ON A RECENT, hazy winter's day, we buckled into a tiny two-seat Cessna 152 and lifted off the Leesburg airport runway. The land of highway and median strip suddently became a vast, three-dimensional world where the local farms, covered swimming pools and sprouting townhouses swept into view.
The instructor, a cheerful young man from Leesburg's Janelle Aviation, let go of the yoke (which looks like a car steering wheel), expecting his passenger to take over. The whole concept of steering expanded dizzyingly -- not only were there no lines to follow, but there were also new factors to consider, such as up and (especially) down.
Here's the good news: With no one around, and an experienced pilot by your side, flying feels like a cinch. And it looks like something you could only do in dreams. "The learning how to fly portion is not very difficult at all," says Pat Patrick at Frederick Aviation, another school for pilots. "But they have to learn radio equipment, navigation, meteorology -- these are the things that trip people up."
Most instructors concur, saying that if you can drive a car, chances are you can learn to fly a plane -- if you really want to. And most do: Flying schools seem to be filled with well- motivated students with an irresistible urge to fly by themselves.
Some are high school graduates who want to make piloting a career; others are businessmen with some quasi-defensible idea that flying their own plane will save them money on business trips (it can, if you do a lot of fairly local trips with a partner); and some are simply people who finally have enough money to make their dream come true.
We're talking big money here -- $2,000 to $4,000 for that initial pilot's license, which basically allows you to take simple planes up in good weather. Many go on to take their instrument rating, which allows them to fly more complicated planes under more difficult conditions.
And those who want to fly for a living -- or just love to fly and can't afford to pay for all the time they want to spend in the air -- get their commercial license (for charter pilots), instructor's license (so they can teach others) and, finally, their airline license, which lets them try out for the big jobs.
Getting all the way to that final license can cost upwards of $35,000, if you're paying for the flying time yourself.
And once you have a license, there are other continuing expenses. It costs $25 to $125 an hour to rent a plane. Or you could go together with some pilot buddies to buy a plane -- anywhere from $20,000 for a 10-year-old plane to $76,000 for a new, small Cessna.
The buddy system usually involves a pilots club. There are dozens of them in the Washington area. The larger ones rent their planes at a discount to members who pay dues plus an initiation fee; big ones, suc as the Capital Fliers Assocation at the Manassas Municipal Airport, can also hook customers up with freelance instructors and ground schools.
That's one way to get started. You can also work through a pilots school such as Janelle Aviation. The first approach is reputed to be cheaper; one freelance pilot called the schools a way to get $2,500 worth of instruction for $3,000. But the schools argue that their price is quite competitive, once you factor in the cost of the 50 to 60 hours of airtime you'll probably need to pass the Federal Aviation Administration exam for a beginning pilot's license.
Schools also contend that they're more convenient. They supply the planes and either give you instructional videotapes or hook you up with a ground school for the material covered in the written portion of the pilot's exam. Going with a freelance pilot means making those arrangements yourself.
Whether you hook up with a freelance teacher through a pilots club, or go to a school for your license, there are some key criteria to explore, says Larry Price of Pilot's Supply Co. in Fairfax, which supplies books and gear for pilots and also runs a pilots club. Your research should include: Asking to see the instructor's log book; he should have a minimum of 250 to 300 hours in the air to get his instructor's license. Asking what percentage of his students actually got their licenses. Getting names of students you can talk to for a recommendation. Asking him how long he's had his license. And asking about his safety record, and the school's if that applies.
"What you need is a balance of these things," says Price, who went with a freelance pilot. "My instructor just got his license, but he's spent over a thousand hours in the air, and is an excellent teacher."
Air instruction goes along with ground instruction, the part many students find the most difficult. Learning the meteorology, navigation and other calculations prepares you for the four- hour FAA exam that you must pass before the in-flight exam. The book-learning information can be gleaned from a $12 government publication called the "Private Pilot's Handbook," says Pat Cummins, the owner of Pilot's Supply. "If you're the kind of person who can teach yourself investment banking by reading books, you can probably work your way through this book," he says. "But it requires a lot of self-discipline."
Others prefer the traditional ground school, in the hope that the "idiot sitting next to you will ask the question you don't understand," says Cummins. "Plus, you develop a kind of camaraderie in the class."
If it's done right, the ground school instruction can prepare you in advance for your air instruction.
The latter takes place, typically, in two-hour sessions. The first half-hour is spent simply getting the airplane ready to fly -- checking the fuel tank, tail and wing flaps and other structural points. "It's not like a car -- you can't pull off the road if something's going wrong," Cummins says.
First lessons concentrate on take-off and maneuvering, techniques that instructors emphasize are not difficult in themselves but must be mastered through endless practice. The teachers also do heart-stopping things like cutting the engine in the sky, and asking the student how he'd land -- a process that's not quite as dangerous as it sounds, since it's the air, not the engine, that holds the plane up.
Learning to land is probably the trickiest part of these first lessons, and one that, students say, you have to get the feel for -- after a few rough landings. Once you've mastered the technique, you can solo, first locally, then across country. When the students are ready and have passed the written exam, they take a one-h an FAA instructor.
Schools put students through a final check with the chief flight instructor before this last test, figuring if they can pass his scrutiny they'll satisfy the FAA, too.
By this time, students have probably spent 55 or 60 hours in the air -- less, if they've come every day and worked on nothing else, more if they've had scheduling problems. "Occasionally you'll get the grandmother who's spent 80 hours in the air and still hasn't soloed," says one instructor, "but, generally, our students learn in 55 or 60 hours." And then, it's up, up and away in the world of three-dimensional driving. LEARNING TO FLY
In order to earn FAA certification, a pilots school must follow certain guidelines. Going through such a school guarantees that your curriculum has met fairly rigorous standards. However, any pilot with an instructor's license is qualified to both teach and attest that a student is ready for the FAA exams. The smaller area airports are familiar with freelance instructors.
If you're interested in taking flying lessons, the Yellow Pages list nearly two dozen schools or pilots clubs that provide instruction. To give you a feel for costs and offerings, here's a brief cross-section of those outfits. -- Deborah Churchman.
AERO FLIGHT INC. -- Montgomery County Airpark, 840-1800. Private pilot's license training for $1,999.95, includes 35 hours air time plus six-week ground school. FAA certification. Also runs pilot's club.
CAPITAL FLIERS ASSOCIATION -- Manassas Municipal Airport, 703/631- 1023. A pilot's club, it can link students with instructors and ground school. No FAA certification.
DULLES AVIATION -- Manassas Municipal Airport, 703/631-0233. Private pilot's training for $1,936, including 40 hours air time, plus 11 hours of ground school. FAA certification. Also has a pilots club; will hook up students with freelance instructors if asked.
FREDERICK AVIATION -- Frederick Airport, 301/831-4277. Private pilot's training for $1,879, including 35 hours air time plus audio-visual kit for ground school instruction. FAA certification.
JANELLE AVIATION -- Leesburg Airport, 478-1036.Private pilot's license training for $3,120 in a Cessna 152, including 50 hours air time plus ground school. FAA certification. It also has a pilots club.