pilot is a safe pilot.
Learning to fly is a different experience for everyone. Especially if you don’t come from an aviation family or are learning to fly with no prior experience at the controls, the first couple of lessons can feel really stressful. But remind yourself of what you’re doing and what you’re working toward: You can fly, and that’s arguably one of the coolest and most exciting things you could ever learn how to do!