Flying around the world as an Airline Pilot, I look back on my time learning to fly. Learning to fly at flight school is where a student earns their wings. It requires hard work; learning procedures, how to operate the controls and all the flying rules.

Learning to fly is the fun part of the overall flight training process. Until this point students will have spent the previous 6 months studying for the ATPL ground course exams. This “Ground school” part of the course is a residential course split in  to 2 terms. Each term lasts 3 months. At the end of each term you sit the official ATPL exam subjects.

Here is my diary (written in March 2007) about my time learning to fly at Flight School in Phoenix, USA.

Welcome to Flight School

Line of Aircraft at Flight School
Line of Aircraft at Flight School

I made it! After successfully passing all the Ground School exams I am jetting off from London to the fair weather flying base in Phoenix. My course has been out here for a week or so, and I began flying earlier this week. Today was my first real ‘hands-on’ flight. The third sortie in the syllabus in which I got to learn and practice some general handling manoeuvres; turns, steep turns, slow flight, climbing, descending, circuits and landings.

There are usually two students on each flight. One flies their flight while the other observes from the backseat. This gives us the added bonus of extra time in the air to observe and learn the procedures, local flying areas and learn from each other’s mistakes.

Learning to Fly
Mark Learning to Fly

Our flight instructors will teach us up to the mid course progress test #1(at about 50hrs total flying), which we will be taking in about 2 months. After the progress test, the course syllabus focuses more on instrument flying and we’ll be taught by different instructors with different qualifications.

The set-up here is fantastic. I don’t think there’s much else you could want from a flight training course. The halls of residence are great, there’s a nice big living/kitchen area complete with satellite TV on each floor. We are in the middle of a desert out here in Arizona and hence the need for 2 outdoor swimming pools, beach volleyball court, BBQ area and tennis courts! You certainly wont get bored around here.

Flight School at Goodyear Airport in USA
Flight School at Goodyear Airport in USA

Flying in the USA

The flight training world in the USA is slightly different to that of the UK. If you want to become an airline pilot in the USA it takes much longer and requires years of experience as a flight instructor or turboprop pilot first. And so many of our instructors that we start training with share a common goal of becoming commercial pilots. In fact my instructor is leaving this weekend for an airline Job at Northwest Airlines.

One of the main reasons I chose Oxford Aviation School to undertake my flight training course is; Goodyear (Goodyear is the airport we are based at in Phoenix). It’s a clear blue sky every dayperfect flying weather and there’s one of the largest fleets of aircraft here, 26 warriors. Which means there’s a fairly certain guarantee of ‘Flying Continuity’, in that you can fly just about every day, which would just never happen in the UK due to poor weather. There’s a few disadvantages of doing the training in the USA; differences in operating procedures to those in Europe and very different RT procedures (radio telephony – when pilots speak over a radio to other aircraft).

Refuelling warrior aircraft at Flight School
Refueling warrior aircraft at Flight School

And let’s not forget about what I’m setting out to achieve. In 5 months time I will hopefully be going through the process of selection assessments and airline interviews with my coursemates. In the hope of securing our first jobs as professional pilots.

Flying Solo 

It’s been about 3 years since I flew my first solo (aged 18) on the Grob Tutor with the RAF at Southampton University Air Squadron. And last week I flew my first solo on the Warrior.

Over the past week I’ve clocked around 5 hours solo flying. After the first solo we fly”Circuit Consolidation”, where we  practice flying only circuits;  A “circuit” consists of a takeoff followed by flying back around the airfield then back in for a landing, therefore completing a full “circuit”. Each circuit takes about 5 minutes.

After this we fly into the local practice area alone and practice our general handling manoeuvres; Steep turns, slow flight, stalling and practice forced landings.

Progress Test 1

I’m now half way into my time out here in the States, totalling around 60 hours of flying in the past 2 months. I’ve reached my first century too; my grand total flying time is now 100 hours! And just a few days ago I successfully passed the mid course flight test; ‘PT1 or Progress Test 1’. It’s the equivalent of a private pilot’s license test.

Solo Landaway in Arizona
Solo Land-away in Arizona

Early Mornings

So what have I been up to in the past few months? Well firstly, very early starts have been the norm. Ever since I began the solo flying I’ve been flying usually twice a day up to six or seven days in a row.

If I’m scheduled for 6 am, that means I’ve actually got to be rolling down the runway taking off at 6 am. So I will walk out to the aircraft half an hour before take off to carry out the pre-flight “walk-around” inspection.

Dawn at Flight School
Dawn at Flight School

If it’s a navigation sortie it will take around an hour to get a weather brief/NOTAMS. NOTAMS are Notice to Airmen, a list of hazards that pilots need to avoid like parachute jumping or live military danger areas. So getting up at 4am is more realistic! In fact the Control Tower here at Goodyear doesn’t open until 6am, so this is the earliest time we can start the flying day.

Sorties will last between 1 and 2 hours. Once I get back from my first flight I’ll start the flight planning for the next one later that day.

Night Flying

I spent about a week doing night flying too. Taking off at about 8pm and not landing untill 10pm. I remember on my night navigation flight to Tucson International, we got back to Goodyear  at 1am. Then I got 4 hours sleep before getting up for my 7am flight! This is the sort of working schedule we can expect to get in the airlines so it’s probably good to be exposed to it earlier on in our training.

.I flew about 15 hours of General Handling on my own, in which I was practicing the manoeuvres we were tested on in our flight test. Things like steep turns, stalling, slow flight, practice forced landings, instrument flight and circuits.

Instrument Flying

I began the instrument flying in the simulator. This is when we learn how to pilot an aircraft without visual reference to the outside (i.e. flying in cloud). We learn how to fly using our instruments and navigation equipment and we also learn how to fly on ‘partial panel’, when some instruments fail and cant be used to fly. As well as the night flying I’ve completed around 10 hours of solo navigation flying.

So far, because of flight time constraints I’ve been traveling to and overflying airfields, then flying back. But yesterday I was able to fly solo to Tucson International (1 hour away) and land and taxi around the airport. It was very satisfying taking off ahead of a SouthWest airline 737. Having a plane load of passengers wait for me to takeoff in front of them in my little warrior aircraft!

Landaway at Tucson
Landaway at Tucson

Multi Engine Flying

I’ve now completed the single engine flying phase at the Oxford Airline Training Center. I have progressed onto the multi-engine training phase with the PA34 Seneca; With two turbocharged engines and a total of 400 horse power, it’s got speed!

Progression onto the twin engine Seneca aircraft
Progression onto the twin engine Seneca aircraft

At the end of last week I had my last flight flying the PA28 Warrior. It was the instrument flight progress test conducted by the Chief Flying Instructor. I flew the test at midday, which isn’t the easiest of times to be flying out in the desert. It was hot, turbulent and there was strong thermal activity!

Today was my first flight on the Seneca. It was about learning how to transfer all the training on the Warrior (one engine) onto the Seneca (two engines). All I can say is it’s heavy and fast. And with a landing gear to operate as well as two complex engines with prop controls. This multi-engine flying drains your mental capacity extremely quickly.

There’s no doubt about it, this is the flying I’ve been eagerly waiting for.  I’ve got about 15hours flying and about 5hours in the simulator before I take the Commercial Pilot’s license test. If I pass this test in three weeks time I will be the proud owner of a multi-engine Commercial Pilot’s License.

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