Free Aviation Guy Newsletter Want to receive the latest on aviation delivered to you? Get all the latest and greatest aviation insights for FREE! Join your fellow Av Geeks who subscribe to Aviation Guy for FREE!!

How I Became a Pilot: Part 5 Joining the Reno National Guard and Becoming a Pilot

For a long time it looked like I would not be able to go to the Guard yet.  In fact, my first application was denied outright. I know it was never looked at because it came back in less than 48 hours, and the Air Force never does anything that fast.  

But with some consistent support from my current, and future leadership we got through the process and I was able to leave Active Duty about 8 months before the end of my commitment.  I was super excited to be back on the West Coast, and to get to fly in the mountains around Reno.

When I was going through the process of joining the unit I mentioned a desire to become a pilot, but based on my age, and their needs I was told it was not going to happen.  Honestly, I was okay with that as I genuinely love what I do, but I figured it didn’t hurt to ask.

Adapting to Guard life took some getting used to.  Financially it was far more complex than getting a paycheck on the 1st and the 15th, but we have figured it out.  The culture is also very different since the majority of the people in the unit are part-time and thus are not available to do  training or for flying at a moments notice like we were on active duty.

Maybe most importantly, the Guard is also one big family.  An incredibly dysfunctional family at times, but the dynamics of a group of people who work together in one place, for in some cases 30+ years, can get very interesting.  

Families know each other, and not just spouses and children, but siblings and parents and other extended relatives.  While it does have its challenges, there is a bond that is undeniable, and something I personally find valuable.

I was also excited to be flying in what is the best local flying area anywhere in the world.  Though recently I have decided I may need to alter that statement as Alaska is pretty darn amazing, it is incredible to rage through the Sierra Nevada mountains on a regular basis.

About six months after I joined the unit they decided they were going to have a board to convert some navigators to pilots.  Initially, I was hesitant as I was 36 and pretty set in my ways. The idea of going back through 18 months of training with 23 and 24 year olds was not appealing.  I reached out to some trusted friends and after hours of discussing the practical side of it all I was still not convinced.

Then a great friend, who apparently knew me better than I knew myself at the time, appealed to the emotional side of it all and it tipped me over the edge.  Essentially he told me that for as long as he had known me I had wanted to be a pilot, so why would I not even try to do it. Let them tell me it wasn’t going to happen, but I at least needed to try.

As part of the preparation process for the board I decided that I needed to finish my private pilot’s license.  We had just gotten our tax return, and I convinced my saint of a wife to let me use most of it to chase my childhood dream.  I figured that even if the pilot thing in the Air Force didn’t work out, I would still be a pilot in the eyes of the FAA and I would have fulfilled a dream.

I immediately set to work finding an instructor and preparing to take the written test.  The first time I went up in the air with Nikk I knew that I had made the right choice. I really can’t even put it into words, even more than a year later.  It awakens something inside of me that nothing else does. I have written quite a bit about all of that training so I will refer you to past posts to read more about that.

I was not able to finish my license in time for the board, but I was proud of myself for getting as close as I did.  If it weren’t for weather I would have finished, but I don’t think it would have really made any difference with the results.

The time for the board came and I felt really good about how I presented myself and what I wanted to accomplish.  When the results were given I was not surprised as they selected the person they knew better who had been around longer.  While I was disappointed, I once again knew that things always seem to have a way of working out for me and my family.

After a few more weather delays,  I was finally prepared for my checkride and got it scheduled for 22 June 2018.  You can read about the details of that memorable day here, but as you are likely already aware, I became a private pilot on that very day, and it was maybe the most proud I have ever been of myself on a professional level.

To finally do something that I had talked about for more than 30 years was simply incredible.  The path was much longer than I had anticipated and there were many times that I thought it would never happen.  With all of the twists and turns that life takes, I had given up on fulfilling that dream. Like so many people I had moved on to something more practical and left those childhood dreams behind.

It happens to all of us at some point, whether we realize that at 5’9″ we are never going to play in the NBA, or that despite our love for the violin we will never play at Carnegie Hall.  At some point most of us concede to reality.

I have often struggled with this as I believe that you should never give up on your dream, but that at the same time, at what point is it keeping you from doing something else great because your other dream just isn’t going to happen.

Recently I have come to feel that it isn’t that you need to give up on your dreams completely, you may just need to tweak them a little.  If you are a five foot tall adult you will never be a center in the NBA, but maybe you can become a coach, or a trainer, or a writer for Sports Illustrated, or a sports agent.  If you don’t have the eyesight or stomach to be a fighter pilot maybe you can work for an airline, or an airport, or do maintenance on airplanes, or write a blog about them that becomes wildly popular and now you get to go for rides in those same fighter jets.

I firmly believe anyone can achieve true and lasting happiness in this life by pursuing their dreams.  As you can see by my path, it was windy and bumpy with a few pit stops and 180s, but I did it, I became a pilot.  

I have flown more than 1500 hours as a navigator all over the world in a C-130 and seen sights that few other people in the world will ever see.  I have provided life saving airlift to people who needed it. I have helped fight forest fires saving people’s lives and homes.

I don’t say any of that to brag or be prideful.  I say all of those things to point out that I have lived an amazing life.  I have fulfilled so many of the dreams that I had as a kid with my face pressed against a window at DFW looking at airplanes with my dad.  I just didn’t even realize that I had some of those dreams. I knew that I loved airplanes, and that I wanted to fly, and once I actually pursued that dream I found happiness and purpose that I did not have before.

That to me is true success.  I still have a lot of things I want to do, and fortunately I am still young enough to pursue many of them, but I feel successful with the things I have already done.  I have done things that money can’t buy, and I know that the experiences I have had are priceless.

So if you have a dream, go after it.  You may need to tweak your expectations a little, and you may not get there as fast as you would like, but when you put your heart into something and you chase it because it awakens part of your soul in a way that nothing else does, you can’t go wrong.  You will find happiness, and that is what I found when I became a pilot.

June 27, 2019 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

The Doubleheader of Flying Act 2: Flying the Canyons, and Then Flying Solo

I really wish that I could just spend my whole life flying, writing articles about flying, and working on videos about flying. At the very least I wish I was better at making the time to get all of my thoughts out right after they happen, because it has been a minute since this day, and I know I have forgotten some of the things I wanted to share. Maybe I should just type out outlines right after the fact to help me remember. That being said, some aspects of this day I know I will never forget.

After a couple of good flights the day before, I was feeling super excited about getting back into the plane again for some more fun flying. On this day I was only there to help another experienced Nav get recurrent because he had been away from the unit for awhile. The nice thing about these types of flights is that I don’t have to be super involved because he already knows what he is doing, I am just there to make it legal again. The downside of these flights is that I don’t have to be super involved because he already knows what he is doing, and I just really love to instruct.

Fortunately, we were going out to fly a really fun route through the mountains. This route is one of the reasons that I wanted to come back to Reno and fly so bad after flying it during the AMATS course I attended a few years back. Not having a needy student did let me enjoy the route a little more, which is never something to complain about. Again, I wish I was done with the video I am trying to make so you can get an idea of how fun it is, but time is kicking my butt right now.

Just imagine cruising through the valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at about 500 feet, with snow covered peaks all around you, going 230 knots, in a big huge plane, with a big cheesy grin on your face. That is what I call living.

Other than the joy that is flying in this area, there was not a lot of remarkable stuff that happened, so I will move on to the really exciting part of the day.

After we were done flying and debriefing, I confirmed with my CFI that he was still good to fly that night, and then tried to focus on work for the last hour or two that I had before leaving. Admittedly, it was a pretty strong mix of emotions as I was incredibly excited about the prospect of flying in a plane all by myself for the very first time, while at the same time realizing that if something happened, I would be all by myself and have to take care of it accordingly.

When I finally got out to the airport I was greeted by my CFI and handed a small stack of papers that he said I needed to fill out before we could go fly. I had stumbled across this pre-solo test in some of my studying, and my stomach immediately sunk as I didn’t feel like I knew all of the material well enough to possibly pass and be able to go fly that night. I was seriously sad inside.

We headed over to the little mission planning room the airport has and I started working on it while he was checking out my logbook, and I was right that I didn’t know a bunch of the answers, at least not as well as I thought I should. With the sun heading towards the Western horizon I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about my chances of flying that night, but then my CFI got tired of waiting and started to go through the remaining questions orally. I knew a lot of the information, but it was also a valuable learning experience with some of the other information. Apparently I did well enough because after we got through the questions he picked up his stuff and said, “Let’s go do this.”

I ran into the bathroom for one more pit stop, I am a stress potty user, what can I say, and then followed him out to the plane. We jumped in like usual, started up, and headed over to the runway. I did a normal run-up and pulled onto the runway. When we took off, the plane practically jumped off the runway. In contrast to the last flight where it had been warm and the gas tanks were full, it was now cooling off in the evening and the tanks were comparatively empty, since we wouldn’t be going very far.

We did two patterns after which he told me to go ahead and exit the runway to drop him off on the taxiway. As we pulled off the runway and he opened the door to get out I asked him if he had a handheld radio or anything, to which he laughed a little and said, “Nope, it’s all you.” Then he jumped out and closed and locked the door. Once he was well clear of the plane I released the breaks and started taxiing back down to the end of the runway.

As I was taxiing down it was an incredibly awkward feeling to be in the plane all by myself. I took a moment to say a little prayer just asking to be able to perform to the level I knew that I was capable, and to be able to have some fun. When I got to the intersection where I would be taking off from I stopped for a minute and just took a few deep breaths before making my radio call and entering the runway.

“Stead traffic, Cherokee 14W taking runway 32 for departure, staying in the pattern, Stead traffic.”

I put a little power in and pulled onto the runway, lined up on centerline, and then pushed the power all the way in. If I thought the plane jumped off the runway before, it practically exploded off with 250ish pounds less in it now. Before I knew it I was turning crosswind and shooting right through pattern altitude because I was not used to the plane climbing so fast. I quickly recovered and came back down as I turned downwind and prepared myself mentally for the part that had scared me only a few weeks before.

As I came abeam the threshold I pulled some power and dropped in the first click of flaps. At this point in the pattern you fly out of a little pond which doesn’t bother me because of the water, but because of birds that I had often seen out there. Fortunately the air was clear as I turned base, dropped the second click of flaps, and called on the radio.

“Stead traffic, Cherokee 14W turning base, runway 32, Stead traffic.”

As I normally am, I was a little high, but since that was normal, I knew how to handle it and bled off some airspeed to help me get down. One more click of flaps, and one last radio call.

“Stead traffic, Cherokee 14W final, runway 32, Stead traffic.”

Deep breath, I’ve done this a bunch of times, including two smooth ones just minutes before. Aiming for the numbers, since I always float it. A couple final turns of trim to take some pressure away. VASI looks pretty good. Over the displaced threshold. Crossing the threshold, chop the power. Little back pressure right as I enter ground effect. Keep that pressure back. Just a little more back on the yoke.

Squeak.

I did it, I flew a plane all by myself for the very first time.

After a moment or enjoyment I recomposed myself, raised the flaps, put the power back in, and lifted off for my second pattern. One again I shot off the ground, but this time I was ready for it and leveled off just prior to turning downwind.

After what was an uneventful pattern, I made my second landing and entered my third pattern. As I was turning base I saw a few birds above me, but I used the Force and kept them from dive bombing me. I touched down after the third landing with my smoothest approach and transition yet. Afterwords, my CFI said he didn’t even hear the last one squeak.

As I taxied down the runway to retrieve my CFI, which also took longer because I slowed down so fast being so light, I couldn’t help but yell and scream a bit from excitement! I am not generally an overtly emotional guy, but I was so completely pumped that I couldn’t resist.

This is another one of the moments that I struggle to actually find the words for. I have wanted to be a pilot for as long as I can remember, and for the first time, I actually felt like one. The completely liberating experience that it was is really incomparable. I have always sort of felt this way every time I fly, but this was an order of magnitude greater.

Taxiing back to the hangar I probably sounded giddy as a schoolboy, but I don’t care. It was only a 0.4 by myself, but I honestly feel changed. I am paraphrasing the quote that is attributed to da Vinci, but once I have tasted the freedom of flying I will always look heavenward because that is where my heart longs to be.

I really can’t say it enough, if you haven’t ever flown in a small plane, go and do it. Once I get my certificate I will be happy to take anyone and everyone that I have the time for up. This is just too amazing experience to not share with everyone.

On that note, you should check out the Flying Cowboys YouTube channel, and in particular the #flywithmefriday segment where Cory takes up people who have never flown in a small airplane before. It is inspiring.

I am actually going to take my written test tomorrow morning, so keep your fingers crossed for me. I feel like I am getting so close that I can actually taste it. I am actually going to become a pilot!

April 12, 2018 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.