When I was a little kid, at least once every few weeks in the warm months my mom would fill a big wicker picnic basket full of sandwiches, drinks and some hidden sweets, pack it and me and an old blanket in the back of our long, white Chrysler station wagon, and drive out to a parking lot behind a factory that was a stone’s throw from O’Hare Airport outside of Chicago. As soon as the car would stop, we’d scramble to the roof of the car, spread the blanket, plop down the picnic basket, and throw ourselves longways on our backs, faces turned into what would always be a bright, clear blue sky. If our timing was right, the high-pitched scream of the engines would start rushing over us almost immediately, and soon after, the car would start shaking, and soon after that, this huge, silver, beautiful jet airplane would come screeching over the Chrysler, maybe, just maybe 300 fet over our heads, blotting out the entire sky, forcing our hands over our ears, and generating from both of us a long, drowned-out, happy scream of “Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!” When the plane would pass, we’d roll onto our elbows and watch the puffs of smoke shoot from the tires as they hit the runway, watch the plane roll slowly to a stop, turn and smile at one another, the roll once again on our backs to wait for the next rumbling to start.
Best. Days. Ever.
I’ve always loved planes. Still do. (I’m actually writing this on a plane.) The best news of my week this week was when I heard the new United (now merged with Continental, the primary airline I fly) would be upgrading all of it’s planes to include audio from the flight deck, giving dweebs like me even more opportunities to listen to the pilots and air traffic controllers safely navigate us to our destination, or reroute us around storms, or delay our takeoff, or all sorts of other good stuff that most people never listen to. There’s just something about being in the air that, 95% of the time, at least, fascinates me. I always get a window seat.
So last year, the stars kind of aligned, and I decided to learn how to fly at a small country airport fairly near where I live in New Jersey. It didn’t start well; my first three flights it was all I could do to keep from throwing up before we rolled to a stop on the tarmac after some “maneuvers” aloft. On the fourth trip, I made my flight instructor David just do a one hour “straight and level” out to the beach and back, and I finally got out of the plane pink instead of green.
About 25 hours of air time later, I actually flew that Cessna 172 by myself for the first time last Friday. I was surprised at how not nervous I was. It was a calm day, which helped, and David flew the “right” seat for three takeoffs and landings before hopping out of the plane, but I knew I was ready. Four times up, four times down, “greased” landings almost every time. And when I heard the tires squeal as they hit the ground on that first go ‘round, I couldn’t help think of those days back in Chicago with my mom. I let out a very loud, grown up “Wheeeeeeeeeee!!!” indeed, bridging two bookends on a lifelong passion. It was, in a word, awesome.
Throughout the process, which still has about 30 hours to go (at least) before I get my check ride for my official private pilot’s license, I’ve been thinking a lot about the learning process. A couple folks have Tweeted asking what I’m learning about learning, so I thought I’d take the time to reflect just a bit here. I keep running Sarason’s “And What Do You Mean By Learning?” filter through all of this, and it’s been pretty interesting to go meta and look at myself as a learner in a very concrete context again. So, some quick thoughts, more for me than anything, but hopefully worth the time if you chose to read it:
1. The intrinsic motivation I have for this makes all the difference, even with the not so fun stuff. As with just about everything, I’ve got to learn more than just making the plane do what I want it to. There’s a lot of math, physics, geography, statistics…all sorts of stuff that I never really liked in school (to put it mildly.) But I don’t mind it much at all because I know why I have to know it. All that stuff informs the act, makes me better at it, and, most importantly, that connection is real and relevant.
2. I needed a good teacher. I know I talk a lot about this brave new world where we can learn all sorts of stuff on our own without traditional teachers. This is not one of them. Although I have never once felt scared in the plane, David has made some life or death decisions for us, particularly when I’m fighting the controls trying to get the plane on the runway in a stiff crosswind. He’s patiently and carefully given me more and more of the responsibility, releasing the controls more and more, providing specific feedback and assessment. But now, as I read this back, I’m not sure if “teacher” is really the right word for what he’s done. He’s guided, modeled and supported more than anything. Very little has been of the “this is an altimeter and here’s what it does” variety. That stuff I could have learned on my own.
3. Learning is not linear. Another thing that I knew, but this process has reminded me of that over and over. Some days, I feel like I’m leaping forward. Other days, every input feels wrong. Pilots talk of “bad days” in all of the flying forums I lurk around in, and I know exactly what they mean. Here’s hoping I don’t take my check test on a “bad day.”
4. There is nothing like learning by doing. I’ve been on a simulator once, and it’s not even close to being up in the sky trying to pick out landmarks, seeing both New York City and Philadelphia in one visual sweep, and trying to land at a real life, grown-up plane airport where the runway looks like it goes on forever.
My favorite Sarason snip is the idea that productive learning is a process “which engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more.” I feel that way about a lot of things; parenting, learning in a networked world, and flying to name a few. And this whole process has reminded me how much I want my own kids to have that feeling as well.