By: B.J. Fleming

My alarm didn’t go off, and I drove, bleary-eyed to the airport. A little over an hour later, I was flying an airplane over Los Angeles with exactly zero hours of training. My instructor, Kurt Weikum, turns to me and says, “Basically: do not touch anything in here that’s red.”  Sound fun?  Well American Flyers offers a $150 introductory flight experience, so if get out your credit card, and finish the rest of this article later.

The Experience

The hardest part about flying was getting over how easy it was for me, a man who’s flight experience is limited to mostly falling asleep in first class, to get behind the stick of an actual airplane. After a brief simulation where I was taught the parts of the airplane, their functions, and the respective instruments that told you just what the hell was going on, I was taken outside where there was (seriously) a barbeque going on (for those of you in L.A., it happens at the Santa Monica airport every first Sunday of the month).

After meeting my instructor, and a very brief walk-around and tour of the cabin, we climbed in the plane and started our taxi.   My instructor took care of all the complicated stuff for the first flight; for example, I have no idea how to communicate with the tower and have only a passing ability in reading the gauges. Most of your first flight is like a real-life, somewhat frightening version of Pilot Wings, which is to say, pretty fun, intuitive and easy.

Pepperdine University (left) and a secret halfpipe built into a Malibu canyon (right)

We flew North first to avoid the LAX airspace, and because that’s where Malibu is. We passed several other aircraft on the way, and when I asked what sort of instrumentation was keeping us from colliding into them, Kurt told me, “your eyes.” Fair enough. I practiced a few turns, and got a feel for the controls – Kurt corrected the over-or-under steering that I was perpetrating.  I would liken it to steering a power boat in 3 dimensions.  Nothing was snappy like in a sports car; it was more liquid and you really felt the momentum of the plane even though it’s weight and horsepower were almost exactly that of a mid-size sedan (seriously).

You’ll slowly get more confidence on the stick, and within 20 minutes of being in the air, I felt comfortable making turns and ascending or descending. At this point, it hits you that you’re basically like Jude Law in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and that’s when you realize the best thing about private aviation. Your cell phone is on, and you can put up a really badass Facebook status update. “No big deal, friend group. Just flying a piece of metal through the air. Basically spitting in the face of human nature.”

Downtown Los Angeles

Who flies?

I spoke with the director of the American Flyers at Santa Monica Municipal Airport, Jay Elder, about who really flies; what kind of people decide to fly a little closer to the sun? He said, “For the basic training, we’ve got all types (of people).  I don’t want to say it’s the thrill-seeker types, but it tends to be the motorcyclists, the scuba divers, the sky divers, because it’s a little bit different diversion from golf or tennis or sailing, maybe.  Most of the people we work with are adventuresome folks.  I always like to say that flying encompasses romance, travel, science to some extent, sports.  It’s just got a lot of different things involved.” This was reflected, too, in the parking lot which contained a Jeep from ’97 and a BMW motorcycle that cost, probably, in the neighborhood of 20k.  All of these people were there together, eating 20 cent hot dogs about a quarter mile from the hanger Jerry Seinfeld keeps his car collection in.  It’s truly egalitarian.

The instruction

So, what does it take once you’ve finished the honeymoon first flight (like me) to get your actual pilot’s license? Says Elder, “It takes approximately 40 hours of flight training and about an equal number of ground training including studying for the written exam and pre- and post- flight training.” He continues, “Two or three weeks, no problem. Most people don’t do it that way, but it’s not unusual to get a call from somebody who says, “I just got an airplane. Now I want to learn how to fly.”

However, my instructor Kurt pointed out an aircraft taking off while we were doing our preflight – a Light Sport Aircraft. For this type of craft, you need about half the training, but you can only fly during the day, at certain elevations, and with only 1 additional passenger.

Griffith Observatory (left) and The Rose Bowl (right)

Expense

The best part about the introductory flight is how affordable it is. For $150, you can take a flight tour of Los Angeles. That’s not significantly more than you’d pay if you were just paying to sit in the back. The rough part is that the experience is exhilarating, and if you’ve got enough disposable income, it’s likely you’ll be putting up a lot more money for more classes and flight hours. Elder says it’s going to cost just under $10,000 for books, training, and everything if you want to get your private license, and you can do it (if you push) in 2 or 3 weeks. Or, if you’r not in a city with an American Flyers campus, try checking out Let’s Go Flying for comparable experiences closer to your home.

Once you have your license, it’s a little pricey to buy a plane. But, if you want to rent one, it starts to make a whole lot of sense. Not only can you jump on your plane, take off at will, and not worry about taking your shoes off for security, but it’s actually not that much more expensive. Let’s say you took 3 people from L.A. to San Diego – you could rent a plane for roughly $350. You’d spend a more than that on 4 commercial tickets.

Playboy Mansion (left) Will Smith’s house (right)

Safety

The thing you always hear – and the thing they told me at SMMA – is that it’s much more dangerous to drive than it is to fly. It certainly doesn’t feel that way when you’re on the controls for the first time.  But, if you trust the stats and Jay Elder, it’s true. He says,

Airplanes are so reliable today, the engines, the equipment, everything. The safety record for the FAA and for the school is impeccable. You’re much more at risk driving on the 405 than you are on an airplane I would dare say. And the statistics support that…You know, some people run out of fuel or are under-trained.  It happens. But that’s why you have to come to our school. We’re well-known for the quality of our training. It’s a very safe environment. And that’s why American Flyers has been around for 70-plus years.

The initial shakiness of the flight definitely wears off quickly, too.  It got to the point where, when we hit turbulence over the San Gabriels’ my first thought was not, I’m about to die. Rather, I noticed how similar the control of the plane through rough patches was to downhilling on a mountain bike.

Get Certified

If you’re looking to become a certified pilot, American Flyers is one of your best bets. They’re exclusively a flight school – they don’t sell fuel or aircraft – they just teach, and they’ve been doing it for almost a century. The other major advantage is that all their campuses are FAA 141 Approved Schools. This means, in layman’s terms, you’ll spend about 15% less time in the course, and once you’re done, there is no flight rest required. It’s like taking a driver’s education course and getting the live test waived because the DMV knows you’ll be fine. If you’re interested, go to their website for more information and to find your closest campus.

If there isn’t an American Flyers school in your city, the best resource to find out where you can get certified is through the Flight School resource guide, Let’s Go Flying.  Head there now to find the most convenient school for you. 

In order to fly, please have roguish, dirty blond hair. 

Photos courtesy of Courtney Boone