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

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“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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What smart people are saying about this...

  1. Tyler, this is brilliant…so inspiring! What a cool experience. :)

    I’ve always been fascinated with ships, and this post has got me thinking…at my home port on Lake Michigan there’s a big carferry that I love to sail on, and I wonder if they’d let me up in the pilothouse to learn all about how it works and maybe even let me steer? My bucket list just acquired another item ;) Your words about questioning assumptions are so true…how many things are actually simpler than we think? Thanks so much!

  2. How fricking cool is that?!?!? :)

    Thanks for sharing this experience – what a great reminder that the things we build up in our heads as being far too difficult to every accomplish are often a lot more within our reach than we imagine. Now time to think about the things that I’m letting a lack of experience hold me back from and whether that might not really be the case…

    • Yes, it’s pretty amazing what a little bit of research and action can do to make the impossible become practically inevitable. Sometimes the hardest part is just allowing yourself to dream up big, fun things because we push them from our mind for so long.

  3. I am from South Africa. Here we are a ‘little’ more relaxed ;-)

    I wanted to learn to fly and convinced my girlfriend to to the “discovery flight” with me. At the end of the briefing the instructor said “when you take off…”. My girlfriend looked at me and said, “I never knew we would ‘drive’!”.

    Not to worry I said, I am sure he meant it metaphorically!

    Not so! We pushed the throttle forward and then bobbed and weaved down the runway as ‘Mike’ explained how to counter ‘engine torque’. Then we pulled back the yolk as instructed and stumbled into the sky.

    You see, here in SA we do the take-off on a discovery flight, all the instructor does is the landing.

    My girlfriend decided it was not for her. Not scared or anything, just not that interested.

    I went on to do 25 hours, about 9 of which were solo. Amazingly after 9 hours I was ready to fly without an instructor and was landing unaided several hours before that.

    You’re right, flying is easy. The slightly difficult part is landing.

    I HIGHLY recommend everyone do a ‘discovery flight’. For $129 is a great experience, even if you decide going all the way to official pilot is not for you.

    I must also say that going solo, which is the next step, is a mind blowing experience. After doing several circuits (flying round and round the airfield doing touch-and-go practice landings) one afternoon Mike said, “OK, make a full stop”. Then he got out and said, “Off you go, you’re solo”. Unexpected, scary and, HEAVEN!

    Enjoy!

  4. Good for you Tyler! I liked that you posted the phone conversation with the airport employee. I think a lot of us are so worried what to say once we get someone on the phone in a situation like that, especially when something really important to us is at stake.

    Keep it simple, direct and kind. Congrats again on accomplishing the flight!

    • It’s always a little unnerving to ask for something you don’t think you’ll get; it feels a little foolish, but it’s the only way to find out what’s actually possible or not.

  5. What a great story! I did this last year when a pilot friend invited me out to the airport. I thought he was going to fly the plane (I’d flown with him before) so I was rather confused when a flight instructor walked over and introduced himself to me. That’s when my friend told me I was flying the plane. What a blast!

    I’m now saving up to get my pilot’s license, especially as only 6% (as of I think 2006) of all licensed pilots are women. I want to help grow those ranks by becoming a pilot myself.

    I love reading how you’re achieving your big goals- it helps keep me motivated to do mine.

    • Good luck, Elizabeth. Women seem to be very underrepresented in most “adventurous” sports and activities, and that’s too bad. I’m really glad you’re taking on the challenge.

  6. Awesome! I did this as a kid with a relative. We were up in his Piper and he asked me if I wanted to fly it. I couldn’t even see over the dash, but he said that was fine because I could just use the instruments. So by god I flew it, and we did touch & goes too :)

    • How fun, Jackie. There’s not much to run into in the air, so line of vision doesn’t seem to be as big of a deal in a plane as it is in land vehicles. Unless, of course, you’re trying to take off or land!

  7. Wow… one of the best Riskology.co posts ever? I have to say its slightly disconcerting to know that you were flying a plane in the general vicinity of where I live with no license… Cool story though nonetheless.

  8. Hey Tyler, I’m glad you enjoyed the experience. I myself have had my pilot’s license since I was 17 and every time I get inside the plane I feel as excited as I did first time I ever did it. Flying is always exhilarating!

    • That’s really great to hear, Devon. I was pretty excited to get my driver’s license when I was 16 and, today, driving feels like more of a chore than an adventure, so it’s great to hear about someone that’s maintained their passion over time.

      Man, you guys are really making me want to start pilot training!

  9. I was waiting for the obligatory “Learning to Fly” Tom Petty song to come on…but instead I kept waiting for the part where we all died due to the mellow music :)

    To be fair, I wasn’t nearly as nervous as it was made out, however I was pretty happy when Tyler had to relinquish the controls during landing.

    Really cool experience, and something I definitely am considering doing myself sometime soon.

    • Any time I’m in a position like that, I think to myself, “What if I just did it anyway?”

      What if I just leaned over the edge a little further? What if I just jerked the steering wheel while we’re going 70 mph?

      I have a somewhat morbid imagination. Thanks for coming along. :-P

  10. Love this! I wish I had seen this last year – I would have included you in my book -consider it done-accomplishing life’s trickiest tasks! You made it look easy – and fun!
    Thanks for sharing.

  11. It’s good to hear that you got up there. I’m surprised he didn’t let you take off.

    If you’re interested in getting licensed, you only need 35 hours of piloting time if you train under FAR Part 141. That’s 5 hours less than FAR Part 61.

    Also, as a matter of interest, no license of any kind is needed to pilot ultralight aircraft.

    • I was looking into ultralights the other day, Joe. That’s a great work around, except that most of them max out at about 40 miles per hour and can’t carry any luggage, so they’re not very efficient for transportation.

      • “Transportation”?

        If you want efficient transportation you take an airline.

        Ultralights are fun because being so small, you can really experience the flying.

  12. Awesome post Tyler! Your timing with this post couldn’t have been better! A friend of mine has his private pilot’s license and just last week he offered to take me up for a flight.

    I’ve always considered pursuing my own pilot’s license, but for one reason or another I’ve always filed it away as “something I will do in the future.” But your post has convinced me to seize the day… I will definitely take up the offer from my friend. Thanks again!

  13. Ha ha, that’s so odd that you made a post about a discovery flight. I’ve wanted to fly since I’ve been little and went to my airport a few months ago and learned about discovery flights as well, and just recently got enough spare money to take one. I’m going to take mine sometime this week. Congrats on being able to check another thing off your 1% Club list!

  14. Very cool…one of my bucket list items is to ride in a helicopter, maybe I should change it to “fly a helicopter”? Maybe choppers also have discovery flights?

  15. My friend took lessons to get a pilots license in the Hillsboro airport and I’ve heard that flying is actually pretty easy – easier than driving! Still a scary concept to actually fly a plane though! Good job to Sean on the video and great music choice too! The landing looks like it was pretty smooth too. :)

    • Hie my name is kevin,i usto train in ogle international airport not 2 far from me. ohhhhh i live in Guyana South America. Since i was 6yrs old i always wanted 2 become a pilot. unfortunately due 2 the financial fees i had 2 come out. the aviation wanted 13,000,000 to complete a 4 term course. its really 2 damn hard here in Guyana man,so i am pushing my luck to marry a girl from the usa or canada so that i can get 2 do my course and become an international pilot. and also i wanna own a private jet of my own.

  16. I love how simple so many things can become when you stop thinking “this couldn’t possibly be doable” and start thinking “how do I do this?”

    I’m doing much the same thing this summer with a steam locomotive.

  17. Hi Tyler

    That is wicked! Great that you just decided to go for it. Enjoyed the video, great shots from the air.

    I am not a big fan of small planes but totallly love helicopters, would love to have a crack at one of those. I love just taking flights in them, been on a few now (last one was in NY) flying one would be amazing.

    I just spotted the earlier helicopter comments above, seems I am not the only fan. :)
    Good on you for taking the plunge (and not actually plunging)!
    Cheers
    Thea

  18. I am currently learning to fly. I have soloed a couple of times. But it hasn’t been easy. In fact, I am not sure of the statistics, but very few who start actually get their license because there is so much to it. Its expensive and requires intense commitment. But what you have shown here and what I had completely forgotten up until reading this – is that I can still just go up do it without having a license. I had created such a drama in my mind about “being a pilot” that I lost site of what I really want, which is to just experience flying. Can’t thank you enough for that insight!! And of course, that doesn’t just apply to flying but so much of life – amazing how the mind can pull us off course with expectations and demands.

    • The reason for that is because the government and their cohorts have been *conditioning* society to and have done so for the last several centuries but your slowly breaking out of the brainwashing.

      Your truly starting to enjoy life’s wonders.

  19. Great post Tyler.

    I had heard about the “discovery flight” before but wasn’t sure what it meant. Guess I should have just asked – it’s funny how the idea of asking seems so implausible before you do it. I’m going to call my local airport this morning and schedule a trip fort his weekend. Thanks for the inspiration!

  20. I did the same sort of thing, about 12 years ago. I loved it so much, I learnt to fly! Now I fly Boeings for a major airline in the UK. Greatest job in the world, but nowhere near as fun as flying the little puddlejumpers.

  21. I race cars and do the odd hour’s lesson flying light aircraft in the UK. You are so right about the things you have said in your article. I have always taken the position that nothing is impossible, I just need to find out how. Obviously your approach too.

  22. The discovery flight thing is awesome way to fly, I remember back in 95 when I decided to just take the plunge and go fly a plane. That was the first time I have ever sit in a small plane I was in my thirties then, well needless to say the discovery flights have been around for many years now that I can think of, for those that want to fly it’s great there is no better high. I just wish it didn’t cost so damn much to get your private pilot’s license or just your sport license. Oh well one day I may be able to finish getting my license, or at least sport license out of the way. Good luck to all the like to fly and enjoy the beautiful skies around you.
    It’s awesome

  23. Wow! I’ve wanted to learn how to fly a plane for the longest now. I psyched myself out so hard that i couldn’t even call the local airport to ask questions. Finally the other day while I was alone reading at the park(another small step towards facing fears) I just decided to call em up. Then I find this blog… can wait to have my first flight :) and if I hate it, I can move on

  24. I have flown much of my life,My dad was a pilot. I have flown hundreds of hours and loved it every time.The last time i flew was in 1996 my dad and i flew to pick up my daughter in carthage mo.For thanksgiving.I did the flying usuly when we flew it was so great.but i never got licence.My dad passed away in 98 and now i dream of flying,and i miss flying so much.I feel so free up there its like your a bird and can just go or do anything.

  25. What do you have to do to fly ultralight planes is there anything that you must do i thaught that i might get one or a sailplane if i could afford it then at least i could fly a little then

  26. You almost got it right, there is NO f***ing magic! None, nada, everything has an explanation. Once basic principals are understood, no subject becomes impossible! That is the secret no one wants to admit less it make them less elite. On an aside, the “little ones” are much more difficult to operate than it looks, think steering a boat from the bottom of the lake. Keep on the quest grasshopper.

  27. Tyler, this is brilliant…so
    inspiring! What a cool
    experience.
    I’ve always been fascinated
    with ships, and this post has
    got me thinking…at my home
    port on Lake Michigan there’s
    a big carferry that I love to
    sail on, and I wonder if
    they’d let me up in the
    pilothouse to learn all about
    how it works and maybe even
    let me steer? My bucket list
    just acquired another item
    Your words about questioning
    assumptions are so true…how
    many things are actually
    simpler than we think?
    Thanks so much!

Founded with love by Tyler Tervooren

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