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Pilot for a Day: How to Fly an Airplane Without A License

“Wanna cruise in a Cessna?”

There’s a question that, just a few months ago, I never thought I’d be asking anyone—certainly not myself. Yet, there I was, posing that exact query to my friend, Sean Ogle, who enthusiastically agreed.

“Great, because I need someone to film it.”

What I didn’t tell him—at least not at first—was that I would be the one piloting it. Before you start wondering, let me clarify that I have never flown a plane before. Not even one of those little remote control ones. I’ve never even sat in a cockpit, and I don’t know an altimeter from a barometer.

What Sean also didn’t know was that I’d had a few chances to hone my pitch. Considering that the most commonly feared way to die is in a plane crash, asking other friends to come along while I “learn how to fly” produced not so shockingly disappointing results. For Sean, I just left it at, “Wanna cruise in a Cessna?” No need for extraneous details, right?

Note: If you’re trying to accomplish something, but running into dead ends, try simplifying your approach.

In any case, I’m glad he came along, otherwise, there’s no way we could have created this fun video of the experience:

Thanks for the help, Sean.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been completely fascinated by two things: buildings and airplanes. As a former construction manager, I’ve had my fill of buildings, thankyouverymuch. Somehow, though, the magic of flight has mostly escaped me. I’ve been on plenty of big jetliners, but those are more like Greyhound buses in the sky (minus the legroom); I wanted the real deal.

When I added “fly a plane” to the 1% Club, I really didn’t have any idea what it would take to accomplish it. I knew that few people ever fly a plane in their life, so I assumed it had to be pretty difficult.

After a few months, though, people started leaving more and more comments on the page, telling me to look into this thing called a “discovery flight.” Then I started getting emails from readers telling me about their own experiences.

“Just call up a local airport and ask for an introductory flight. It’s like $100 and you get to fly the plane yourself—no experience needed!” one person wrote.

I wrote everyone back, thanking them for the advice, but I was skeptical; it sounded too good to be true. Becoming a better risk-taker, though, means testing your assumptions to find out if they’re actually valid, so I went online and searched for small airports near Portland.

“Great! I found one,” I thought to myself as I dialed the number. “Now I can put this crazy idea to rest once and for all.”

When the receptionist answered, I told her I’ve always wanted to fly a plane and asked her what kind of process and training I’d need to go through in order to do it.

“It’s part of my 1% Club!” I said, enthusiastically.

“What on Earth is a 100% Club?” she asked, totally puzzled.

“Umm, no, not ‘100%.’ Just ‘1%.’ It’s sort of like a bucket list, except…umm…well, nevermind, it’s kind of a long story.”

“Ohhh…a bucket list! No, I understand that. I’ve got one, too. I really want to go to a Monkees reunion concert!”

“Now, about that flight,” she continued. “We offer something called a ‘discovery flight.’ It’s $129, and you’ll get to fly a small Cessna airplane with an instructor for about an hour. The instructor will take-off and land, but while you’re in the air, you’re in charge of the controls.”

“Holy smokes, it’s true!” I thought to myself. “You mean I can just show up at the airport with a credit card, slap on a headset, and call myself a pilot?”

“Well, you won’t actually be a pilot, but you’ll feel like one,” she replied, cheerfully. “Would you like to schedule a flight?”

Would I?!”

Once again, I’m humbled by the fact that Riskology.co’s readers are much smarter than its writer. And, of course, another lesson learned: when someone who’s smarter than you gives you helpful advice, listen!


Fast forward a few days and Sean and I are standing on the tarmac at a small airport in Aurora, Oregon listening to Heikke, our Norwegian flight instructor go over our pre-flight checklist.

“Never get in a plane with a pilot that doesn’t have a checklist,” he advises us. “Run away. That’s very bad.”

“Good advice,” I think to myself as I add it to my Questions to Ask the Instructor checklist.

We hop in the plane and toss on our headsets, checking the nine gauges on the instrument panel as we taxi toward the end of the runway. Then we stop. Then we wait. Then we wait some more. Heikke rambles off a bunch of gobbeldy-gook into the radio as he scans the sky above us. A message comes back—more indecipherable code.

My adrenaline is pumping—I’m afraid of heights—and I’m starting to get impatient. “What’s the hold up?” I ask.

Heikke explains that since Aurora is a small airport, there’s no control tower; all planes have to communicate with each other via radio before using the runway to avoid a collision.

“There’s a plane trying to land right now, so we need to wait until they’re on the ground to leave. Taking off is optional, but landing is mandatory,” he reminds us.

Fair enough.

We wait a little more, but then Heikke gets impatient, too. “They’re dilly dallying. We’ll just go now,” he says calmly as we start to race down the runway. I try to keep my feet off the pedals during take-off, as I was reminded earlier that was a surefire way to ruin everyone’s day.

Speeding down the runway, I can see the end of the asphalt approaching. This, of course, makes me nervous. But then, as if hurdling a giant tin can filled with people into the air is as common as tying one’s shoes, Heikke pulls back on the yoke and we take flight.

At 1,000 feet, Heikke lets go of the yoke, takes his feet off the pedals and looks at me. “Alright, your turn,” he says with a certain calmness that reminds me of the day, at ten years old, my dad set me on the riding lawn mower for the first time and said, “Have fun. If you fall off, you’ll be cut to pieces.”

For the next the hour, I steered the yoke, learning to ascend and descend while pressing the pedals to make steep turns flow smoothly.  I was flying—no license, no previous experience, no nothing. And it was amazing—not just because I got to play pilot, but because it was so easy. I couldn’t believe how simple the basic mechanics were. In fact, I’d argue it’s easier than driving a car.

We flew to a nearby airport in McMinnville, Oregon to land, and then took off again to head back. An hour later, I was sitting in the airport with Heikke, drilling him with every question I could think of about airplanes and becoming a pilot. I was hooked. To his credit, he never got annoyed with my endless questions (as far as I could tell).

Will I go on to get my pilot’s license? Probably not, at least not now; I have a lot of other things to work on at the moment, but the possibility is there, and it feels more accessible than I’d ever imagined.

My whole life, I assumed that because I didn’t know anyone with a pilot’s license that getting one must be incredibly hard. And, if it were incredibly hard to get a license, it must be because it’s incredibly hard to fly a plane.

Not so. Getting a license isn’t easy, but learning the basics of flying is, and you don’t need any special skills or a big bankroll to enjoy it. In fact, that experience reinforced three very important lessons for me:

  • My assumptions are often wrong, and not testing them leads to missed opportunities.
  • There are almost always shortcuts to get around a difficult barrier if you’re willing to look for them (and listen to people who are smarter than you—thanks everyone).
  • Things that seem impossible, like most magic tricks, are usually much simpler once you take the time to understand them.

Still, flying through the air seems like a miracle to me, and I’m awestruck that I had the opportunity to experience it from the cockpit. Yes, millions of people fly millions of miles around the world every single day, and the science that makes it possible is not very complicated. But I like the way Albert Einstein, one of the most famous scientists ever, puts it:

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is.”

What miracle do you want to experience and what assumptions are standing in the way of you experiencing it?

More photos from the adventure:

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