by Jacob Barriga
photography by Ethan Bermudez
I was excited on the day before take off. It was like the night before opening day in Little League. I was ready to fly a plane. As the day approached, I was asked by friends whether I was nervous to fly and by others who were in disbelief that I was about to fly with absolutely no experience. I wasn’t nervous, and my upcoming demo flight, in my expectation, was a carefully monitored lesson that would allow me to get a feel for what it takes to be a pilot.
I got up early Wednesday morning. It was slightly overcast and hazy outside. I readied myself for the day as I got my mind prepared to tackle this major task in front of me. I didn’t know what to entirely expect, but I was ready for whatever this flight lesson would bring. Who knows? There might be a pilot in me.
My photographer Ethan Bermudez and I sat in the lobby waiting for our instructor to arrive. He, just like me, was ready to go and excited for this new experience. Ethan held two cameras and a big bag of camera accessories. Our certified flight instructor Ali Hosseinpour walked into the lobby and told us he was skeptical of our original plan to fly to downtown Los Angeles and circle over the famous Hollywood sign. Because of the foggy weather, Ali decided to fly in a patterned loop over the Pomona and La Verne area, making left turns over Puddingstone Lake, the San Bernardino Freeway and the Fairgrounds before landing at Brackett Field. He said we would come to a full stop, then taxi and do it again several times. The pre-flight check took about 40 minutes as Ethan and I both watched. Fuel was checked for volume and water. Gauges were checked for accuracy. Tires were inspected. Oil was measured. Control surfaces were inspected for integrity. The plexiglass windshield was cleaned. I knew it had to be done, but it took time. Imagine if we checked our cars this way before every trip? The four-seat, high wing Cessna single engine plane looked used and worn from years and miles in the air. Such is the lot at flight training schools. These planes are used hard.
After patiently watching and waiting, it was finally time. Ethan squeezed his way into the back seat with his cameras as I was crunched against the pedals to the point where my knees almost touched my chest, but it didn’t matter. I was ready to fly.
As we first took off, I felt the thrill that comes when the ball is coming my way, and I have one man to beat for a touchdown. It was exhilarating, and it took my breath away. I have flown commercially before but not in a small plane nor have I sat so close to the front.
We rotated off runway 270 at 60 miles per hour and climbed steadily at 75 miles per hour. I could feel the lift in my gut as we climbed past Ben Hines Field and into San Dimas, turning left toward the 10 freeway with Puddingstone Lake below us. I could see the Pomona Valley. And as we turned left again to parallel the 10 freeway, I could see the top of Mount Baldy, almost eye-to-eye as if the mountain stands guard over the city of La Verne, protecting it. Another left turn brought a wave of houses and commercial buildings into my face. I found my house on Bonita Avenue and couldn’t miss the Athletic Pavilion Tents of the University of La Verne, which stood out as if they were part of a model set of the city.
The lesson itself was no joke. Ali was strictly business. This was no time to interview him or make small talk. He was multitasking. Ali was teaching us the rules and etiquette of flight and navigation while also making sure we were safe, and that our experience was a pleasant one in the small aircraft. We were all wearing headsets. We were told to watch for other aircraft. I was told to keep on eye on the oil gauge. But then when I stared at it too long, Ali sternly told me to keep my eyes looking outside the plane. Such is the norm for VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flying. You glance at the instruments and spend much time looking left, right, above, below.
We turned to final approach. Flaps were deployed; we slowed to 70 mph, and as we landed at Brackett Airport, I couldn’t help but look at the wheels as they touched down. For no particular reason, I was curious to see how the wheels held up with the speed and the weight of the plane. We came to a full stop. Then taxied off the runway. Ali changed radio frequencies, and we received tower permission to taxi to runway 27 left. Then we changed frequencies again, asked for takeoff permission, received the tower go ahead, and we did it again.
Around the third time of pattern flying, I started to feel it in my stomach. The flight school receptionist warned me about air sickness, and I started to feel a queasy feeling, but I got over it quickly. For me, it was all mind over matter. I like to think I have strong will power. The haze was still heavy, clouding our vision and making it tough for Ethan to get ground aerial photos. He was in the backseat shooting away. He was so engaged in the photo assignment that he said he was unfazed. The fog and haze helped me understand why we couldn’t make the flight to the Hollywood Sign. We could see the University of La Verne under our right wing, but this was not a chamber of commerce photo day. We were fine with it though because I liked being able to take off multiple times. And then on our last go around, Ali let me pull the plane into the sky and fly it.
We were at the start of runway 27 left, cleared for takeoff, when he pushed the throttle in. The plane accelerated, and Ali didn’t give me much instruction. I was trying to find a gauge to read our speed, but then he told me to lift off the runway—in a slightly assertive tone. I just immediately pulled back on the yoke and lifted us into the air. It was stiff; I needed more force than I had anticipated, but I did not flinch. As I got us into the air, Ali told me to be gentle and ease us into our cruising altitude. I learned that most flight control maneuvers are done with finesse and in a subtle, yet firm manner. I then flew us around the left turn pattern, above Pomona then above La Verne, slightly turning the plane left each time. It was like your parents letting you steer the car in their lap when you were a little child. I knew I wasn’t doing much, but I flew the plane. It was my first flight lesson. I was a pilot.
Then Ali took over and brought us back down to earth and taxied the plane back to our spot by the flight school. Landings are for experts. My first trip as co-pilot was over, but my curiosity had been sparked, and the thought of becoming a pilot still intrigues me.
There are multiple ways to learn to fly
Most people go to a flight school. The minimum time, mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, is 40 hours. Be advised that hardly anyone receives a license at 40 hours ($6,950). Plane rental is at minimum $140 an hour (gasoline included). Many people take 80 hours or more before they are signed off to solo. You do the math. And then there is ground school, with an FAA test to pass—much like an automobile DMV written test. There are solo flights to log plus a couple long-distance flights to plan and carry out. Finally, when your flight instructor says you are ready, you fly with a flight examiner, who has ultimate decision-making power to decide whether you earn your wings. Along the way, you also have to pass a flight physical—not with your friendly doctor but an FAA approved physician. Every two years, the physical needs to be renewed. Commercial flight schools can be found at nearby Brackett Airport and at Cable Airport in Upland.
There is a way to cut costs through completing your training through classes and flight training at Mt. San Antonio College, which offers a comprehensive avionics program. The white and maroon planes, clearly marked “Mt. Sac ‘’ on their tails, are based on the north side of Brackett Airport, within sight of ULV’s Ben Hines Baseball Field. In its fleet, Mt. Sac has two, four-seat Cessna 172s; three, two-seat Cessna 150/152s; one four-seat Piper Arrow; and one, two-seat American Champion Citabria. It is a comprehensive flight academy. The Mt. Sac program offers private pilot, instrument pilot, commercial pilot, certified flight instructor and instrument flight instructor ratings. The Mt. Sac Aeronautics Program is one of only two in California, and it is the only one in Southern California. Robert Rogus, co-chair of the Aeronautics Program at Mt. San Antonio College, is excited for the students in his program, which had more than 500 students enrolled last semester. “This is the time to get into the flying market. The FAA said that half the commercial pilots will retire in the next couple of years,” Rogus says.
In fact, the FAA has published statements that express concern for the loss of veteran pilots. This is the time to become a pilot, and Mt. SAC makes it accessible. With community college enrollment being essentially free due to available scholarships and federal tuition support, Mt. SAC offers flexibility that allows students to fly at Brackett Airport. The program successfully graduated 115 students last year compared to the five to 20 students in other programs, says Rogus. He notes that if you are motivated to become a pilot or aviation mechanic, Mt. Sac has an excellent program to help you achieve your goal. Commercial pilot pay starts at about $34 per hour for the first year. Do you want to be a mechanic? Expect $43-$47 per hour for a starting aviation mechanic position. With many jobs available now and in the immediate future, the aviation industry is enticing for a young person. “That is the great thing about community colleges, Rogus says. We are looking to provide jobs to people who are looking for sustainable careers right now.”
For more information about joining the Mt. San Antonio Flight Training program, go to mtsac.edu/aeronautics/learn.html. ■