Monday, December 1, 2003

First flights


By John I. Williams, Jr.

The first surprise was that there were two fuel tanks and they were in the wings. Each tank held 27 gallons of aviation gas, called "100 low-lead," for a total capacity of 54. More than most cars; but then again if you run out of fuel while flying, you can't simply pull over and walk to the nearest service station. Aircraft fuel gauges are notoriously unreliable. So prudence requires a visual inspection during the pre-flight walk-around.

I was finally following through on my dreams of learning to fly. "Why don't you do it?!" I had thought to myself during breakfast that morning. So I scanned the Yellow Pages and found one or two flight schools located at Hanscom Field, just west of Route 128 off Route 2A in Bedford, MA. It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday in August 1983; not too hot and not windy at all; a perfect day for a first flight.

The terminal building's directory listed three institutions of higher learning. The first two were busy and just a little off-putting. The last one, Mitchell Flight School, seemed friendlier. Irregular pieces of cloth hung along the walls with names and dates written on them. These turned out to be the backs of students' shirts, cut off and inscribed as part of a ritual to commemorate their successful first solo flights.

Mike Mitchell welcomed me with a broad smile and lots of enthusiasm. He offered a "Discovery Flight" for $25 (they're more expensive nowadays) which is sort of like a test-drive to see whether you really want to start flying lessons. Within minutes I would be inspecting those fuel tanks.

As we walked out onto the ramp towards the plane, a four-seater Cessna 172 Skyhawk -- by far the most popular general aviation airplane in the world -- I noticed the wings were attached to the top of the fuselage. Single-engine Cessna's all share this high-wing characteristic, in contrast to the sleeker-looking low-wing models made by just about every other manufacturer. During the pre-flight walkaround, Mike pointed out the control surfaces and described their functions. The ailerons on each wing controlled the plane's bank or roll, the vertical rudder on the tail controlled yaw (just like a boat's rudder), and the horizontal "elevators" on the tail controlled pitch. Made sense.

The registration number, painted on either side of the aft fuselage in large letters, was "N734YA." The "N," pronounced "November," is common to all aircraft registered in the U.S. The engine produced only 160 horsepower and was air-cooled. "Just like my VW Super-Beetle," I thought. The Skyhawk had electric ignition, so there would be no hand propping to start the engine. This was going to be a piece of cake.