Flying the Beechcraft Sundowner

- or -

My General Aviation Intro-Ride

The winnter of 1995-1996 was the first winter after my first summer of flying. By December I had baaaad withdrawal symptoms - obsession with flying books and magazines, wistful looks directed upwards, constant whining "Is spring here yet?", and other annoying manifestations of the Not Enough Airtime Syndrome. This left my Other Half with a serious problem, namely an ultralight pilot in serious, serious need of some altitude at a time of year when weather conditions, from the standpoint of open-cockpit flying, can only be called appalling.

I'm not sure that those of you who live in the south can truly appreciate a Chicago winter. Our ultralight season runs only from late May to late October - if we're lucky, and if the pilot in question is a hardy soul and is willing to fly when it's 50 degrees on the ground, much less in the air. In 1989 my Other Half bought a new car and we discovered that the rearview mirror split down the middle when the temp was lower than -20. We stopped replacing it because every year it got that cold at some point. And let's not forget those infamous Windy City breezes.

The solution to my problem arrived under the Christmas tree in the form of a general aviation intro-ride at a local airport.

Actually, I had been curious about the difference between general aviation and ultralights for some time, having heard everything from "it's all the same" to "they're completely different". I wanted to find out for myself. Here is my experience and opinion.

Since the giver of this aviation gift wanted to go along on the ride (the fool trusts me for some reason) this meant a minimum of a four seat airplane. Oooo! Not just a two-seater but a four-seater! The vehicle - excuse me, airplane in question was a Beechcraft Sundowner, a very nice airplane (OK, all airplanes are nice airplanes, but you know what I mean) which, in addition to an engine, wings, tail, and the usual essentials also had such luxuries as upholstered seats and cabin heat Cabin heat is a truly great and wonderful thing in Chicago in the winter.

I called up the place at the airport to schedule the flight and had a talk with one of the guys out there. They had already been informed I flew ultralights which led to a conversation about what I had done and what I was looking for on this flight. I told the pilot on the phone that, as far as possible, I would like to do the flying. He said that was no problem, I'd be allowed to do as much as I was able to do. He assured me that they allow people fresh off the street with zero flight experience to handle the controls, there was no question I would have my chance to really fly the airplane.

When the scheduled flight date rolled around I got a call from the CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) who was going to take me up. Kind of an interesting guy, really. He was a former ultralight instructor and had owned and flown a Quicksilver so he knew what I was used to flying. After some time flying and instructing in ultralights he earned first a private pilot license then a commercial and instructor's certification. Maybe he got tired of sitting on the ground all winter, too. Anyhow, the gent pointed out that the wind was a bit iffy. Not iffy for the Sundowner and not iffy for him but rather iffy for a new and relatively inexperienced Quicksilver pilot. I agreed handling a new aircraft was going to be enough of a challenge without having to deal with new and interesting weather conditions as well. I had no doubt that Keith could handle any situation that came up but the point was for me to fly the plane, not him. We rescheduled.

The next weekend had much better weather conditions. It was during the season Thaw which comes between the seasons Cold and Colder and exists mostly to torture us Upper Midwesterners by letting us unfreeze just long enough to realize there's more winter ahead. The temperature was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the winds 10 knots - that's ultralight weather in these parts. There was a bit of haze off towards the horizon but plenty of visibility for flying. The Other Half and myself headed off to Palwaukee airport without hesitation. [Update the First: Palwaukee Airport is now known as Chicago Executive Airport. It still has the same three-letter code, though: PWK]

Palwaukee was different from the little grass-strip places I had been flying out of all summer in a couple of ways. For one thing, there was more than one entrance, more than one parking lot, more than one runway, and even more than one flight school. Also a lot more traffic, both on the ground and in the air. We did find the proper flight school eventually. Flying can such an adventure - and that's even before you leave the ground.

About four wandering free-lance CFIs tried to sell me general aviation lessons while I was sitting around waiting for my turn to go up. CULTURE SHOCK! After all the grief I had gone through trying to get even one ultralight instructor here I had instructors almost begging me to be their student! Contrary to many of the horror stories I've heard, no one crossed themselves and reached for the garlic and holy water when I said the word "ultralight". Of course, I was not a "real" pilot but it turns out there were a number of folks hanging around who had flown ultralights and the main comment was "just get some good training so you'll be safe".

First thing was a brief tour of the place, starting with a visit to the hangar to look at the various planes. I said it before, all airplanes look good to me, but especially that little red Pitts biplane in the corner looked good to me (always wanted to fly a biplane...) [Update the Second: It took 10 years from when I first wrote that, but I did finally get to fly a biplane. It wasn't a Pitts, though, it was a Stearman] Got a look at the flight planning room with the weather information computer, radar maps, local weather reports, and so forth. We pulled out a sectional then a terminal area chart which is a type of map for high traffic areas to decide where we were going to go. (Palwaukee is only about 10 miles from O'Hare International - definitely more traffic than rural Wisconsin!) The plan was to take off, turn east towards Lake Michigan, make a right (turn south) over the Ba'hai Temple in Wilmette, and find the building I live in (You mean I get to fly over a city? They'll let me do that?). After that a little sight seeing, if there was time, then we'd go back to Palwaukee.

 Yes, I have a thing for biplanes. Unfortunately for me, they are not normally available for rent by the hour by small pilots lusting after double wings.

I was cautioned about keeping under and out of O'Hare's airspace in the form of "You WILL remain under 2100 feet MSL". I sensed during this talk that Keith was trying to get a feel for what I did and didn't know, which was fair enough. After all, he was going to get into an airplane and then hand the controls over to me, I'd be worried if he wasn't concerned about my skills! I had no problem pointing out airports on the sectional, could explain most though not all of the markings, talked about how annoying it was to try to compute ultralight flights on one of those slide-rule flight computer "whiz wheels" because your airspeed was so low you're waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay at the bottom of the thing. I mentioned I was used to talking about "miles per hour" and "above ground level" rather than "knots" and "mean sea level" (MSL), but since the airspeed indicator was calibrated in knots all I had to do was watch the numbers in front of me and Keith gave altitude instructions based, again, on the numbers in front of me so that wasn't really a problem. No in-flight converting required, which was a relief for this not-great-at-math pilot.

Next step was the pre-flight. I was kind of surprised at how simple the pre-flight was. I'm used to actually checking out every nut and bolt and cable and going over the plane with a fine tooth comb. Of course, on an ultralight you can actually see just about everything whereas on a general aviation plane you've got this annoying skin over the whole works. Not that the pre-flight was any less serious, of course. Checked the fuel level, the fuel itself, oil, landing gear, antennas, outlets for various instruments, motion of ailerons, flaps (Flaps? This plane has flaps?), "stabilator" (that means the whole horizontal part of the tail moves up and down and not just the back half, comes from "horizontal STABILizer and elevATOR"), rudder, the hinges on all the moving parts, made sure the nuts and bolts were OK (the ones you could see), checked the prop for nicks and dings. I did say something about the bit of tape on the tail. Yes, boys and girls, general aviation planes get nicks and dings, too. Duct tape is a wonderful thing.

(No, I'm not kidding. Very small defects can be temporarily patched with a special, appropriately-rated tape labeled according to the windspeed it can withstand. So, "300 mile an hour tape", "600 mile an hour tape", and so forth. It's basically upscale duct tape. Normal duct tape is reputedly "100 mile an hour tape", but the stuff you get at the local hardware store isn't actually authorized for aircraft. You can use it on your ultralight, though, if you really want to do that.)

 So many knobs, so many dials, so many things to look at, do , poke, prod - when do we actually get around to flying this thing?

Then we climbed into the plane. A Sundowner is a low-wing which was new for me. It felt odd to climb onto the wing. It was little more difficult for the Other Half who isn't quite as agile but he was soon settled into the back seat (This plane takes passengers? They'll let me do that?) As usual, my feet didn't reach the rudder pedals. This time, however, I didn't have to use duct tape and wooden blocks to fix the problem. The seat slid forward quite nicely, like a car seat. Made sure it locked securely, buckled in, and made a rude comment about the sun blazing in the windshield and the inadequacy of the little sunshades (This plane has sunshades? They make those for planes?). Cramped in the cockpit. Alright, it wasn't any worse than my car except for less clearance between door and seat, but I'm used to being able to poke knees and elbows any which way in a flying machine without encountering walls. There were lots more instruments, but I actually knew pretty much what they were all for (yes, I did do a little research before going out to Palwaukee) and Keith briefly went over the ones I wasn't familiar with. Not nearly as good a view (sigh). When I looked down I saw floor instead of grass or pavement. There was a brief search for keys (If they're not in your bag have you tried your pocket? You need keys for this airplane? No push starts or pull starts or (heaven help us) hand propping?). Keith talked me through the various switches and things to turn on and check. There was a quick explanation about how to taxi, including the caution that the plane had more inertia than what I'm used to. One nice thing about Keith having flown a Quicksilver, he had some idea of what my previous experience was like and what was different this time which meant his instructions were very clear and understandable to me.

 Little things make a big difference in comfort, like keeping the sun out of your eyes.

Step 1 - Engage toe-brakes.

Step 2 - Safety first

Keith leaned out the door and yelled "CLEAR PROP!" Don't know why that took me by surprise. A prop's a prop and whether it's attached to general aviation or ultralight you don't want anyone or anything in the way. Guess it just goes to show how the mind-set "They do things differently" can sneak up on you when you least expect it.

Step 3 - Start the airplane.

I turned the key. The engine caught the first time, which has not always been my experience. Once the prop got going I never even noticed that the go-roundy thing was on the front instead of the back of the plane.

When we started to taxi I noticed some differences. Two things, really. With a wheel (yoke) in front of me instead of a stick the old car reflexes kicked in and I kept wanting to steer with my hands instead of my feet. I guess I'd done enough taxiing before, though, because my feet remembered to work the pedals, too, so we stayed on the taxiway instead of wandering off onto the grass. This was also a much heavier plane. It didn't start rolling as easily. Once you got it going it wanted to keep going. In a straight line. Even when the taxiway curved. It certainly didn't respond to a command to turn as promptly as the Quicksilver, which had never impressed me with it's steerability at ground level anyway. First I was left of center, then right of center, but I took it slow and caught on after that.

Engine run-up was pretty much the same as what I had been taught overall, the difference was in the details. Check the controls - OK, it's a wheel not a stick but the "thumbs up" rule still held. The "thumb's up" rule is that when you move the controls for a turn your thumbs should point to the elevator in the "up" position. Still forward and back to check the elevat- 'scuze me, stabilator but though the equipment was different it did the same thing as the stick-and-elevator combination I was used to. Alright, check the rudder. As I always do, I turned around to look at the rudder while my feet worked the pedals and I saw -- the back of the cabin. You can't see the rudder. You have to take it on faith that it exists and it really is working back there. On faith! Yikes! (And general aviation pilots say ultralighters are nuts!)

That's not what I was taught, I was taught to make sure with my own eyes that the rudder was working. Yes, it really did bother me that I couldn't actually see the rudder. But Keith leaned over and looked out his side of the plane and assured me that he could see the shadow of the tail and yes, the rudder really did exist and really was operating properly.

It was Keith who actually checked out the instruments, adjusted the altimeter, set the radio frequency, etc. Well, sure. Other than adjusting an altimeter to field altitude I'd never done anything like that and really wouldn't know how, so no problem. I know how to say "I don't know" and more importantly when to say it. I do know how to check the magnetos on a dual ignition system so I got to do that during the run-up (Keith said "Your Quicksilver had dual ignition? They make those for ultralights?"). I asked several times about using the trim wheel, as I had been told I was expected to use it in flight and it was quite different than what I was accustomed to as "trim". On the Quicksilver trainer trim meant a lever hooked up to bungee cords. I wanted to be sure I had up and down straight before actually turning the wheel.

OK, ready for take-off. We tuned into the radio to listen to the local traffic for a minute. There was a complaint from Other Half to turn up the radio because it couldn't be heard in the back seat. Also a last minute adjusting of airvents (Passengers!). Keith told me what to say to request clearance, and I did, but really he handled the radio throughout the rest of the flight (again, something I'd never done so no problem admitting "I dunno"). Watched a plane land. Waited for clearance. Watched someone take off. Waited for clearance. Watched someone...

You get the idea. Part of the problem, of course, was that I was bouncing up and down in my seat because I WANT TO FLY! Part of the problem was I wasn't used to having to wait to use the runway (spoiled, huh?) Part of the problem was that the longer I sit there the more nervous I'm getting thinking about hauling this big crate into the sky.

We got clearance. I pushed the throttle forward. Nothing happened. Well, the engine made more noise, but we didn't go anywhere.

Keith says "You've got the toe-brakes on. Heels on the floor."

Oh, yeah. Alright, I'm used to the brakes being a squeeze lever on the stick instead of connected to the pedals. Details, it's the details that'll get you every time.

My heels hit the floor and we started rolling. Keith started a little coaching routine "Look at the line. OK. Now at your speed. Back to the line. Keep on the line. Now glance at your speed..." which actually was helpful. This was not the time to fixate on the new gizmos. The plane started getting lighter and more responsive (but still not as prompt as a ultralight). Pulled the yoke back at 60 knots (60 knots - the Quicksilver can't even go that fast!) as instructed and the nose came up. Brief moment of panic - I can't see where I'm going! It's all blue sky - no buildings, runways, scenery, horizon, they're all hidden by the instrument panel and door panels and bits of the plane. Keith must have picked up on my feeling because he says "Don't worry, you're OK, just keep going" and reason kicked in, saying "It's called cleared for take-off because the airspace you're going into is clear. You aren't going to hit anything." Just after that we hit 75 knots and as predicted up we went, smooth as you please. We climbed and Keith told me to turn left and head east.

 This is the point when the magic happens - we're off the ground and flying!

I turned left. Well, that part isn't much different than a ultralight. Turned my head left to check for traffic and - where's the wing - oh, yeah, it's down there. That's why they call it a low wing aircraft. Very annoying. Not only couldn't I see the ground when I looked down between my knees, there's this blasted wing in the way when I look out the window. Anyhow, look left, aileron left, rudder left - hey, no problem. I can do this. I kept it shallow at first, then a little steeper when it didn't give me any surprises. I still had a sense of a much heavier plane although it took a lighter touch on the controls, and there was some delay between control input and response. I was starting to get some feel for that, too. I'm sure it wasn't the most elegant turn ever made by a Sundowner but Keith had his hands in his lap and there were no complaints from the back seat.

The air traffic control (ATC) tower called us and chews Keith out - "I told you to make a right turn!" Oops. Keith apologized to the controller. The controller grumbled and told us to watch out for traffic on final. We scanned the skies for traffic. Glanced at the instruments. Scanned for traffic. Gosh, we were going fast, we were almost at Lake Michigan, there was the Ba'hai temple... Scanned for traffic. Looked at the scenery. Scanned for traffic...

Report on actually flying the plane: straight-and-level wasn't any more problem than it usually is, which is not much of a problem an airworthy aircraft. We hit a couple of bumps but compared to the way I've been tossed around in lighter aircraft it was hardly noticeable. Turns didn't seem to be a problem, either. We definitely moved a lot faster than I was used to - three times as fast. It was strange seeing houses and buildings down below, I was used to avoiding built up areas since ultralights aren't allowed over such places. There was a certain unreal aspect to it as well because there was no wind in the face. DUH! But I was used to feeling the airstream, and relied on it more than I realized to judge speed. In an ultralight I have never had problems holding a steady airspeed but I found it a bit of a struggle this time. Then I flew through the altitude Keith had given me - didn't stop climbing soon enough and again the plane had that delay between input and actual response. I fiddled with the trim, throttled back some, fiddled some more, and got to where it would fly steady hands-off. Not as smooth as my transition to cruise in a Quicksilver but then I had had hours in a Quicksilver and only minutes in a Sundowner, so what do you expect? Actually had a minute or some to relax after that.

We reached the lakefront. Right, I knew this plane liked to think about what I told it before it actually did it, so I started my turn "early" which worked almost the way I wanted it to. The Other Half looked out of the plane, trying to spot landmarks. Meanwhile, I was flying, scanning the instruments, scanning for traffic, and also scanning for landmarks. We weren't very high, 2,000 MSL at most during the flight which is about 1,400 AGL in the Chicago area. We were usually less than that. Keith was keeping an eye on things, mentioning that he wanted to be sure we could glide down to a beach if the engine quit. He said he didn't swim too well, especially in water at about 35 degrees.

We found the cemetery on the Chicago/Evanston border, found our local beach, found that apartment buildings all look very much alike from above. To be fair, they look pretty similar on the ground, too. We were circling and I knew our building was down there, it had to be (if it had been missing there would have been a fairly big hole in the landscape) but I couldn't quite locate it. And there's that wing in the way. Keith took the yoke and put us into a steep turn. I could feel a g force that was a little distracting but flying banked like that I could see what was below. I asked Keith if he had the plane just to make sure we each didn't think the other was flying when nobody was. I stopped all the scanning and just looked down. Yeah, there it was. Once I had a chance to really focus it all snapped into place. I did the silly tourist thing - "There's the house! There's the gas station! There are the El tracks! LOOK! There's parking next to the building!" (You have to live in a big city to appreciate how rare and special that is)

Worfing noises started in the back seat. A slightly wavering voice said "Could we level out just a little please? My stomach's starting to --"

Keith leveled the plane. The Other Half was sitting directly behind him. I'd level the plane, too, if I was potentially in the line of fire, so to speak.

Time to head back. The weather was starting to sour a little and the haze was heavy enough that we couldn't really see Palwaukee from where we were, so Keith told me to fly a compass heading of 320. I'm not used to flying by compass, really, but did my best to line up properly. I turned to the heading, overshot a bit as was becoming typical due to that lag between command and response, tried to bring it back, overshot... wound up wobbling between 320 and 330 for the most part. Oh well, that's why I'm still a student, eh? Keith said "good enough" at one point. It's not like we were going far enough to get seriously lost. I briefly mistook Great Lakes Naval Base for Palwaukee (very briefly - hey, they both use pavement on the runways) but it was the wrong size and the runways are arranged differently. I had also noticed by this point that the Sundowner, like the Quicksilver, wanted to turn left. [Update the Third: most airplanes have this left-turning tendency due to various reasons involving physics and aerodynamics I won't bore you with at this time] The tendency was not strong but it was annoying when you weren't used to the plane and you were trying to fly 320 degrees and there was a bit of a crosswind and you were worried about altitude and traffic and - well, worried about all the usual things in addition to dealing with a new type of aircraft.

Wow! We were sure getting back "home" fast. Keith started talking about lining up on final long before I expected to, but of course we were going faster so we had to set up for landing sooner. Even before I got in the plane I expected that landing would be the most different part of the trip and that was exactly what happened. I was also worried that, having trained in a Quicksilver, my reactions and habits would all be geared to a Quicksilver and would be wrong for a Sundowner. Right again.

Keith started the coaching again - do this, do that, watch something else. Afterwards I came up with two short-n-simple comparisons: everything happened faster and slower at the same time. Landing a Sundowner felt like pulling into a parallel parking space at 100 mph. Here's what happened (no need to cringe, nobody and nothing got hurt):

Keith told me to "aim for the second arrow on the runway". I tried to line the nose of the plane up on that second arrow. In concept no different than lining up my feet in a Quicksilver with that brown patch in the grass at the end of the runway back in Wisconsin. The main difference was that when I nudged the Quicksilver up, down, or sideways it reacted faster than the Sundowner did. So I told the Sundowner do a particular thing and it slooooooooowly did it. Meanwhile, we were losing both distance and altitude. I was starting to get a white-knuckle grip on the yoke and a brain cramp trying to react sooner than I was used to without over-reacting and over-correcting. I also kept wanting to point the nose down farther, used to the "Quicksilver kamikaze dive" required to maintain airspeed on landing, but a Sundowner goes down quite nicely by itself. So I wouldd nudge the nose back up but the back of my brain kept saying "point down" while my eyes kept saying "You fool! We're falling too fast!". Meanwhile the ears were trying to listen to what Keith was saying and the hands were trying to make the #@!&! plane do what it was supposed to do, which was obey the pilot. Come to think of it, that's how most of my landings had been up to that point. Well, I must have been doing OK at first because while Keith was definitely paying attention I still had the plane.

The next bit is one of the those it-happened-faster-than-the-explanation-takes things. We were coming in lots faster than I'm used to but, so far as I could tell, I was doing OK. Then the stall horn went off (so that's what a stall horn sounds like… thought it would be louder) and I am proud to say I did not panic when that happened although the thought crossed my mind that this landing wasn't going well and maybe I should start over. It also definitely proved to me that you can stall at any speed or attitude, including when the nose is pointing down. (Yes, I now know stall horns frequently go off on even normal landings - but we were still a bit high for that to be happening) At this point Keith grabbed the wheel, put on a little more power, put down the flaps (oh, yeah, we have flaps. Forgot about them), and pretty much took over. 'Course, by that time we were floating along in ground effect. For a loooooong time. Keith reminded me that a Sundowner doesn't slow down as easily as a Quicksilver while he got rid of a little bit of left-over crab angle and made sure the wings were level. It wasn't a great landing. Wasn't my worst landing either, but then it wasn't entirely my doing. We landed a bit right of center and came down harder than I would have liked.

Well, what did I learn?

First and foremost, landings are the most different part of general aviation vs. ultralights. I can definitely understand how someone accustomed to the one can get into serious trouble jumping into the other without adequate preparation or knowledge. Even if you were warned ahead of time you could still have problems. I certainly did. Admittedly I'm a low timer, this is the first time I ever tried to land something other than a Quicksilver, and frankly even an entire year later my landings weren't the greatest so I'm sure that had something to do with it, too. Nonetheless, I could see where ingrained habits could cause problems.

A bigger plane responds to your instructions slower but because it's going faster you have less time to make decisions and do your control inputs over a given distance. Which means you have to use more distance to do the same thing. This is what is meant by staying ahead of the airplane - you have to anticipate what is going to happen far enough in advance to respond appropriately at the appropriate time in order to accomplish your goal, whatever that may be.

If you like to look down at the scenery, fly a high-wing. If you like to look above you at the sky fly a low-wing. When turning a low-wing general aviation aircraft you also have a bit more visibility in regards to where you are going, but I'd say that, given how much you can see from an ultralight, that difference isn't as important to the minimal aircraft crowd.

The bigger the plane the smoother the bumps as you fly (knew that already, but it was reconfirmed)

Compared to ultralights, the visibility in general aviation is crap. It's not that you can't see, you just can't see as much. A general aviation airplane restricts your vision to windows and has many more blind spots.

Which brings up the whole sensory thing. From the standpoint of sitting in a seat, my physical comfort was greater in the Sundowner but my senses were more cut off from what I was doing. I didn't miss the noise - it was nice to be able to hold a conversation in the cockpit. Airspeed is a needle on a dial, not the wind in your face. For that matter, I suspect that I'm also getting some info on climbs and descents from the airstream shifting while in flight. Certainly slips cause a pretty major change in the feel of the airstream in an open cockpit. I didn't get colder or warmer when climbing or descending in general aviation, altitude wasn't temperature gradients it was how small the buildings looked and another needle on another dial. No smells of woodsmoke, green growing things, water, any of that stuff you can sniff while in the open air. Of course, the gee force in a steep turn is the same, but with doors and windows between you and the ground it is nowhere near the same rush. Mind you, in the middle of winter in Chicago I like the concept of cockpit heat and being out of the breeze, but I miss that open air feeling. I've heard the term "flying by the seat of your pants" but I have to wonder if it's more "flying by the air against your skin". I needed an airspeed indicator in a way I don't need one (although I prefer to have one) in an open cockpit ultralight.

General aviation pilots have to trust their mechanics a lot because short of taking the plane apart they can't check on the inner workings. Yes, I am aware that general aviation mechanics are certified, qualified, trained, etc., but where in a ultralight you can see a lot of the inner workings and really check every nut, bolt, and cable in the plane before you go up in a general aviation you can't - hence, all the regulations about check-ups and maintenance and training of mechanics.

On a certain level flying is flying. Despite what nay-sayers have told me on occasion, my ultralight training was not "useless". My training gave me knowledge and skills that were useful in a general aviation plane and in no way has any of that time in the air been "wasted". Of course, this did not mean I was qualified to fly a general aviation plane without a CFI sitting next to me. My reactions were off because I was used to flying something much different. In any case I still had work to do in regards to just the basics of flight. There was a lot of stuff I still didn't know, or knew only in theory but had no practice with. Yes, I was told this by many people and I never doubted it, but, just as seeing is believing, doing is believing, too.

Keith did make the comment that one problem with ultralight pilots vs. "off the street" people is that people off the street know they don't know how to handle a general aviation plane but a lot of ultralight pilots think they know more than they do. He also said the general aviation pilots sometimes look at ultralights, say "oh, it's a toy", and then try to fly a Quicksilver like it's something much bigger. Yeah, I could see where a little knowledge could be a dangerous thing. At the end of the flight in the Sundowner I was absolutely convinced I, too, could be a private pilot but I also knew that I was not, at that time, such a pilot. The main difference was that after flying the Sundowner I had a much better idea of what I lacked in the way of skills to safely fly a general aviation plane in a general aviation environment. And a general aviation plane such as a Sundowner is harder to handle both on the ground and in the air than a Quicksilver.

Details will get you. Little things, like having the landscape disappear during take-off when you're not used to that. Lack of an airstream. Toe-brakes. Flaps. When transitioning to a new aircraft the details can throw you more than the bigger differences which are easier to anticipate and/or harder to forget.

How well did I do?

Well, nothing got broke, which is the first question I'd ask.

The Other Half said I didn't look around enough for traffic. I thought I did, but maybe not. I had all those new gizmos to look at, after all. Or maybe I just don't look around enough in general. Or maybe not enough to suit all observers. None of my instructors to that point (all two) had ever brought that up. I know I sure looked around everywhere on my ultralight intro-flight, but on that one I wasn't expected to actually fly the plane. I made a mental note to be sure and look around lots for traffic. Something to always keep in mind no matter what is flown.

Take-off seemed to go well, as did most of the rest of the flight. Not perfect, but I probably did better than my first couple of hours in the Quicksilver. Although a yoke and a stick look very different (and are) both are simple to operate, and the rudder pedals were foot pedals in both airplanes. The large, basic controls were the same or similar so steering while in the air wasn't notably different.

As I said, the landing wasn't the greatest, but at the time I needed to practice those some more in ultralights, much less general aviation. Landings got better with more time in the air.

As far as my flying skills, Keith seemed to be saying that while I had a grasp of the basics I still needed to refine my skills. Hey, isn't that what being low-time and a student means? Granted, Keith was trying to sell me on lessons. No "40 hours to license guaranteed" - regardless of where I might be now it still might take me more than 40 hours to get a private license. [Update the Fourth: Yes, it certainly did take me more than 40 hours to get the Private certificate] It was more like "If you're happy where you are, fine. If you want a license here's what you need." Learning to fly takes substantial commitment.

My Other Half's comment on my flying was "I sure felt better with you at the controls than my old boss." Old Boss owned a couple of planes over the years and had a private license. He also lost it after forgetting to put down the landing gear one time too many and scraped the bottom off his plane. Also got a bill for the cost of digging bits of his airplane out of the runway, was banned from flying in Wisconsin and had to give his passenger (not my Other Half that time) a raise to keep the guy from suing him. Glad to know I'm better than that!

What next?

We talked some length after the flight about the flight, about lessons and licenses and costs and such.

Will I do it? Hmm.... it's tempting…[Update the Fifth: Yep, I did it. Eventually.]

I do love flying and it doesn't seem to matter that much what exactly I am flying as long as I'm in the air. A private license gives more options as far as what a person can fly, where it can be flown, and when flight can occur. On the other hand, it's more money, more time, and a lot more red tape. The spouse has never had objections as long as the other bills were paid - in that I'm ahead of lots of folks. More knowledge can't hurt. On the other hand, it's not just a matter of having a license and using a general aviation plane - to be legal it is still necessary to go through the hassle of a medical, keeping current, regular flight reviews, and all that other stuff. There are maintenance costs for a private pilot license that doesn't exist for someone who exclusively flies ultralights.

 After the flight: I'm happy, the Other Half looks... well, I'm not sure if that's cold, worry, or something else. This is back in the days before everyone had digital cameras, so the flight school used a Polaroid camera for souvenir photos.. That is the actual airplane behind us, with the next student and instrutor already in it and ready to go.

I did want to finish the ultralight training very badly. Partly because I want to finish what I start. Partly because I know it's the small planes that I want to fly and the planes I'm looking at are closer to ultralights (are actually overweight and two-seat versions of ultralights in many cases) than they are to that Sundowner, I knew that in order to fly that sort of plane safely I needed some more training in that particular sort of plane in addition to just more training in flying period. But I also like ultralights in a way I don't like the bigger planes. I genuinely like being in an open-air minimal aircraft and even after I earned a private license I was still interested in flying a ultralights as well as general aviation planes. (I think I just heard my wallet whimper again - aviation is not a cheap hobby at any level). I've always shied away from helicopter lessons - the airplanes cost enough on their own! All is need is an even more expensive aviation interest…

© 1996 text and pictures.

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