Winging It

"I've got the plane."

"You've got the plane."

"I've got the plane."

That's me, confirming in the standard three-step communication process with my flight instructor Joseph Svadlenka, that I indeed was flying the Cessna 172 all by myself. At least for that moment.

Let me back up.

Strapping myself into the 2005 four-seater plane and taking off from DeWitt Spain airport in downtown Memphis was the result of an offer made by Project Pilot, a national nonprofit organization that reaches out to prospective pilots and puts them in touch with local flight schools. For me, that meant heading over to Downtown Aviation to see what this pilot business was all about.

I begin the afternoon with "ground instruction." After an hour with a computer training session, my flight instructor checks to see that I've passed the quiz, then leads me out to the aforementioned Cessna.

We begin with preflight inspection of the aircraft, and once satisfied that, say, the wings aren't loose, we're cleared for takeoff. Headsets and microphones positioned, aviator (natch) sunglasses adjusted, and I'm ready to roll.

At least I think I am. Once the plane gets moving, it really gets moving, and I'm not altogether prepared for the speed at which we're hurtling down the runway. I try to brake, and am ever-so-gently admonished by Svadlenka. "Takeoff is not really a good time to brake," he instructs, taking over control of the plane until we're safely off the ground and cruising 1,800 feet over Arkansas farmland. The plane is then handed over to me, and I'm given hands-on instruction in the climbing, descending, and turning I've just learned on the computer. Turning the plane, just for the record, is by far the most exciting part of the session. First, dip the wings to ensure no other planes are in your line of vision, then, using foot pedals, rotate the plane. "First-time flyers are tempted to try and 'steer,' like a car using the throttle," explains Svadlenka. The throttle only makes the plane go higher or lower, both of which, I discover, can happen quickly.

We fly over rows of soybeans in Arkansas, then over the mighty Mississippi, then along the western edge of the city, close enough to identify my coworkers' cars in the parking lot of the magazine's downtown office. I check on photographer Brad Jones, who's bravely come along to document this little adventure, camera in hand in the backseat, looking somewhat nervous and emitting the occasional groan when I accidentally descend too quickly.

All the while, Svadlenka's answering a steady stream of questions from me:

"No, no one's ever crashed, though one guy cracked the propeller."

"No, the you-break-it-you-buy-it rule doesn't apply in flight school."

"If the engine dies, we've got plenty of time to land safely."

"No, this is not just a rich person's hobby."

"Yes, we've had people go on to become commercial pilots."

"Of course I've seen Top Gun."

"No, we can't do a 'fly-by' of your office windows."

Then, somehow, the hour is over, and we're headed back to the DeWitt Spain runway. Nineteen more hours like this with Svadlenka and another 10 on my own, and I'm a certified private pilot. Once we land, we'll fill out the first entry in my pilot flight log book, says Svadlenka. "You actually did pretty well," he adds, though the green tint of Jones' face in the backseat says different. An odd mixture of relief and disappointment washes over me when the runway comes into view, and we begin our descent.

"I've got the plane."

"No," responds Svadlenka, firmly,

"I've got the plane."

Hey, you can't blame a gal for trying.

For more information on becoming a pilot, visit

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