Unfinished business

More than 30 years ago I was a pilot. I held a private pilot license and flew gliders, with most of my 125+ flights in the Schweizer 2-33, Schleicher Ka-8, Blanik L-13, and Grob G103. Because of type one diabetes, I wasn’t able to get a medical certificate needed for power flight, so my seat time in planes with engines was limited to flying with friends in a variety of 1940s-era taildraggers.

The FAA will now grant exemptions for private pilots with T1D* and this sparked my interest in going back to flight school. After research into medical waivers and local flight schools I booked a discovery flight with Elon Aviation at Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport (KBUY). My goal for the flight was to get reacquainted with flying and see if it’s something I want to pursue.

First, props to Elon Aviation for a great experience. I booked my flight in a Cessna 172 that was well-equipped and maintained, and that had seen some serious cross country flights. My instructor, Nick, quizzed me about what I wanted out of the flight, walked me through the preflight checklist, and then laid out the plan: I’d taxi, he’d take off, and once we reached 500 feet I’d take the controls.

Cessna 172, 738 Bravo Golf

Taxiing to runway 6 reminded me of how much I don’t know. Coordinating throttle, rudder and brakes turned out to be the most challenging part of the flight, though it was easier on the return trip to the hanger.

Waiting to turn onto runway 6

Nick quickly had us airborne and after we passed 500 feet I took the controls. One memory from 30+ years ago came back: The workload involved with flying a plane. At first I focused on getting the feel of the controls as we climbed and making coordinated turns. After we gained altitude I turned toward Greensboro, dodged clouds, practiced climbing and descending, turning to headings, and managing the throttle. And I kept reminding myself to keep my eyes outside the cockpit and watch for traffic.

Then time was up and Nick said, “You fly the pattern.” A lot of credit goes to Nick for talking me through my approach, but the experience of juggling throttle, carb heat, flaps, yoke and rudder while maintaining our glide slope (not perfect, but close enough) and staying on the runway centerline was a confidence booster. Nope, I didn’t get to fly the landing; I passed controls back to Nick short of the runway.

So what’s next? I have some unfinished business with flying, and the next step is a medical waiver. It’s not a simple process, so it might be a while before I know whether I can get back into the cockpit and continue training.

*There’s an alternative to the private pilot license for people with T1D–the light sport certificate, which requires a drivers license but not a medical exam. I’m not enthusiastic about the light sport rule, because it includes a long list of limitations about what, where and when you can fly, as well as a prohibition on passengers.