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Reporter takes flight for lesson

September 24, 2005|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

I'd be fibbing if I said I wasn't scared.

Like many people, I've flown in a commercial jet, where you get peanuts and drinks, and it's easy to forget you're in the air.

But actually being behind the controls in a small, four-seat Cessna is a whole different game.

I met Eagle Air chief flight instructor Jennifer Brandau on Friday at Rider Jet Center at Hagerstown Regional Airport for a free introductory flight lesson through the BE A PILOT program.

BE A PILOT is a national, nonprofit program that provides hands-on flights with a Federal Aviation Administration-licensed instructor for $49.

After a tour of the center, Brandau showed me a few planes used for training before pointing out the 2003 Cessna 172 Skyhawk that we would be flying in.

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I've seen those type of planes before, so its small size didn't strike me as odd. But once Brandau opened the doors, I was overwhelmed. Gadgets, gauges and radios covered the dashboard, and I didn't understand any of it.

After a quick rundown of what the controls did, I followed Brandau around the plane for a pre-flight inspection, which pretty much consisted of making sure the fuel was clean and checking the aircraft for damage.

I was a little jittery during the inspection because it gave me time to think about what I was about to do. I wondered why, when the BE A PILOT offer came to the newsroom and an editor asked if I wanted to fly a plane, I jumped at the chance. I had no previous pilot experience.

But those thoughts quickly faded because it was time to take to the air.

"Are you ready to go flying?" Brandau asked.

I told her I was.

We hopped in the plane and strapped ourselves in. I sat on what would be known in a car as the driver's side. Brandau asked me to flick a few switches and turn the plane on. Simple enough, I thought.

That changed when it was time to taxi the runway.

While the plane is on the ground, you steer with your feet. A left pedal turns the plane left and a right pedal turns it right, Brandau explained. A steady balance on both keep it straight. For an amateur, it's harder than it sounds. I could barely keep the plane straight. We veered to the left and then to the right, and I was thankful when Brandau stepped on the pedals and helped me out.

Shortly afterward, it was time to get ready for takeoff.

We rolled down the runway and as the plane picked up speed, Brandau asked me to pull back on the yoke. I did, and before I had time to think, we were in the air. It took a few seconds before I realized we had left the ground and Washington County was shrinking below us.

We flew over Interstate 81 and Maugansville and approached Conococheague Creek. Dried-out brown lawns, fields and farms were all around, and it was strikingly apparent from 3,500 feet above that the area could use a couple of good, soaking rains.

Brandau then asked me to fly the plane. She instructed me to steer the yoke with my left hand and gave me tips on how to keep the plane straight.

I was scared to death, but I silently said a few quick prayers while I gave it a shot.

I managed to keep the plane straight most of the time and was able to turn it toward Chambersburg, Pa. From there, we flew over Hagerstown, where we could see Hagerstown Fairgrounds, Dual Highway, Venice Inn and a few other landmarks.

After about 20 to 30 minutes in the air, it was time to return to the airport.

Brandau took over the controls and, within minutes, we touched down on the runway. It was a smooth landing.

Brandau said she could tell I was a little nervous, but that things went well. I don't think that being a pilot is for me, but there's a certain beauty about being in the air and seeing the landscape below.

"It's a lot of fun," Brandau said. "Everyone can go up the first time and fly the airplane. It's not a difficult thing to do."

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