"OK, you take the controls."
With those five words, my instructor let go of the inverted-C shaped handles and I was flying the plane. At nearly 3,000 feet over a patchwork of Loudoun County homes, the small, single engine Cirrus SR-20 felt like it could fly itself.
Flying is a lot like driving, I found — it seems like it should be very difficult and complicated, what with all those buttons, levers, meters and being so far above the ground, but it's actually somewhat simple.
Keep the horizon level. Make sure the throttle isn't pushed in too far, giving the plane extra speed, or pulled too far out, slowing it down. To turn right, slowly ease the handles to the right. If the plane starts to drift up, pull the handle back. To climb, push the handles forward, inching the nose of the plane into the sky.
Almost three weeks ago, I had the great luck of taking an introductory flight lesson with Jeremy Carter, a certified flight instructor with the AV-ED Flight School at the Leesburg Airport. He began by walking my photographer, Lea Mae Rice, and myself around the plane, explaining the wings, rudders, ties and landing gear.
Taking a tube-like container, he pushed a small metal straw into several holes on each wing, testing the blue-colored gasoline for dirt or water condensation. Either could potentially cause problems in the engine, he explained, before examining the liquid in the chamber. All clear.
Climbing into the plane's leather seats, Carter adjusted the radio signals and read the control tower its identification numbers, N5294W, to get clearance for our flight. All flights have to be cleared through the tower at Dulles International Airport for security purposes, Carter said, to make sure all planes in the greater Washington area are supposed to be there.
Engines on, passengers strapped in, Carter took the plane to the end of the runway, making sure I could reach the pedals and brakes comfortably. Each pedal controlled a rudder, which could be used for turning the plane before take-off or landing.
HEADSETS IN PLACE, he radioed the tower, preparing them for our take-off from Runway 35. Once he received the OK, he pushed the throttle in, steered the plane down the runway, turned on the auto-pilot and lifted the small white plane off solid ground.
Once in the air, he told me that we could only fly at an altitude of about 2,400 feet within a certain distance of Dulles Airport, again, for security cautions. A digital map, similar to a Global Positioning System, beeped and blipped to my left, a tiny plane pinpointing our location with concentric circles outlining the area between Dulles and Frederick, Maryland.
Carter had said, before take-off, that once we reached the outer edge of the inner-most circle, he was going to give the controls of the plane to me. It would be easy, he said, just keep everything level.
He was right. A small nudge of the handles to the left and we were heading toward open farm land, still untouched by the rows of townhomes scattered across Loudoun. A portion of the Blue Ridge mountains filled the horizon, keeping them level would keep the plane stable and flying smoothly.
Under his supervision, I pushed the nose of the plane higher, reaching about 3,000 feet quickly and easily. The plane floated along, almost flying itself, as we made a lazy, lop-sided loop in the air for about 25 minutes before landing.
Most of the flight was uneventful, slow turns here and there. After all, this was just my first lesson. My focus was mostly dedicated to the round gadget just above the controls, where a small white cut-out of a plane registered how level we were flying. Watching the orange and blue disc behind it tilt left and right indicated a slope in the wings and it was a little tricky keeping it steady.
The highlight, other than the constant giggling when I realized I was actually flying this thing, was on the descent, when Carter let me use the throttle to increase the plane's speed to make the landing smoother. Not every student gets trusted with the throttle on the first go-round, he said. I think I'm still smiling from that one.
ON AVERAGE, it takes about 10 hours for a student to become comfortable behind the steering mechanisms for a plane, Carter said after landing. Some people catch on faster, others never quite get comfortable.
A pilot for six years, Carter said his students range in age from 21 to 73. Anyone over the age of 14 can fly, but the minimum age to fly alone is 16 and no one can fly with passengers before the age of 17. A 40-hour minimum of flight time is required to receive a private pilot's license, with an additional time needed to become a passenger or commercial pilot. Each flying lesson lasts about two-and-a-half hours, from pre-flight inspection of the plane to a review of the lesson on the ground. Between 30 minutes and one hour are spent in the air, he said.
Individual lessons range in price from $50 to $85, depending on the type of plane used. The most popular type of planes in flight schools are Cessna 172, similar to the one used in this lesson. The planes are fully inspected before each flight, but are taking in for a more extensive check-up after every 100 hours of use.
Flight schools are located across Northern Virginia, including the Culpeper Regional Airport, Cassavation in Front Royal, Aviation Adventures in Manassas and Leesburg, in addition to Av-Ed Flight School. Most schools will offer reduced cost introductory flights for people interested in becoming a pilot.
There should be a warning label on the planes, however: that little taste of freedom, so far above everything, is so relaxing it almost makes a person want to stay up there, without all the traffic on the highways below. There aren't any traffic jams at 3,000 feet.