What can $15,000 buy you?
The day dawned cold and clear, a bluebird day without a single cloud.
A perfect day to learn how to fly.
No need to call John Logan, owner of Due West Aviation flight school and my instructor for my first flying lesson, to see if weather conditions might postpone our journey together.
The 30-minute drive to the Vail Valley Jet Center, located at Eagle County regional airport, proved ample time to scan the horizon for planes. I imagined myself in the cockpit of one I spotted in the distance and then tried to use logic to talk myself down when I envisioned a fiery descent, myself at the helm.
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In all honesty I wasn’t all-out white-knuckled at the thought of flying a plane, but I admit, there were a few butterflies keeping the apple I had for breakfast company. I’d never been in a small aircraft before.
Last week, after our budget meeting I told my editor that if I died doing this story, she’d better feel bad and say something nice at my funeral. Reluctant to play my game, she told me I wouldn’t die, her tone telling me more: knock off the melodrama.
I didn’t tell my mother I was going up in, gasp, a small plane, until that morning. If nothing else, her response was predictable: ‘Do you know the pilot? Well, I wouldn’t get in a small plane like that with just anyone, you know.’
As the Trail’s photographer, Matt, and I pulled through the green gate into the parking lot outside the Jet Center, I looked at the row of four planes lined up neatly in front of the building, wondering if one of the smaller planes would be ours. Then I glanced heavenward and said the first of two quick prayers. It was a concise five words – ‘Please don’t let me die.’ Dramatic I know, but I considered it a bit of a safety precaution.
Logan was waiting in the lobby of the Jet Center as Matt and I made our way in. With a sure grip, he introduced himself and asked me a simple question.
“What do you want to get out of today?”
Not one for stumbling over my words, I stumbled. I’d gotten used to asking the questions and being in control. That’s my job.
To be honest, I’d been so busy planning interviews around the rest of my day, I hadn’t stopped to think about something as simple as a goal for our time together. Like with most things in my life, I planned on figuring it out when I arrived.
“I want to see what a typical first-time flying lesson is like,” I said, even though I never really believed I’d actually be flying the plane.
For some reason, I’d assumed that I’d just be observing him flying the plane. I’m a journalist, I observe.
He clarified that quickly.
“You will be flying,” he said. “I’m there to back you up, but you’ll be doing the control of the airplane, except as needed by me.”
Logan must have seen a bit of anxiety in my eyes, because shortly after he said he always likes to address any fear or apprehension a person may have before they get in the plane.
“One of the things we always want to address is fears and anxieties, there’s a natural sort of apprehension about the flying process for a lot of people. We want to address those concerns because I’m a firm believer that knowledge overcomes fear.”
Then he brought up motion sickness.
Great, I hadn’t even considered the chance of that, I thought to myself. I’m sure quarters are tight in that little plane, what if I need one of those sick bags like I did on that unruly flight to Chicago when I was 10?
“Don’t worry,” Logan said, “just keep your eyes on the horizon. It’s a pretty smooth day up there.”
Walking towards the bright white 4-seater Cessna 172 Sky Hawk, I was surprised by the literally spotless exterior.
“How old is this plane?” I asked.
“She came off the assembly line on Dec. 27, 2005,” Logan answered. “She’s brand-new.”
And you can buy your own, for a mere $230,000.
The aviation school owns three planes. Parked 60 or so feet from our ride was another of Logan’s planes. The planes looked very similar from the outside, but with a quick peek inside, Logan pointed out the differences between the cockpit controls.
“Basically, we have TVs in this plane,” he said. And indeed, the two screens reminded me of a flying simulation video game my brother used to play.
Logan, wanting to save us time, had already performed the pre-flight inspection of the aircraft to make sure it was flight worthy, so we climbed in the cockpit. After buckling the seatbelts (complete with lap-belt airbags) and donning headphones, Logan performed some last-minute checks, primed the engine for fuel and radioed the tower.
Our plane was outfitted with an onboard GPS navigation system and Nexrad radar and weather forecasting. “You can get the current conditions of any airport in the U.S.,” Logan said. And with just a few finger strokes on the monitor, he quickly scanned the area for the bright green spots – symbolizing moisture – and then showed me the rest of the state and the U.S. Except for some weather in the eastern part of the country, the screen was pretty clear.
“You’re in an airplane today that’s as well-equipped as any jet out here on the ramp. That’s our commitment,” he said.
He instructed me to “steer” the plane toward the runway with my feet, using the two pedals on the floor. Push down with your left foot, the plane turns left, push right, and voila, the plane banks right. Not surprisingly, I found myself fighting the instinct to raise my hands and reach for the control yoke.
Over the headset a voice from the tower instructed us that we were clear for takeoff after the plane heading at us from the east had landed. My heart jumped a little as the Continental Boeing 757 (the largest jet the Eagle County Regional Airport sees) landed a few hundred feet in front of us. It was the closest I’ve ever been to a landing aircraft and it took my breath away.
As we taxied onto the runway, I breathed my same five-word request towards the blue sky above and watched the plane pick up speed. Logan told me all I had to do was wait for 55 knots (62 mph), and then simply pull back on the controls.
I was so busy concentrating I didn’t even pick up on the moment we left terra firma. But without so much as a bump, there we were, off the ground and gaining altitude. It was a much smoother takeoff then any commercial flight I’ve been on in a few years.
I grinned at Logan and he smiled back at me, “Pretty cool, huh?”
After a sloping left turn, we began following the winding interstate westward. Usually an aggressive driver, I found myself very tentative, barely grazing my fingers on the steering control. I was hesitant to make any sharp moves, but Logan wanted me to get a feel for how the plane would react.
With Bellyache Ridge in the distance, I gripped the yoke a little tighter and made what I thought was a sharp left turn. The plane banked left, but it was more graceful than severe and more forgiving than I expected. I had been so focused on what was inside the plane and what I was doing, I’d forgotten to check out the views. I let out the deep breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding and really looked out the window; the massive houses at the summit of Cordillera resembled mountain girl Barbie houses from our spot in the sky, 1,500 feet above them. I’m not sure why that was gratifying, but it was.
Logan pointed out Squaw Creek, Lake Creek, New York Mountain and the tip of Mount of the Holy Cross to our right; Red and White Mountain and the Gore Range to our left.
As much as the view of the Gore takes my breath away every time I pause to look from the top of Vail Mountain before pushing off for another run, it doesn’t hold a candle to the sights my cockpit vantage point afforded me.
In turn, Matt and I pointed out our residences to Logan and the blue roof of the The Vail Trail’s office building below. As Logan instructed me to turn the plane around again, he told me to imagine a giant pencil sticking straight out the nose of the plane.
“I want you to draw a straight line along the horizon,” he said.
All in all, I flew the Sky Hawk from take-off to not-quite final approach. To my relief, Logan took control of the plane for the approach and landed on the 150-foot wide, 8,000-foot long runway.
“If I’d let her land, the plane would have been pretty bent,” Logan said to Matt later with a laugh.
Caramie Schnell can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
Due West Aviation is located in the Vail Valley Jet Center at the Eagle County Airport. For more information, call (970) 524-5800.