Full Flaps: Taking off on something new

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This post is the first in a new series following my adventures as i learn to fly planes. Read the rest of the series via the FullFlaps tag

So…. I can’t walk very well… and I’m not able to drive a car safely… so instead I’ve been learning to fly

I know. It’s kinda silly…but it’s also sorta brilliant. It working really really well…

In this new series i’m going to document my adventures as I train to be a pilot…. I’m writing about my experiences at the intersection of autism, aviation and neurodiversity… so the name Full Flaps seemed to fit well.

In this first post I’m going to cover some background on why I’m learning to fly and a quick summary of what I’ve done so far.

Why learn to fly?

Back as a kid, it seemed everyone knew how to drive a car…. So assumed everyone also knew how to fly a plane, pilot a spacecraft or drive a train…

Turns out that’s not the case. I found out on a play date when I was 11… a friend carefully explained that only ‘Pilots’ could fly the Lego Millennium Falcon…. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were pilots… Princess Leia was not…

At that moment. I decided I’d be a pilot one day.

Things that fly have always been so incredibly cool and amazing to me. Piloting sounded like the most fun it would be possible to have. I loved riding my bike… a plane is just a flying bike with extra vrooms.

I didn’t quite understand the complexity involved..

No car for me.

As I grew up I assumed I’d learn to drive. I knew it would be hard, but I always thought I’d get there in the end.

After having a bunch of driving lessons as a teenager the extremely friendly instructor explained to me that while i had excellent car control skills… but he couldn’t teach me to be a safe driver…. Mostly because i struggled to predict other people.

I could work it out… but it would take me half a second. Maybe more. These delays would start stacking up till eventually I’d be a second or two behind the car. A terrifying experience on a busy road for everyone involved.

I’m glad the instructor was honest with me. I think he’s right. Trying to guess what people will do is hard for me…. However I excel at physically controlling a vehicle and following procedures and processes. We used to spend lessons practicing ever increasingly daft hill climbs. I loved the sensation of managing all the forces and pulling away smoothly.

Since then I’ve limited my driving to off road stuff. I used to own a truck and we took it green laning in the mud a bunch of times. Sliding a ~2 ton truck around an off camber muddy corner with all four wheels spinning is great fun…

Oddly… my strengths in vehicle control and following procedures are the exact skills I need as a pilot.

I first started learning about 4 years ago alongside a friend. We didn’t get very far due the pandemic and then my injury. Being so wobbly, I never thought I’d fly again. That was until I met Geoff!

Geoff is awesome.

Geoff first appeared in my life via twitter. He replied to some thread I was on… and then a few days later joined one of my gaming streams.

It just so happened I was doing flight sim stuff that day. A friend on his real world motorbike was riding across the alps and I was chasing them in my virtual plane.

Geoff was active in the chat and mentioned he was a disabled student pilot. Flying with AeroAbility. The same disabled flying school I’d had a few interactions with.

During the stream he recommend I speak to Mark… Mark was the second amazing person in this journey. We shared a long and interesting call where he encouraged me to go for it…. AeroAbility had a Virtual Aviation Experience which I could join. It would pair me up with a real Flight Instructor for a bunch of lessons in the simulator

Virtual flying.

The sim flying lessons went exceptionally well. We got through the core stuff fast, and we ended up exploring more advanced topics like stalls and spin recovery. Ahead of the lessons I’d built my own flight sim and all the practice like hell

The instructor was amazing. She totally understood how to communicate with me and she gave me heaps of encouragement to go further. Like Mark… she felt I might have the right brain to go all the way to getting a license. It was, and still is, a rather surreal idea.

We know the there’s lots of barriers ahead with my vision, movement, pain and cognitive skills….

The only way to find the barriers is to try stuff… a month later I found myself trundling down the runway in the back of a PA28 Piper Warrior. Geoff had been kind enough to offer me a ride along for one of his lessons. A chance to try it and see what happens.

It was an amazing moment. My first time in a small aircraft since my injury. I listened in to the lesson over the radio and I understood.

Just like with the virtual flight lessons, the extremely precise structured language worked really well for me. So much so I find it easier to understand than regular day to day speech!

I am so grateful to Geoff for inviting me to fly with him. We proved it was possible. There were a heap of barriers around pain and movement. But there was absolutely something worth exploring.

Without this kindness and encouragement of everyone involved to date, I wouldn’t have got anywhere near this far.

After the back seat flight with Geoff I had a few months away from aviation (dealing with a cancer investigation & new meds) then a few weeks ago I had my first flying experience with AeroAbiliity

Taking off (literally)

I’ll share the full story in another post… but to say that the first flight experience went well would be an understatement.

The ever amazing Caz on reception at AeroAbility had organised for Geoff and me to fly at the same time in different planes.

The day before we flew Geoff had visited my home for some flight sim experiments (another future topic) and we were both a bit worried about the weather. The day we were flying was due to be really windy.

It’s standard practice to call the school before each flight to check the weather… I gave them a call expecting the flight to be cancelled and Caz gave me the wonderful news that the weather should be fine. Head across and let’s give it a go.

Chris is lovely.

For my first flight I’d be paired with Chris. He’s one of the instructors at AeroAbillity and is another exceptional person.

We chatted during the briefing about what I’d done before and he felt comfortable taking me up on the plane. He prepped the plane and after a short buggy ride and inelegant climbing and shuffling… I found myself sat in the command seat of a PA-28.

It was really amazing talking to Chris as he worked through the preflight checklist. I fly a PA-28 in the sim and i was super comfortable with the start up process.

We spent the time comparing the sim to the real plane and chatting about all the underlying reasons for why we do different things. My boyfriend had come along and was sat in the back listening in. Brave guy :)

After we got moving Chris invited me to take over the taxing of the aircraft and we taxied our to the run up area. After working through the engine run up tests together Chris asked if I’d like to do the take off.

This make me happy flap. I’d taken off from this runway in this aircraft hundreds of times in the sim…. But this was the real world. Complete with a fairly hefty crosswind.

We chatted through the process and it all seemed good. It’s the exact same process as in the sim…. So I went for it.

Sat at the end of the runway, air traffic control gave us clearance and Chris spoke the magic words. “You have control”.

At that point I started the take off roll, speaking our actions aloud as we built speed down the runway. Rudder in. Full power. Airspeeds Alive. Pressures and Tempratures Good. Rotate.

And with that I pulled back on the controls and we climbed into the air. We had a chunky crosswind so my first action to keep the plane level as possible and then slowly back out the run so the plane could ‘weathercock’ into the wind.

We climbed out and away we went. It was a very bumpy ride in the wind, the plane was a handful and I had a massive smile on my face.

My amazing boyfriend filmed the take off and even included the audio. The video is in this tweet on my twitter account.

I stayed at the controls for another 22 minutes. We flew out over some interesting places and practiced the basic manoeuvres (turns, climbs, descents etc).

For this flight we hadn’t made any adaptions to account for my pain and mobility. This was good as it gives us a baseline. We learnt that 22 minutes of rough flight is the point where the pain gets to much and it’s time to transfer control back to Chris for the rest of the flight.

We landed shortly after. A tricky landing on a windy day with helicopters (!) practicing right next to the runway thresholds.

It’s real. I can do this.

We need to overcome a lot of movement and pain barriers…. But it’s working. By learning the procedures and processes in the sim and practicing them heaps I go into the plane with a baseline knowledge to build on. I’d only be learning the physical bits rather than trying to learn a process and physical bits at the same time. This feels like a method which will work.

Wrapping up

This is getting long… so let’s wrap this up. I’m sure I’ll write about my first flight more in the future.

Flying sets me free. In the plane my disability melts away. As someone who’s only recently been able to walk more than a few meters, the plane makes my world bigger in a way I can’t put into words.

It’s also a challenge. I have no qualification in anything I do and I’ve never held anything more than a provisional driving license.

Whether I achieve my PPL, an LAPL or just train to equivalent standard… I’m pushing myself to learn in new ways and gain new skills… whatever happens with my body in the future I can make this work.

AeroAbility still seems a bit surreal. An organisation who help disabled people to fly. Who provide instruction from so many amazing people who are generous with thier time and precise in thier feedback.

I’m so excited. If I told 11 year old me about my life I think he’d be impressed. He’d be a little upset about my injury… but i think excitement about flying would make up for it.

I’m hoping to fly more soon. I’ve applied for an AeroAbility scholarship which is sponsored by Boeing.… the scholarship would make possible what felt like a fantasy just a year ago.

We just passed 3 years since my injury. I didn’t do a blog post to mark the anniversary this year. This blog post sorta fill fill that gap.

My recovery will be lifelong but we’ve reached a level of bodily stability where it’s possible to do new things. I’m going into the rest of 2024 with the best body I’ve had in years, the most effective meds I’ve ever had and full of passion for adventure. Aviation is a huge part of why. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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Spaced Out & Smiling is about exploring the fun side of Autism, and trying to understand what it means to be Autistically Happy.

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