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HomeNewsroomBAS in the News2009Business Journal Reporter Takes Flight

Business Journal Reporter Takes Flight

As Jeff Geer was talking about his new company, Bellingham Aviation Services, the topic moved on to the company's flight school and Geer casually mentioned how easy it was for first-time pilots to get a plane safely up in the air and back down to the ground.

I must have looked a little skeptical, because he then said if the weather is okay after this interview was over, I could give it a try with him, his chief flight instructor, Jim Hammonds, and their Cessna 172-s. I looked out the window. It had been raining, but was now clearing up. What Geer didn�t know, but probably could have guessed, was that my total flying experience to this point in my life had been limited to coach seating.

It was an exciting proposition, however. Even as an adult, I can't resist the urge to take a peek in the cockpit when I first enter a commercial airline. It is usually only a long look, however, before I make my way to the back of the plane, soon to be placated with peanuts and a ginger ale.

I gave a nervous "sure, sounds like fun" kind of answer and continued with the interview. As the interview ended, Geer started putting on his flight jacket. Now it hit me that I was actually going to get a chance to do this. My hands started getting sweaty, but otherwise I was ready to go.

Hammonds sat me down and started giving me the pre-flight routine. We filed the flight plan and went outside to inspect the plane, which takes quite a bit of time, especially when you compare it to the pre-drive exercise before starting an automobile. Which is rightly so because, as Hammond pointed out, when you have car trouble you just pull over to the side of the road. When a plane gets into trouble, well, you're dealing with that whole gravity/crashing-into-the-earth thing.

When the preflight check was complete, Geer hopped into the back seat while Hammonds and I climbed into the front.

Hammonds then gave an explanation of the more important switches and buttons on the panel, and talked about what to do in case of emergency. If you need to get out of the plane in a hurry, he said, try the door first. If that doesn't work, kick out one of the windows, even the one in the back.

I glance back and see the back window, which doesn't look more than a few inches across. I wondered out loud how any of us can get through that, and Geer laughed and said: "If we're in that situation, just follow me because I'll figure out a way."

Our preflight planning complete, we start the engine and Hammonds begins talking to the tower. We're given permission to taxi out onto the runway. Steering a plane on the ground takes a little getting used to because you are using your feet, but with some assistance from Hammonds (who has the same controls I do, to easily fix any mistakes I start making), we're heading out to the runway.

As we awaited our turn for take-off, I'm wondering how much control I'll have, because lifting something like a plane into the air looks challenging. That is quickly answered when Hammonds told me to give it some gas by pulling back on the throttle and to start lifting the nose up as we�re zipping down the runway.

We're taking off from east to west, so once we get up in the air, the first thing I'm seeing below me is the water and the San Juan Islands off in the distance. I quickly learned my first flight would involve lots of little corrections to keep the plane steady. The front of the plane kept wanted to float upward, so my main job was making the right adjustments so we could see the horizon. When it was time to turn the plane, it involved further corrections as we were turning.

Hammonds directed me to hang a right and to start flying toward Ferndale. As we flew over the town, Geer is pointing out to Hammonds where his house is below, and the two are carrying on a conversation. That's when it dawned on me that I was actually flying the plane on my own! I mentioned that to Hammonds when we were back on the ground, and he assured me that I was flying the plane, but he was ready to take over if something starting going wrong.

We did a circle around Ferndale and started heading back to the airport. I figured my flying experience was done because there was no way they would let some novice land the plane. As Hammonds started giving me instructions for landing the plane, however, I got another surge of adrenaline and began concentrating on his instructions.

Landing the plane was more complicated than any other part of the flight, but again it was all about making little corrections as you are bringing the plane down. The nose of the plane was getting a little high, so I had to nudge it downward. We were coming in a little to the right of the runway, so we had to correct that. As we approached the runway, I could feel my arms start to tense. I was waiting for that feeling when the wheels hit the pavement, my own little hint that we were safely back on the planet. After what seemed like forever but was probably only a few seconds, we touched down on the runway and the tower began directing us to keep moving, because other planes were waiting to land.

As we got out of the plane and started tying it down, Geer assured me it was one of those experiences that you'll never forget. I had to agree. He added that the next great experience for pilots that they never forget is the first time they fly solo, but I'll have to take his word for that. While Geer and Hammonds taught me that complete novices can fly a plane with some help, the experience only increased my awe of what private and commercial pilots do every day.