Tuesday, April 16, 2013

'Go ahead. Land the plane.' -Tom Biang, Flight Instructor

April 14, 2013 
Written by Ashley Barnas
Anything Once

The engine shuts off, the aircraft shudders, an ominous beeping begins. We are seconds away from a nosedive in our Piper Warrior.

“It says, ‘Get ready, cause I’m not flying anymore!’ ” Tom Biang, my co-pilot, speaks for the airplane. “There it goes,” he adds as the plane immediately dips.

Terror freezes my face. My fingers transform into steel cages around the flight yoke.

Biang, an aviation instructor at Delaware State University, purposely stalled this plane to teach me how to get out of it. I’m a Wilson volleyball away from being pancaked into Kent County. At least Tom Hanks got an island.

The aircraft has to stay trim at all times. I can’t let it come down so I muscle aft pressure – force the yoke toward me. Calm and collected, Biang adds power, takes out a little bit of flap and completes the recovery.

“Relax your death grip,” he tells me.

“How did you know?” I stretch my fingers and laugh nervously.

“Our engine has stopped, we’re gliding and now we get to pick a field to land in,” he says, speaking as though we had a real emergency, and there was no engine we could bring back to life.

“Airplanes are inherently safe because the center of gravity is forward of what’s called the center of lift on the aircraft,” Biang says. The former American Airlines pilot is a total nerd about the science of flying, which isn’t a bad thing for an instructor.

“There’s a lot of technical information, there’s a lot of interesting information,” he says. “How it all plays together, to take a piece of tin and actually fly it – it’s just amazing how it works.”

Just a few days before, Biang condensed a year’s aviation curriculum into a two-hour classroom and simulator session for me. He drills into my head Newton’s third law: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

“Between the upwash, downwash, high pressure, low pressure, that airflow wants to go,” Biang motions upward with a whoosh, “and take off. Make sense? That’s how an airplane flies.”

DSU’s flight simulator – a setup of three large screens and full aircraft controls – gives students the same feeling they will get in a real aircraft. For my class, Biang has condensed the first four hours of a 35-hour flight curriculum. He didn’t include anything about ground training, and skipped meteorology, human factors, aircraft systems, aerodynamic principles, safety of flight, flight operations, airspace, aeronautical charts and navigation, “just to mention a few.”

Not long after my crash course – a phrase Biang doesn’t like for me to apply to my flying lesson – we prepare the Piper Warrior for a noon flight out of Delaware Airpark in Cheswold. This is where DSU’s 10 aircraft – many with their tails painted red to honor the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II fame – are housed. The program has 14 flight instructors and another nine classroom instructors. Some are both.

DSU’s four-year aviation program gives students the option to graduate with a bachelor’s of science with a concentration in aviation management or professional pilot. They earn a private pilot’s license followed by an instrument rating, commercial and instructor ratings, then multi-engine transfer.

On top of regular admission to the university, the total additional cost for flight training for the required certifications and ratings is about $49,500. Lab fees for flight training range from $3,255 to $9,586 for each of the seven certifications or ratings that DSU offers.

By the time students graduate, they are qualified to instruct. DSU hires its students so they can build their flight time, which helps them qualify for other jobs. Right now, three former students are working as instructors, even though they have jobs with regional airlines or as a corporate pilot. Two current students are also providing instruction.

To compare the costs, if you wanted lessons through a private instructor, it would cost you about $150 an hour to rent a plane and about $200 an hour for an instructor.

“You remember the normal takeoff, right?” Biang says, sitting to my right and speaking through headphones. I verbalize every step I’m about to take.

“I’ll be with ya,” he reassures me. “Brakes are released, you’ve got the toe brakes and you’ve got the rudders and I’ll follow you through a lot and we’ll just go!”

Takeoff is exhilarating and the hardest part becomes following the dotted line of the runway. Getting the hang of steering with my feet rather than the yoke – a plane’s version of a car’s steering wheel – is tricky and the yoke is useless on the ground. The yoke controls the ailerons, which are flaps on the wings that cause the longitudinal rolling motion of the aircraft.

“Pick something straight ahead,” Biang tells me. I decide on a grassy opening. “See how your nose is coming up too far? Push it down.”

I push the yoke away from me, we level off at 3,000 feet and maintain the distance between the horizon and the cowl – the nose of the plane. After practicing turns – a little unnerving to be at such a steep angle in this size plane, but nothing compared to the stall recovery practice – we climb to 4,000 feet.

After about an hour, we approach the airfield at 1,000 feet and Biang instructs me to fly parallel to the runway. He reduces the throttle and works the flaps for me as we form a box around the airfield, cutting at an angle to approach the runway at 65 knots, or about 75 mph.

Biang demonstrates a landing – one of the most perfect landings I’ve ever experienced, especially in a plane this size – and takes off immediately after. Now it’s my turn.

I re-form the box, approach the runway and manage to land far better than my simulator landing in the grass two weeks prior. Surely Biang had some magic over the controls to help me, though he insists it was mostly me.

“You done good,” he tells me. We taxi back to the aircraft parking lot.

“Don’t let anybody fool you,” he tells me as he unhooks his seat belt and flips the metal cover on the flight log. “When it comes to aviation, it is hours and hours and hours of preparation for minutes and minutes and minutes of getting ready for seconds of pleasure.”

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