My Journey Through Flight School

– Sarah Stahlke, Commercial Student, Cooking Lake Aviation

I grew up around airplanes and airports and spent many hours of my youth in small Cessnas, flying around the north with my bush pilot dad. I had toyed with the idea of becoming a pilot myself, but I thought it was more of a crazy dream or something other people did, rather than something I could really do. Eventually my dad retired and sold his own plane and I thought aviation was a thing of my past.

But one sunny June day in 2016, I found myself out at Cooking Lake Airport for a ride in a friend’s new plane. As it happened, we climbed into that little plane on the apron in front of the Cooking Lake Aviation (CLA) hangar. After the flight, I ended up having a chat about flying lessons with the CLA dispatcher. Suddenly, the idea of learning to fly seemed realistic and possible and I got excited about taking it on. What made it seem especially doable was the option of completing a recreational pilot permit, which is what I initially set out to do. I still think it’s a great choice for flight training, although I ended up deciding to train for the private pilot license.

I started ground school at CLA in September and did my first lesson in the air a few days later, with my new instructor, Jason. In that first lesson, Jason did everything, but I had to fly the plane straight and level for a few minutes. It was an out of body experience! My dad had made it look so easy, but I was concentrating with all my might! I knew then that I had embarked on something that was going to be challenging, thrilling, and life-changing.

I flew once or twice a week in the fall and I was amazed at how quickly things started to come together. Within a couple weeks, I did my first take-off. As I lined up on the runway, I repeated “right rudder, right rudder” to myself so I was prepared to perform it correctly by managing the forces that act on the plane when you give it full throttle. Unfortunately, I gave it a lot of right brake instead, resulting in a surprising donut on the end of the runway, instead of a nice take-off roll. Sometimes you learn the hard way but I got it right the second time.

Flight School

My comfort level increased quickly and, before too long, I was flying the plane for most of each lesson. By November, the word “solo” was mentioned. I wrote the short pre-solo test of air regulations and the radio license exam and we did a lot of circuits (take-offs, approach, landing) to prepare me to fly on my own. One day in mid-December, my first solo happened before I could think too hard about it. Jason and I did a couple of circuits to warm up. Then he jumped out and off I went. One circuit. I wasn’t nervous at all while I was up there but afterward, when we were filling out the logbooks, I was shaking so hard I could hardly write.

First Solo

The first solo seems like a culmination but it’s really the beginning of everything else you have to do. I had to do 12 hours of solo time as part of the requirements for a private pilot license. I wasn’t afraid of anything – spins, spiral dives, simulated engine failure – when I was with my instructor. But I was often nervous about flying solo. One gorgeous March day, I did a solo flight that had been delayed by weather for about six weeks, giving me ample time to agonize about it. I had to go to the practice area to work on stalls, steep turns, and slow flight on my own. As soon as I took off, though, the fear I had felt for weeks dissipated. I made frequent position reports on the radio so I’d sound oh so very cool, which helped me convince myself that I was doing great. It turned out to be awesome and the exercises went just fine. I came to trust myself more as I showed myself what I could do.

Meanwhile, I had finished ground school in December and was preparing for the Transport Canada private pilot written exam, which tests knowledge of air law, meteorology, aeronautics, and navigation, topics we covered in depth in ground school. There is a lot to know so I studied diligently and wrote the exam in March. It’s a 100 question, multiple-choice, 3-hour, computer-based exam. When I finished it, I went to get Ben, the chief flight instructor, so he could score it. I had no sense of how I had done, which made me certain I had failed it, but I did well and was thrilled to have it done; it’s a big milestone in the process.

In addition to building solo time, I continued to work with Jason through the winter and spring on the required skills, such as flying by instruments, stalls, steep turns, emergency landings, specialty take-offs and landings, and diversions. As my training progressed, I also did my cross-country time. Jason and I did two trips together, one 105 nautical miles and one 250 nautical miles over more complicated airspace, which I then did on my own, in reverse. For the first one, the weather looked dramatic but turned out to be a lot less of an issue than I expected. In fact, the bigger deal on that flight was trying to decide what to do about a massive flock of migratory birds directly in my path. The weather for my longer solo cross-country was beautiful and the trip went without a hitch. I handled the navigation, landings, turbulence, and air traffic control without concern. It was relaxing and enjoyable and I felt like a real pilot!

Flight School Long Cross Country

Landing is the hardest thing to learn and, amid my successes, I struggled with getting the plane back down to earth. Even near the end of my training, I thought I’d never, ever, in my lifetime, be able to land consistently well. I think I did about 100 circuits to try to nail it down. Jason was exceedingly patient. Exceedingly. Ex.ceed.ing.ly. To try to figure out where I was stuck and to try to hear things differently, I flew with a couple of the other instructors, who also very patiently tried to embed this skill into my pilot psyche. I came to the realization that I had been trying to force it down in my urgency to be on the ground, when what I had to do was patiently wait for the plane to settle and be ready to touch down. Once I learned that, it worked.

With the landings figured out, my flight test was set for July 5. Everything I knew had to come together on that day. Stressful! But, the examiner was fair and the process methodical, so I showed him what I could do, one step at a time. It seemed like an eternity waiting for my result as we landed, taxied, and shut down. When he finally shook my hand and congratulated me, I let out a huge, loud sigh of relief! What a moment! I was a pilot!

A few days later, it was an honour and a thrill to take my dad, who had made aviation such a huge part of my life, as my first passenger. Flying is so much more incredible than I ever imagined. I want to do more with it.

I’m now just about to reach 100 hours of total time. This fall, I decided to start working toward my commercial license, again at Cooking Lake Aviation, which has been the perfect place to train and fly; it feels like home. I just finished ground school, where I learned an incredible amount and met some wonderful people.

Private Pilot

I’ve been able to fly with some of my new pilot friends. I’ve discovered the beauty of the prairies all over again. Every flight teaches something new. We confess our “duh” moments but also learn a lot from observing each other. And we have fun as we explore Alberta together. I’ve also been able to take friends and family for airplane rides, which is pretty cool, and even enjoy a few quiet moments alone in the plane. I tell everyone: This is amazing! Do it! You will never see things in the same way again once you can fly a plane.

– Sarah Stahlke, Commercial Student, Cooking Lake Aviation

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