10 years as a pilot

Ten years ago today, I passed a flight test and received my Private Pilot’s License (PPL) in a rented Cessna 172 (C-GPMR) at the Ottawa Flying Club.

I’d been worried about turbulence — I didn’t quite have my flying stomach yet, and had nearly thrown up all over the panel during the practice test with my instructor a day or two earlier — but the late-afternoon air that day was still and smooth, and while I didn’t cover myself with glory in every exercise, I did perform them all to the examiner’s satisfaction. After I landed back at Ottawa Airport and started taxiing towards the club, the examiner told me that I’d passed, and was a licensed pilot.

At the time, I knew what my immediate next steps would be: a night rating, then an instrument rating. But after that, what? I had no interest in going on to get my commercial license and instructor rating so that I could teach flying myself on the weekends, and if I just kept renting planes for short local flights, I’d probably get bored in a couple of years (like most new PPLs do). As much as I hate to admit it, the “oh my god I’m in the air!!!” thrill fades after a while, and taking off or landing is about as exciting as parallel parking a car.

As it turns out, I’ve flown a lot over the past 10 years, though I’m still just a bit short of the magic 1,000 hour mark. In December 2002, I bought a used 1979 Piper Warrior and started using it for family trips and business travel (it helped that my consulting customer base suddenly shifted from the California to the US northeast). I flew a lot. I flew in rain, snow, dodged thunderstorms, tried to avoid (and dealt with) icing, and learned how weather changes over long flights. My first big cross-country was four hours to Sault Ste Marie in 2003, before I had my instrument rating, and I got weathered in for a day in North Bay on the way back. Around the same time, I did my first flight down into New York Approach airspace, and didn’t find it frightening at all. Soon, many other trips to big and small airports followed: Montreal, Toronto Island, Halifax, Philadelphia, Gaspé, Washington DC, Boston, Winnipeg, etc. (check out this map of all the airports I’ve flown to). I joined Hope Air as a volunteer pilot, and learned what it’s like to fly on someone else’s schedule and make the kind of complicated go/no-go risk assessments that commercial pilots have to make every day.

I thought I’d upgrade to a faster plane before now, but I’m happy with my Warrior. It’s slow in cruise, and it can barely climb above 7,000 ft on a hot summer day at maximum gross weight (I actually lose altitude in downdrafts), but I’ve been through pretty-much everything with it and know that I can trust it. I know that it will meet the performance numbers in the manual for taking off from a short grass strip with unforgiving trees looming at the end, I know it will let me land safely in a 20+ kt straight crosswind, I know it will keep flying with a bit of ice on the wings and the windshield frosted over, I know it will still let me sort-of control it inside a fast-building TCU, and I know that the heater will keep me from hypothermia when the outside temperature is -38°c. I know that I can get a folded-up wheelchair in through the front door and over the seat when a Hope Air patient shows up with one unannounced (thanks to my flying buddy Mike Hopkinson for help with that one).

Perhaps more importantly, my kids got to grow up seeing Canada and the US from the air as well as from the car window. Halifax is 4 hours away rather than 2 days. The Bay of Fundy looks like a bay. The customs guy in Beverly MA remembers us every year, and likes to chat about the Red Sox with my daughter. We park beside bizjets. At Teterboro Airport near NYC, my daughters used the same lounge as Oprah (though not at the same time).

I don’t fly as much as I used to — more like 70 hours/year vs 120 early on — and if I had a faster, more complex plane, I might have to give it up, because it would cost a lot to own and fly (fuel, insurance, and maintenance costs for my Warrior are a bit less than they would be for a second family car), and I’d have to fly a lot more to stay safe in it. C-FBJO and I are a good fit.

So there we go. I wonder if I’ll still be flying in another 10 years.

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11 Responses to 10 years as a pilot

  1. Blake Crosby says:

    Congrats on 10 years. I’m sure you will be flying for another 10. Looking forward to the “20 years as a pilot” post 😉

  2. Adam Hill says:

    Great read. Congrats on the anniversary.

  3. Anders says:

    Wow. It sounds like you’ve got a great set up. A plane that costs about as much as a second car. I say yes, you’ll still be flying in ten years. Also, growing up being able to take family trips in an airplane? Pretty close to as awesome as it gets. Maybe if you were an astronaut, and you could head out for a family reunion in space…?

    – Anders

  4. Jeff L. says:

    David: I just stumbled upon your blog. Some great reading here and some very informative stuff. Although I have been an aircraft owner for 16 years now, I am only now just working on my instrument ticket and enjoyed reading about some of your early experiences and equipment challenges. You know the the story of old airplanes, “ya fly ’em, ya fix ’em, ya fly ’em, ya fix ’em…”.
    I’ve also noticed a lot fewer blogs in 2011 and even fewer in 2012. I hope you will keep them coming in 2013!

  5. Thanks, Jeff. I’ve managed one new post for 2013, anyway. 🙂

  6. John Daino says:

    David I also like the simplicity, reliability and economy that the Piper Warrior provides. I use to fly corporate jets for a living but now that I’m retired my 1983 Warrior N303AV keeps me in the loop. Recently while trying to clear the GA cobwebs from my brain I came upon your blog and many interesting articles. The article you posted on engine leaning was great stimulus for this old cranium. It will really help me get the best performance from my aircraft in flights to come. I restored N303AV in the summer of 2010 and I love the way it handles. ( If I could only get the speed up to 460 knots then it would be perfect 🙂 🙂 But that that was then and this is now, so I have to keep it affordable and realistic. I hope you still have and enjoy your Warrior. Please continue posting ……and realize your articles are much appreciated…….John Daino

  7. Ben says:

    Great blog! I love the Piper Warrior. As a soon to be private pilot, I am finishing up in one and find it to actually be way easier to fly than a high wing Cessna 172 and more fun to boot. I’m surprised that you did not upgrade to a faster single like a Mooney, Bonanza or Socata but understand these require more to buy, maintain and insure.

    • I originally thought I’d upgrade some day, but the Warrior really is fast enough food my usual flights from Ottawa – average 2:30 for Boston or NYC, 1:45 for Toronto, etc. And there’s a lot to be said for simple, cheap, and idiot-resistant.

  8. Jeff M says:

    Congrats David! I was the previous owner of C-FBJO (in Buttonville) – just looking through old photos of her just after we had her painted in La Chute. Googled and am *very* happy to know she has an excellent new home and is doing well. If you are ever in Buttonville with her I’ll buy you a coffee and give her a pat on the nose…. 🙂 ! Cheers David! -Jeff M-

    • Great to hear from you, Jeff. The plane is in good shape, and the paint job is holding up well after ~20 years, so I can tell you and Lachute didn’t cut any corners. The big changes to the plane are a 4-place intercom (added when I bought it in 2002), a Stormscope (added in 2004), and simple STEC20 autopilot (2011).

      It also has a mostly-new engine — the prop tip was struck by lightning in 2005 while sitting on the ramp, and much of the engine was fried, though the rest of the plane, aside from from prop and engine, was fine. The insurance company paid for a new prop and an engine rebuild with mostly new parts, and also for sending the engine mount to Halifax to be degaussed — the whole thing had become a giant magnet, so that the compass always pointed north. It was down for several months.

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