Raves: Flying through air with greatest ease is within our reach
May 3, 2013 4:00 AM
Dave Franks, left, in the cockpit with his flying instructor.
By Dave Franks
The sight of sparrows darting through the trees or of a hawk afloat above the interstate, spotted from a car's back seat, can capture many a child's admiration.
Flight is a special feat merely to observe, but participating in taking something into the sky has the power to create an even greater experience. The ultimate thrill of flight comes in taking the controls yourself, climbing off the ground, joining the ranks of a world free from the confines of fields and hills and taking in the full expanse of the sky.
I grew up fascinated with airplanes and flying, spurred on by family who worked in the industry. My aircraft mechanic uncle provided the rare opportunity to be in and around the fleet he helped maintain. Not many kids get to run around in the back of an empty cargo plane, stand in the engine cowls and hang out in the cockpit.
A few trips to the Pittsburgh air traffic control tower, where my grandfather worked for years maintaining the electronic equipment and computers, offered another close-up into the world of aviation. But even after all of those experiences, as well as filling shelves with plastic airplane models and graduating college with an aeronautics degree, I had never taken hold of a yoke and piloted an aircraft.
That was until I married my wife more than three years ago. From the outstanding list of memorable moments associated with that event, one of the best things I got (besides everlasting love, a partner for life, blah blah blah) was the chance to fly.
It was a surprise wedding gift from my wife, who signed me up for an introductory flight from the Pittsburgh Flight Training Center at the Allegheny County Airport. While flying an airplane may sound like an extremely difficult activity that is both too challenging to master and too financially burdensome to afford, I found out that it's more accessible than you might think.
I was excited that brisk October morning as we made our way to the airport, just a short drive from our home. I was soon walking with my instructor, circling the Cessna 172 SkyHawk we would be taking airborne, and admiring the 1970s-era orange and brown striping as we went through a quick pre-flight inspection.
My wife, not as keen on aircraft and flying, got her own surprise when the instructor opened the door and ushered her into the back seat. Now fully loaded, we rolled down the taxiway, were cleared for takeoff, and headed into the air over the hills and rivers of Pittsburgh.
After ascending to a safe altitude clear of the airport's air space, the instructor released his controls and let me take over. Starting small, I used the rudder only to yaw left and right at first. Then I moved on to banked turns, climbs and dives. The freedom to move about with such agility and gracefulness, out in the cloud-filled expanse of sky, instilled awe and amazement to a degree I had never felt before.
Plotting a zigzag course close to the airport, I then started to track headings called out by my instructor that led us down the Monongahela River to the point where the three rivers converge. Our wings cast their shadow over the gleaming glass of the PPG buildings and the green grasses of Heinz Field and PNC Park.
Rolling to the southwest, I flew us over our house before we turned back for our approach to land. Resuming control of the plane, the instructor took us back to the ground where gravity again took hold.
I was grateful that the Pittsburgh Flight Training Center runs such an accessible and affordable program. For fewer than $100, anyone can go up once with an instructor, actually fly an aircraft and help learn whether they want to pursue the center's more formal flight training.
My short time in the air during my intro flight was so enjoyable that I've begun to think about enrolling in full flight training there. For anyone who has yearned to fly, consider looking toward your local airport -- you may be up in the sky before you know it.
Dave Franks of Carnegie, an operations engineer for US Airways, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Raves" submissions about favorite local experiences and other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.