Editorial note: This story is several years old and the $49 flight lesson rate has changed significantly. Please contact the Ohio University Department of Aviation at 740-597-2626 for the current rate.
By Brittany Yingling
Student pilots enrolled in Ohio University's community flight program – from teenagers to retirees – all say one thing: "You gotta try it!" And for a mere $49, anyone can sign up for a quick taste of the hobby that is already a favorite pastime for many in southeastern Ohio.
Full-time flight instructor Elliott Taub, an Ohio University graduate and pilot, twists knobs and adjusts gauges inside a Cessna 172 as he explains the fundamentals of flying before the introductory flight begins. Inside the cockpit of the four-seat airplane, the pale blue upholstered seats and safety belts are reminiscent of a late model Chevy station wagon. Experienced aircraft mechanics maintain the University's aircraft, Taub explains, following every Federal Aviation Administration and manufacturer's requirement to keep the planes in like-new condition and as safe to fly as possible.
The propeller whirs into its revolutions and the plane inches onto the runway of Ohio University's Gordon K. Bush Regional Airport. Taub points out just how different operating an airplane is from driving a car. Instead of a steering wheel, two floor pedals control the plane's direction on the ground. Once in the air, the yoke (or control column) allows the aircraft to turn. As the plane lifts off into the sky, revealing miles and miles of green below, it is impossible not to appreciate the sport that hooked Taub at the young age of 15 as a high school student in Beechwood, Ohio. He received his private pilot license at age 17 and now holds a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating and is a certified flight instructor with more than 700 flight hours.
The half-hour flight is the gateway to the University's community flight program. Bruce Stone, one of Taub's students, used the introductory flight to test whether he could withstand flight in a small plane. The experience, he recalls, was "exhilarating."
"The plane pretty much just takes off by itself," Stone adds.
About 13 students are enrolled in the program, which began in July 2002 to give local residents an opportunity to learn to fly - without majoring in aviation or even enrolling at the University.
The program is flexible. Those who are interested can sign up anytime for an introductory flight. After that flight, classes are available on a pay-as-you-go basis. The estimated course cost ranges from about $4,100 to $4,800 for flight time and instruction, with an additional $450 required for books.
Anyone over the age of 15 can take flight lessons. However, to fly solo, students must be at least 16 years old and must first pass an FAA medical examination.
A minimum of 40 hours of flight instruction is required to earn a private pilot's license. Most students average 55 to 60 hours before completion. Then students must demonstrate their skills through a series of tests regulated by the FAA.
A written exam of 60 questions randomly selected from a pool of FAA-approved material is the first hurdle students must face. A 70 percent score qualifies them for the next exam: a two-hour oral interview with an FAA examiner. "After that, you go out to the plane and take the actual flight test," Taub says. "It's like a really big driving test."
Even with this winter's frigid temperatures, students still came out to the airport for their lessons, which include both ground and flight instruction. "Believe it or not, airplanes actually fly a lot better in the winter," Taub says. Cold air is denser, he explains, so when the propeller whirls, it scoops up more air and creates more thrust to boost the plane's speed.
Six people have completed the program over the past 18 months, earning private pilot's licenses and the opportunity to earn additional flight certificates - or even to teach.
"I'd like to eventually become a flight instructor myself," says Stone, who likes the Ohio University program due to the availability of full-time instructors and flexible access to flight times.
Now Stone is nearing the acquisition of his private pilot's license. Through the Web, he has been exploring the reward he hopes to purchase if he finally earns his teaching license – his own airplane. He has found aircraft valued at $1 million, but he's also stumbled across used planes priced as inexpensively as $15,000.
The University can rent planes to qualified pilots at a fee of $80 to $85 per hour. Until Stone finds something a bit more permanent, he plans to rent whenever he wants to fly. His private pilot's license will give him the opportunity to take his friends and family up in the skies - and to enjoy quicker travel.
"I don't like sitting in a car for very long," he says. Air travel takes about a third of the time of a car trip. "And," he jokes, "flying is a really good boost to your ego."
Although some, such as Stone, are learning to fly for personal pleasure, others are using the flight lessons to advance their careers. Several of the program's students hope that a pilot's license will help them secure a flight spot in the National Guard. "They have a leg up on everyone else who's trying to get into the military flight school," Taub says.
All training takes place at the Gordon K. Bush Regional Airport, which serves the general aviation community as well as Ohio University's Department of Aviation and the Avionics Engineering Center.
For more information about the program, visit the Web at www.ohiou.edu/airport/Community.htm or call (740) 597-2600.
Brittany Yingling is a writer with Research Communications.