Reporter's notebook: Lori Price

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:13

    As I'm driving to the airport to take my first flying lesson I'm still in shock that I agreed to take this assignment. What was I thinking? Was that really me who said yes out loud? I am not a risk taker, not with my money and especially not with my life. I don't gamble and have no desire to bungee jump. In fact, I don't even like amusement park rides. I'll admit I'm a little curious about those small planes, but honestly, I have no desire to leave the ground in one of them. Okay, so what am I doing, I ask myself. Am I really a closet thrill-seeker or just stepping out of the box? It must be the box thing, because as I approach the airport I'm getting increasingly more nervous, and can't get people like John Kennedy Jr. and the recent NBC helicopter crash out of my head. I'm stunned at how tiny these planes look to me. No, not look, they really are, tiny. Very tiny. I meet my instructor, Rich Bartlett from The Aviation Club at the Sussex Airport, and the owner of the plane. I begin to interview him briefly, when it dawns on me that I'm putting my life in the hands of someone I just met. Now I'm sweating. I'm sure my questions sounded more like an interrogation: How long have you been a pilot? How many students do you have? How old is the plane? When did a mechanic service it last? Any causalities? Where are the parachutes? I did contain myself and refrain from asking him if he had a criminal background or if he was presently taking any medication that might cause drowsiness. I realized that he sounded like he knows what he's doing, and all the abbreviated titles at the end of his name were somewhat comforting. He's professional, a seasoned pilot and he answered all my questions appropriately. I'm ready. Next, we board the four-seater Cessna C 172 M, also known as a skyhawk. Did I mention how small this plane is? We go over the instrument panel, which is intimidating, and put on our headphones so that we can communicate throughout the flight. Bartlett informs me that I'm sitting in the pilot's seat because I will be operating the plane for most of the lesson. Again, I'm stunned. Is he crazy or joking? I thought we'd be going for a leisurely ride and he would talk (teach) and point throughout our flight, while I gazed upon the horizon, clenching the dashboard. Wrong. Before I knew it, and within seconds we were smoothly in the air and I was actually in control of the airplane. We climbed to 4,600 feet and later above the clouds at 6,500 feet, getting fabulous views of northern New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York City. I immediately knew why people did this, and why they get hooked on it. It's an incredible feeling and the view from up above is breathtaking. Bartlett was calming and reassuring the whole time, telling me that there was nothing I could do wrong that he could not undo. According to Bartlett, I was safer in a plane than in my own car. But most important to this nervous reporter was his confidence that in an emergency, he could land the plane on any patch of land even if the engine malfunctioned and ceased to operate. These were the words I needed to hear. Never critical and always professional, Bartlett ignored me when the plane tilted too much and out of a knee-jerk reaction, I panicked a bit and grabbed his leg. Instead, we climbed higher, still with me at the helm, where he showed me how calm the wind was above the clouds, thus allowing the aircraft to glide through the sky effortlessly, with no turbulence and with very little guidance from me. Overall, I think I did pretty well. I was surprised at how smooth the ride felt. I think I expected such a small plane to feel more like an amusement park ride -- loud, bumpy, and fast. It was surreal that this small thing was flying at a speed of almost 100 mph when at times it felt as if it weren't moving at all, but rather suspended in mid air. After a little while, it actually felt, well, normal to me, something I could actually get used to. So who flies these planes and why, I ask my fearless instructor. According to Bartlett and the "Be a Pilot" program, whose motto is Stop Dreaming, Start Flying, whether it's for business or pleasure there's no easier, faster or more relaxing way to travel than as you as your own pilot. Personal and business travel is time consuming and usually requires patience. Often, that business, weekend or holiday trip is now a chore because of an expensive airline ticket, airport delays, or long uncomfortable car rides. Since planes travel in a straight line, the average air trip is 20 percent shorter than by car. For example, an indirect trip between Washington and Pittsburgh is four hours by car. By plane, it's a little more than a onenhour flight. "Being your own pilot eliminates a lot of airport hassle, saves time, and leaves you in control of your itinerary," says the pilot. His single-engine Cessna planes rent for $75 an hour. You are charged only for the time the plane is actually in the air. "Many people rent planes from me to use for business or pleasure trips for less than the cost of a car rental," said Bartlett, who also leases out a Piper Warrior and an Arrow, a Belanca Citabria and a powered self-launch glider. He is also available for sky diving excursions. Learning to fly takes less time and is more affordable than people think. An introductory flying lesson is just $49 through the "Be a Pilot" program and participating instructors such as Rich Bartlett of the Aviation Club at the Sussex County Airport. It's as easy as calling 1-888-BE A PILOT. Once you start your training, you can qualify to fly solo with as few as 12 hours of flying time and just over $1,000. A private pilot license could take as few as 40 hours of training and practice flying. A more typical 50-70 hours can cost from $3,000 to $7,000 depending on where you live. And then there are the amazing views and seeing your world, your city or town, as I did, from a whole new perspective, and as part of the grand scheme of things. Amazing …