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Almost solo

COVID-19 sidelines a budding pilot

By Harry Buerkle

I stand close to the chain-linked fence at the public observation area northeast of Van Nuys Airport. On its famed Runway 16 Right, a Gulfstream is on a two-mile final and at the same time on the shorter Runway 16 Left a Cessna is repeating closed patterns.

Illustration by Rupert Gruber
Illustration by Rupert Gruber

I soon realize it must be a student, as I watch him/her float, then hurriedly over-correct with the swift application of power. I listen to the tower frequency and hear the familiar ATC voice with standard instructions:

“Cleared to land One-Six Right, wind one four zero at eight.” It’s almost as if nothing is out of the ordinary—just one of thousands of U.S. GA airports going about its business. But it is August 1, and I haven’t flown myself since March.

In March 2020, I was a pre-solo student at Corsair Aviation, a small flight school at Van Nuys’ Prop Park on the west side of the airport. I’m 37 and probably a late bloomer to flying, but the love for aviation has been with me since childhood. When I was growing up in the mountains in western Austria, my dad would often drop whatever he was doing to spot and listen to rescue helicopters, pointing out their cardinal direction and speculate where they took off from. It became a family tradition to find and point out things that flew. Airplanes, helicopters, balloons—if it flew, we’d find it. I remember one day when a large German helicopter landed in the field in front of my house. The crew were on their way back home from installing high voltage wires up a mountain slope. They let me sit in the pilot’s seat while my dad proudly told them he saw them flying south a week earlier. Many years later my brother became a doctor and is now flying as a medic in a helicopter, often crossing over our house where Dad would wait with binoculars in hand.

Aviation connects me with family. It brings on a sense of calmness and comfort. Now living in Los Angeles it’s impossible to point out all the helicopters and airplanes, but I try to keep the tradition alive, often to the frustration of my friends.

When I finally decided to learn to fly and went on a discovery flight in a Cessna 172 in early 2019 I vowed to give myself time to study everything related to aviation on a deeply fundamental level so that I would not only be a proficient pilot but also comfortable to bring along my family. Many students at my school came and went, some getting their certificates as quickly as three months. This was never an option for me because of my full-time job and family commitments. My wife wasn’t a fan when I first started flying. “Text me when you’ve landed,” she’d always say. Once during a flight my phone battery died and I was unable to send her the note, which caused some trouble for me and the immediate purchase of a portable charger.

There is something soothing about the GA airport environment...at a GA airport the love and beauty of flying prevails.Everything was overwhelming when I first started. Several of my preconceived thoughts about flying a small airplane were shattered. What? You can’t just rattle down the runway full throttle, but also have to apply right rudder to fight the left turning tendency while calling out airspeeds? Crosswind correction anyone? There was a feeling of inadequacy in at least one part on every one of those early flights. One day I was great with the radio, sounding precise, smooth, and crisp (maybe just in my head?), but then I would land like a sack of potatoes; the next flight I couldn’t for the life of me get the words out properly, but nailed three closed patterns with fairytale landings. It felt like I’d never get to the point where everything would work together in unison.

Often, I had terrible flights because the pressures of work and life in a city like Los Angeles would seep into my aviation studies. Upon landing, Edgar, my instructor, would ask me, “Had a rough week, huh?” It was frustrating. I wanted to dedicate more time to flying but couldn’t because I couldn’t make it to the airport in time after work before darkness set in. Nonetheless I continued, encouraged by my instructor, my family, and several YouTube aviators. Edgar said that I was “doing really well.” Something I didn’t feel at the time, although I tried not to be too hard on myself. I told myself there wasn’t any pressure since this was my hobby and not my job. Still, seeing newer students solo so fast and getting their picture taken with their certificate next to “my” airplane would bother me sometimes.

Then one day in January I fueled up, preflighted, and took off with a fair amount of crosswind and no assistance from Edgar. I climbed straight out while keeping an eye on my crosswind corrections, turned crosswind and right downwind, and headed to our usual practice area over Six Flags Magic Mountain in Santa Clarita. I performed the whole menu of maneuvers from power on/off to turns around a point, then got the latest ATIS, and returned to Van Nuys. I stuck the landing and as I was clear of 16 Right, Edgar turned to me and said, “That was it. That was your flight.” It didn’t occur to me right away what he meant by that, but as I was driving home, I felt like a pilot for the first time. He said a few more flights and I would solo. I was where I had felt for so long that I would never be. All that was needed was a bit of finetuning in certain sections of the flight. The fundamentals now worked, and the studies and lessons had paid off. I had finally gained control over the whole process of flying a small airplane.

Then COVID arrived, and I haven’t been in the cockpit since. At first, I tried to dive into theory, but with my knowledge test already passed in November 2019, and no end to the pandemic in sight, I got lazy and didn’t open my books for a while. I wanted to fly, not just learn theory.

How would I be able to stay proficient as an almost-solo student?

Since I couldn’t be in an airplane safely during this pandemic (cases in Los Angeles County kept skyrocketing, and my wife was pregnant, so I didn’t want to risk it), I at least wanted to be in the environment, so I spent time at the public observation area. I happily discovered that it was not just me. Airplane lovers, photographers with giant lenses, and parents with their aviation-enthused kids are also frequent visitors. There is something soothing about the GA airport environment. Unlike bigger airports where the pressures and general annoyance of travel seems apparent, at a GA airport the love and beauty of flying prevails. I enjoy the comfort of the repetitive nature of the operation, the humming of all kinds of different engines in climbs and descents, the ATC instructions, and the expectant execution of their orders.

Then there are the few quiet, intermittent moments in between landings and takeoffs where I just listen to the wind and wonder if it’s changed direction or increased in strength with the new METAR. Who doesn’t crave this kind of ordinary poetry during these times?

There is a song by German musician Reinhard Mey where one line of the lyrics goes, “Above the clouds, where freedom must be endless, all the fears, all the troubles stay below them and all the problems that appear enormous shrink down to nothing.” I always found those lyrics calming, even more so today. When I do get to climb back into a cockpit in the future, I know that this time spent watching and listening to ATC and pilots will pay off. Hopefully, I can continue where I left off so my family can point me out in the sky one day.

Harry Buerkle is a student pilot in Van Nuys, California. He restarted flying in April 2021.

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