Learning to Fly

In the 80s, shortly after I had graduated from UCLA, a college friend who had just gotten his pilot’s license invited me and a couple of our other college friends to fly down to San Diego and back for a day. It was a clear crisp October day and I had my new Nikon. It was amazing to be seemingly floating along over the Santa Monica mountains, Los Angeles and the Southern California coastline. The pictures I took were great, but could only hint at the perspective I found in the experience. A few years later, after I had gotten my first job with ABC in their printing department, I decided that I wanted to take on a little adventure in my life and learn how to fly before I turned 30. I headed over to Santa Monica Airport and signed up for lessons.

Los Angeles was and still is one of the busiest airspaces for general aviation. Besides the well-known LAX, commercial air travel is conducted out of Burbank, Ontario, John Wayne Orange County and Long Beach airports. Smaller private airports like Santa Monica, Van Nuys, Hawthorne and Fullerton dot up all around the metropolitan area. Learning to fly a Cessna single engine plane by visual flight rules in this airspace was like taking Drivers Ed training on a freeway during rush hour traffic, but I loved the challenge. It is one thing to read about the physics of lift versus gravity and thrust versus drag, but quite another to feel these forces around you as you pull up the elevator to take off or lower flaps to prepare for landing. Practicing the coordination of the turn and adjusting my flight direction to counteract the effect of the winds around the plane gave me a much better understanding of weather and navigation. True learning is an adventure that brings all of your senses into play. The best part of a flight was reaching altitude, setting trim and allowing myself time to take in the landscape stretched below me. The more prominent curve of the horizon around me reinforced the reality of this orb of rock, water and life we live on in this universe. It was a precious feeling for me.

Soloing for the first time is a major rite of passage, but in the crowded airspace of Los Angeles, it proved to be a test of my ability to adapt to unexpected challenges. Santa Monica Airport has a tower to control takeoffs and landings, but does not monitor airspace beyond its landing patterns. However, LAX’s controlled airspace extending from the ground up was just a few miles to the south of Santa Monica and extended like a ceiling starting at 5000 feet over Santa Monica. Crossing into this airspace without permission was forbidden. It was late in the afternoon when my instructor and I started some elementary pattern takeoffs and landings practice. As I finished the second landing, he directed me to head over to the tower area. After I taxied over to the tower, he got out and told me to do a pattern on my own. I was both excited and nervous as I taxied to the runway, received clearance to takeoff and soared up toward the ocean. After getting to pattern level, I turned south, flew a few miles, then turned east on the downwind leg. As I reached the point directly in line with the tower on this leg, I brought up my mike, waited for a few other radio calls to complete, than announced my plane ID to the tower and stated that I was “south abeam, ready for landing.” The response was totally unexpected. Having to deal with a sudden influx of traffic, the controller told me to break off from the pattern and go someplace else as he did not have time to deal with me. Of course, the time to tell this to me, a student on his first solo, would have been before takeoff, not when I am in the air! Even worse, where was I to go? There was very little distance between the downwind leg and LAX controlled airspace, but I had to turn south, then turn back west and fly just barely outside of the controlled airspace, while still maintaining proper distance from any other planes that may be heading on the downwind leg. I was able to fly to a point where I could turn back into the downwind leg and get back into the pattern. This time when I reached the south abeam point, I was given clearance to land. Needless to say, my instructor was absolutely livid at the controller, but I managed to complete my solo pattern without causing an FAA investigation.

I earned my VFR private pilot’s license and had opportunities to fly to Catalina Island, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and even took off and landed at Burbank. However, the cost of staying current in my logs, the increasing amount of time my career at ABC was taking, and the difficulty of finding an FAA approved doctor within the company’s health insurance program forced me to take a temporary break from flying, a break that I am still on. But I do not regret the adventure and the lessons of flying that are still a part of my essence and perspective.