What will you do?


When I tell people that I’m very close to getting my pilot’s license, I seem to get either of the following two responses:

1) Wow that is so cool!
2) What are you going to do with it?

I feel like I’ve gotten the second response a lot lately, and I have to try hard not to look at them like they’re the crazy person, which is how they seem to look at me.

What am I going to do with my pilot’s license?!

Some people seem to ask the question because they think it’s suicidal to fly small airplanes.

Sure there are risks. Flying is less forgiving of mistakes than almost anything I can think of. But my decision to finally get my license, after a lifetime of looking at the sky, comes with an understanding that it will mean another lifetime of dedication, practice, training, and retraining.

It comes with an acceptance of the responsibility to be Pilot In Command, to make the right decision, to respond calmly and correctly if/when things go wrong.

What am I going to do with my pilot’s license??!! I’m going to learn everything I can to be the best, safest, most skilled, and oldest pilot that I can be.

Some people seem to ask the question because I am not a wealthy man. One person (very close to me, but doesn’t understand flying at all) said it doesn’t make sense to get my license because I can’t afford to buy an airplane.

I soundly reject that opinion. I reject the possibility that flying is only reserved for rich people. I can’t buy an airplane right away, but I can afford to rent an airplane for an hour or two every week. I can afford to join a flying club. I can think about buying a share of an airplane.

What am I going to do with my pilot’s license?! I’m going to find ways to afford to fly as much as I can. It means so much to me that I don’t care if it’s expensive.

Some people seem to wonder why I would put the time and money in when it doesn’t help my career or my retirement savings account. I think these are the same people that always complain that their “work-life balance” is awful yet never go do something about it. Sure, flying for me will probably just be a hobby. An expensive one. But it’s a hobby I can use to go visit my family in other parts of the country, or see new places from an interesting perspective, or just get away from the frustrations of stop lights and traffic jams. It’s a hobby that’s more challenging, rewarding, and useful than anything else I do.

So, what am I going to do with my pilot’s license? I’M GOING TO FLY!!!



Flight Training Update: a solo flight to Cape May

I was happy to find that, when it came time to fly my solo “cross-country” flights, I was allowed to choose where I would go.

I decided to pick places that I would actually fly to once I get my license. In my last post I described my flight to Reading, Pennsylvania (KRDG) which has an interesting approach from the east, is a quick 30 minute flight, and has an aviation museum and a restaurant with “good buffalo chicken wings” according to my flight instructor. While I probably will not vacation in Reading, I will certainly make that flight with passengers, as a so called “$100 hamburger” flight.

The next flight had me land in Scranton, Pennsylvania at KAVP. As I mentioned, I had been to that airport several times on commercial airlines to visit family. In fact, my entire extended family on my Mom’s side meets every summer in Scranton. The drive is almost 3 hours from my house, while the flight with a moderate headwind is less than an hour. My goal is to never have to drive to Scranton again!

After those flights, I still needed just over an hour of solo cross-country flying to meet the FAA minimum. I decided I would fly to Cape May, New Jersey at the southernmost point of the state.


Cape May is a place I would like to visit: it is one of the more iconic destinations for a romantic weekend getaway in New Jersey.

Cape May From Above

But the drive is about 2.5 hours, and I haven’t been motivated to make the trip…until I can fly there!

I took a half-day off work and reserved my favorite Cessna 172S for a few hours in the morning. Again I scheduled it the day before the forecast arrival of a winter storm, and I scoured the weather reports and forecasts in the days leading up to the flight. A few days before, the 48 hour forecast seemed promising: light winds throughout New Jersey with visibility greater than 6 miles and ceiling above 12,000 feet. Perfect.

The night before the flight I spent a few hours on the basic flight planning. It almost felt like I was back in school, feverishly cramming for a big test the next day. I plotted the course and decided on checkpoints, calculated distances, alternates, and the sequence of radio frequencies I would likely use to communicate with air traffic control.


I visualized what the descent and approach into Cape May County Airport would look like, and studied the airport diagram. Based on the forecast winds I had a good idea which runway I would be landing on. It is amazing how much it helps to go through a thorough planning routine, even for a short, simple flight. I know I can fly the airplane, but situational awareness is so key that going through a mental rehearsal while I plan a flight helps me stay ahead of the airplane during every phase of the trip. More on situational awareness in a future post…


The next morning I woke up early to that subtle sense of anticipation that soon “I GET TO GO FLYING TODAY!!” Okay…so maybe it’s not so subtle. I should say that I sprang out of bed faster than I ever do when I have to go to work.

I arrived at the airport about an hour before my flight, which left me plenty of time to call Flight Services, obtain a full weather briefing for the flight, file a VFR flight plan, and finish calculating the magnetic heading, the pressure altitude, estimated ground speeds, and time en route based on the current wind conditions.

After a quick meeting with my flight instructor I was comfortable making the “Go” decision, and once it was finalized and I picked up the keys to the airplane my heart rate ticked up just a bit from the sheer excitement. I’m no longer nervous to fly solo, it’s just so so much fun.

ramp WWD

I think my iPhone camera is no longer suitable for these pics…

The preflight inspection, engine start, taxi, and run-up were all smooth. There was barely a breath of wind as I advanced the throttle and accelerated down the runway and eased the plane off the ground at 61 knots.

As I climbed to 6,500 feet I called the Flight Service Station and opened my flight plan, then contacted McGuire Approach to obtain VFR flight following. I could already see Philadelphia and Atlantic City, and just a few minutes later the entire shape of southern New Jersey came into view. I still had some 70 miles to go but I could already see Cape May. The airspace was quiet on a Friday morning, and the controllers were pleasant. I enjoyed the view as much as I could while I scanned the instruments and maintained course.

With about 10 miles to go I advised the controller that I had the field in sight and she released me to change frequencies and descend at my discretion. During the descent I dialed in the Cape May AWOS for the latest wind information, chose the appropriate runway for landing, and began setting up for the approach. As I descended through 2000 feet there was some light turbulence, but the approach and landing went well.

Then another aircraft called over the common traffic advisory frequency for Cape May that he was taxiing to a different runway–the intersecting runway–from the one on which I had just landed. I was worried–had I made an error in choosing this runway? I rechecked the AWOS. The winds were changing somewhat, but I was sure I made the right choice. Perhaps there is some sort of local preference for that runway–and to be honest, there was a crosswind component for both runways, I could have chosen the other and accepted a slightly stronger crosswind. Just to be safe I decided to takeoff on the same runway as the other airplane, and in taxiing across the field I passed the Wildwood Naval Air Station Aviation Museum. There was a row of old, forlorn-looking military transport aircraft on the ramp.

Again, apologies for the picture quality

Again, apologies for the picture quality–it’s not foggy, it’s just a scratched iPhone camera lens

I wondered about the stories those planes could tell, and was kind of melancholy seeing how most of them were gutted of essential parts, and are now nothing more than giant paper-weights and bird nests.

The takeoff was smooth and as I climbed up to 5,500 feet I contacted the same controller at Atlantic City. A few minutes later after I leveled off at cruising altitude I heard her give a traffic advisory to a Coast Guard aircraft, and I could tell she was talking about my airplane. I looked out the windshield and just then a Coast Guard Gulfstream IV jet came into view, just 1,000 feet above me passing to the east as I was flying north. That’s the closest I’ve been to another airplane while flying, and such a cool one at that!

The flight home was smooth and uneventful, and as I said “good-day” to New York Approach after he released me from radar service, I decided to practice a short-field landing back at Princeton…

Well, the cross-country flight was extremely fun, and I can’t wait to make the same flight with a passenger (think: romantic weekend getaway…+FLYING!!!). One important thing I learned, however, is that I need more practice on short-field landings!

Thanks for reading, until next time.


Flight Training Update: feeling like a pilot

The weather so far in the new year has been, shall we say, disagreeable with VFR flight.

I’ve learned to expect it from New Jersey: this part of North America seems to be shaped to collect some pretty nasty weather. Nor’easters race up from the Carolinas and always seem to collide with a low pressure system moving in from the West-Northwest. The whole mess sits off of Long Island or Massachusetts and spins all kinds of wind and rain and snow and sleet at the coasts. Add a blocking ridge over Greenland and we’re stuck in the soup for days, or weeks it seems sometimes.

Recently some weather outlets have begun naming the winter storms, so the whole region is worked up into a frenzy for a week while we wait for storms with names like “Nemo” and “Q” and on and on.

Winter Storm Nemo, Feb 7, 2013; image credit NASA

Anyway, back to flying. There was, in fact, some flying to be had. I completed all of my solo cross-country requirements in the last 2 months. My strategy has been to wait for the “calm before the storm” and it has worked quite nicely.

My first solo flight of more than 50 nautical miles (“cross-country”) was from Princeton (39N) to Reading, PA (KRDG) and back. It was thrilling… exhilarating…almost beyond words, despite being a relatively short flight between relatively un-exciting airports.

39N RDG 2

Cruising at 5,500 ft over eastern Pennsylvania

Most of the enjoyment came from the satisfaction I felt to accomplish all of the planning, pre-flight, air traffic communications, en-route, and terminal phases of the flight. It was the first time I felt a sense of being a real pilot, and it was so addictive.

39N RDG 1

A few weeks later, the day before winter storm Nemo arrived, I flew my “long” cross-country, which required multiple stops. For this trip, I flew from 39N to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, PA (KAVP) then to KRDG, and back home. I chose KAVP because it was a longer leg than I had flown previously, and because I have flown to that airport on commercial airlines many times in the past to visit relatives. I was ecstatic as I flew down over the ridge on a long right base leg to Runway 4.


No time to waste (due to the high expense of airplane rental), I taxied back and departed to the Northeast, then was vectored to my final course to the South to avoid the arrival corridor. This was the most challenging part of the trip since I was required to make a right turn after take-off, remain clear of the ski slope on the ridge to the East of the airport, and then follow the controller’s vector request.

long XC

The flight down to Reading was mostly unremarkable, despite being over some lovely, snow-covered terrain. It was a very cold, calm morning just before that massive snowstorm hit the region. The ceiling was overcast at about 12,000 with the high clouds before a frontal system, so there was almost no glare to speak of. At times a few rays of sunlight would break through and highlight the winter landscape below. I couldn’t have been happier.

The landing at Reading was smooth, and before I knew it I was back in the air heading East for Princeton. Reading Departure handed me off to Allentown Approach, then Philadelphia Approach, during which time I received a traffic advisory for a Dash-8 crossing my path. Besides this exchange, there was very little traffic and the radio was mostly quiet. There was nobody in the pattern once I got back to Princeton; it was nice having the place to myself, typically the field is buzzing with students and helicopter traffic.

It turns out there was a police helicopter idling on the ramp, and as I pulled up, shut-down, and walked back to the office, the Governor of the State of New Jersey, Chris Christie, got out of a black SUV and jogged over to the chopper. It was a strange crossing of paths.

These two flights gave me about 4 hours of solo cross-country flight, and I need a minimum of 5 hours. In the next few days I’ll write another update and tell you about my flight down to Cape May at the southern point of New Jersey. Thanks for reading!



With just a few more flight hours left before I can take my checkride, I can’t stop thinking about my future life as a pilot. I daydream about where I will go and what I will see. And I think about my cousins and future nieces or nephews, relatives, friends. I can’t wait to see their faces as the tires lift off the ground and we fly over their house or along the Hudson River Corridor next to Manhattan or on a trip down to Cape May or to see more distant relatives down the East coast. I can’t wait to be set loose as a pilot.

But at the same time, I’ll be set loose.  There is no doubt that I will have completed all of the requirements set forth by the FAA, and generally breezed through training, and I will be legally capable of flying a single-engine land-based aircraft almost anywhere my heart desires, almost anytime, with passengers. I think back to my cousins and future nieces or nephews, relatives, and friends sitting next to me or right behind me in a 172. And the sheer joy I can imagine on their faces, and on mine, is tempered a bit by the heavy weight of responsibility placed on the pilot’s shoulders. On my shoulders.

I want to be the best pilot I can be. Of course, this involves more training and a hell of a lot more practice, which I will dive into immediately. But meanwhile, I will be set free to the skies. Although I am glad to be near the end of the FAA-mandated 40 hours of training for the PPL, I don’t think those 40 hours equip me to handle all of the situations I might face. I find myself scouring NTSB reports and evaluating how I would handle the situations in the “Aftermath” and “I Learned about Flying from that” sections of Flying magazine. Richard Collins’ book The Next Hour, which I plan to discuss in a later post, was full of situations for me to imagine myself trying to confront. I often have two immediate reactions: first, that I would never allow myself to get in a similar situation. Second, that the people in the NTSB reports probably thought that they would never allow themselves to get in that situation.

We are humans, and therefore we make mistakes. I make mistakes occasionally in my job as a biologist. Sometimes the workload is large enough and the tasks difficult enough that an error or two will creep in which sabotage a part of or a whole experiment. I’m also a very active concert violinist, and I make mistakes in music too. Sometimes the stress of performing in front of an audience or the extreme precision and technique required for certain passages of music can cause a lapse in concentration, and the error rate will start to increase. In all cases, I hate making mistakes; I am a perfectionist and always very hard on myself when it happens. But the best scientists I know and the best musicians I know make mistakes sometimes. I have to assume that even the best pilots can make mistakes. We are human.

I am forever intrigued by the human brain and how it works. I found the following video very interesting describing how our brain handles information between two “systems”.

Of particular interest to aviation was the fact that we can become “effectively blind” when we fully engage our “System 2” brain. I can imagine so many possible times during flight that we might unknowingly become focused on one problem/task/goal that we suffer from this type of effective blindness. I remember early on in flight training I often felt that I was “behind” the airplane during simulated emergencies. Once during a simulated engine out my CFI changed the Comm 1 frequency to the wrong CTAF. I was amazed when after the few seconds it took me to change it back to make the position calls, I found I had lost situational awareness for long enough to fail to turn the base leg at the proper moment, and undershot the emergency approach.

It was a mistake, if it had been a real emergency I would have been in trouble. It was a difficult lesson. But thinking about it, a lot of the NTSB accident reports are probably the result of some seemingly innocuous decision or lapse in concentration or slight fixation on a problem. It happened to me on a clear (though hazy) day with no wind. Add in clouds and darkness and I can imagine the number of mistakes can start to increase rapidly if you’re not prepared to handle the situation. Although it is a scary thought, I think for me it is also the challenge of it all that drives me to be the best pilot I can be. To train and practice and study and plan (and follow checklists) to mitigate the risks of making the right mistakes at the wrong time.


Go do it

I am completely obsessed with flying. Hands-down, can’t stop thinking about it, praying for better weather and more money in my bank account, obsessed with flying.

I’m not even a licensed pilot yet. Yet. 35.6 hours and tantalizingly close to that checkride but I haven’t officially joined the club. That first landing and the first solo and the first cross country were intoxicating and addicting. But I’ve been obsessed for years longer than I’ve actually been flying.

Some of my earliest memories are of flying. My Dad was a mechanic in the airlines for years (New York Air/Continental/Comair/United Express) and I remember back when he could take me up to the flight deck and the pilots would let me sit in the captain’s chair as long as I didn’t touch anything. I just remember being enthralled by flying and anything to do with airplanes.

Then in the middle of his career, Dad found some entrepreneurial spirit, and opened an FBO at Dayton Wright-Brothers Airport (KMGY), called Pax Air. I was 7 or 8 at the time. It was a 10,000 square foot hangar and my parents, my sister, and I lived in a small apartment a few miles away. Suddenly, I found myself growing up on an airport, and I was in heaven. I browsed every Trade-a-Plane sitting in the lounge, built airplane models, memorized every airplane’s name, watched my Dad fixing their engines, and listened to the pilots talk about where they were headed or what they needed fixed. But most importantly, I found myself flying in many of the airplanes. My Dad had gotten his private ticket and I would go flying with him or with his customers and friends.

When it was just Dad and I he would let me think I was flying the airplane, though I could barely see over the instrument panel. Maybe he actually let me fly, despite not being able to reach the rudder pedals. I remember him teaching me that I needed to pull the yoke back a little in a turn so the airplane would hold altitude. I remember during takeoff he taught me what speed I could pull back on the yoke in order to lift off. Whether he actually let me perform the maneuvers myself I’m not sure. My memories are too saturated by the exhilaration I felt to be flying that I don’t remember if his hand was on the control. I know I couldn’t reach the pedals and I didn’t touch the throttle or mixture or anything else. But something must have sunk in.

Summer of 2012. Dad hasn’t been current in almost 15 years as he went back to the airlines. Only my little sister and her husband still live in Ohio. My parents live in Virginia. I’ve moved to New Jersey, become a biologist, and generally “grown up”. I realize that I had set a goal just out of high school, 10 years prior. The goal was that I would get my private pilot’s license by the time I was 30. God, how fast that decade went. In the summer of last year, I was 28 going on 29 in October, and it was time to fly again. I had looked at the flying school at Princeton Airport (39N) every so often since I moved to the area just out of college. But the price tag just seemed too high. “Later, after a few promotions,” I would think, unable to justify the $10,000 it would probably take. I realized that all that time I really could afford it, I just didn’t want to. I didn’t want to prioritize it. I decided it was time. I wasn’t going to over-analyze the decision, the commitment, and the cost, because it would never happen. I just had to go do it.


After that 1 hr intro lesson I was pretty sure my Dad actually let me fly the airplane 20 years ago. My CFI said I was a natural, and I felt like I just had a sense of how to fly the airplane–except for the rudder pedals. Something must have sunk in.