What I Learned while Learning to Fly

For the longest time, I have been interested in learning to fly. Like most kids, I wanted to fly planes when I was younger. During the last few years, I found myself to be hooked to the aviation channels on YouTube which ended up furthering my resolve to check out a flight school. This last month, I did my first solo flight where I was flying the plane on my own without the security of an instructor on the next seat.

I finally took the plunge earlier this year and went on my discovery flight. A discovery flight is a short session where you get to experience firsthand what it means to fly a plane. You go out with an instructor who lets you do simple maneuvers, such as making turns, etc. The idea is that this first experience would let you decide on whether learning to fly is something that you’d like to pursue further. I promptly applied for a student license and got my medical Exam done to begin my training.

In this post, I put down my thoughts so far on my process of learning to fly and share what I learned about myself during this training.

All smiles after the first solo and completing my three touch and goes.

Training the body

Increasing the angle of attack usually results in increased lift making the plane gain altitude, but increasing it beyond the critical angle causes it to stall.
Plane by osmosikum is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution.

One of the first few maneuvers that a student pilot learns is recovering from a stall. The wings of the airplane produce lift when there is smooth airflow over them. This lift usually increases either with the relative wind speed as the plane goes faster, or when the angle at which the wing meets the relative wind is increased when the pilot pulls up on the yoke. This angle is known as the angle of attack. However, there is a limit to which the pilot can increase the angle of attack. If we increase this angle of attack beyond a critical angle then the wind no longer flows smoothly over the wing and it stops producing the lift that keeps the plane flying. This is known as stalling of the wing and the plane starts to lose altitude. The only way to recover from this situation is to reduce the angle of attack by pressing the yoke forward to pitch down. This can be a bit counter-intuitive for new student pilots since they wanted the stalled plane stop losing altitude in the first place.

There is an interesting phenomenon that I learned about myself while trying out this procedure for the first time. I learned about the disconnect between what I thought and the action that my body wanted to do. Before going for the flight, I had studied the theoretical concepts behind the maneuver. My instructor even demonstrated the procedure before having me go at it. However, when I actually tried the exercise for the first time something strange happened. Instead of pushing the yoke down to reduce the angle of attack of the wing, every cell of my body wanted to pull up on the yoke to maintain altitude. It took immense willpower to do the right thing, i.e., to push the yoke down. Following the natural instinct of my ground-dwelling body would have certainly made the matters worse. The plane would continue to be stalled and would rapidly lose altitude. This was especially concerning since I was prepared for what was happening and intellectually convinced myself about why pushing the yoke down was the correct course of action. Things would have been drastically more demanding in a situation if a stall were to happen inadvertently (vs. in a practice maneuver). In fact, if a training plane were to be left on its own it would most likely recover on its own from a stall. Yet, stall and spin accidents do happen. Investigation often later reveal that the pilot continued pulling up instead of reducing the angle of attack.

I learned the importance of training the body and getting used to the sensations felt by the body before an impending stall. It most certainly not my first time experiencing this kind of disconnect, but this one was an ‘in your face’ kind of situation. One that was difficult to ignore— my intellect seemed to have been overruled by the body. I was able to spend time analyzing and deconstructing what happened on the drive back home. I realized the importance of training the body until the natural thing to do would be the right course of action. And this training happens by practice and repetition. Again and again.

The Aha! moments

Like most student pilots, I would undergo a sensory overload when flying the plane at the beginning of every new training lesson. There is a lot of multitasking that goes on while piloting a plane. You need to follow the checklists, scan through a several instruments, look for other traffic in the sky, make radio calls, understand how the plane is reacting to various control inputs, and also corroborate these practical observations with the theoretical concepts learned from the textbook. Everything would appear to happen so quickly that you barely have time to follow what your instructor is saying from the adjacent seat. Over the course of the training, time almost starts to slow down and one can handle more tasks. This process, however, doesn’t appear to be a linear one. I had periods where I would struggle with a concept only to have a sudden aha! moment when everything would seem to click. This was most evident while learning how to land the plane.

Landings are supposed to be tricky for most new pilots. So much seems to be happening at the same time. There is a lot of material out there teaching what is needed for a good landing. Even your instructor would also probably tell you those same things over and over again on multiple landing attempts. Yet, everyone struggles with landings in the beginning until when things suddenly start falling into their place. This is what I am referring to as an aha! moment in learning. It is not to say the I had perfect landings after this point but I would be able to debug what went wrong in a step-by-step manner. In contrast, my first few landings would be a complete blur and I wouldn’t be able to describe what went by.

The job of a good teacher here is to be able to break down the lesson into smaller steps that can be grasped by the student. Hearing the same instruction in slightly different wordings was also helpful to me here. The task of learning was to deconstruct the various phases of landing and be able to diagnose how to refine each step when things didn’t happen in an ideal way.

These were some of my learnings from the flight training so far that I think have applications beyond flight school. I still have a long way to go in flight school and hope to keep you posted on what and how I learn in the future! Let me know what you think about these thoughts.