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2009: A Review

Every time I speak to somebody back at home about my experiences in Florida, there is one thing I always talk about, and that is my amazement at just how quickly time is passing by out here. I find it hard to believe that I nervously arrived in America almost 11 months ago to embark on the most exciting adventure of my life and to work towards my lifelong dream – learning to fly and to one day be working as an airline pilot. It is without a doubt that Florida has been the most enjoyable year of my life so far. It has had its up and downs but I have loved every minute of it and it is sad to think that my training will soon come to an end.

If you regularly read the various postings I make on this site, you will know that I like to write (often at great length) about how the training is going, and this article is going to be no exception. I am going to talk about the year as a whole, from the day I arrived up to today – 12 December – just ten days before I head home to enjoy the festive period with friends and family back at home in Winnersh, England.

On the morning of Saturday 31 January 2009, I left for Orlando. For me though, this wasn’t the first time I had left home for distant shores. In late 2006, not too long after completing my degree, I set off for South Korea for a year-long teaching placement in a small city called Gwangju. Tired of my awful call centre job – which I had been doing for just two months – and wanting to do something rewarding and satisfying, it seemed like a good choice. But Korea wasn’t meant to be, and after just ten weeks, I was already on my way home. I was nervous about Florida just in case that too didn’t work out and I am sure that my parents were also. If I didn’t enjoy it, this was something I couldn’t walk away from. I would have to put up with it – simple as that.

Upon arriving in Orlando, I headed to a Kissimmee hotel for two nights, which was just enough time to get over the five hours of time difference. I spent my first full day exploring the immediate area and went in search of the school – Orlando Flight Training – which was about a mile away. It was there that I would be reporting on 2 February for the start of my course.

I didn’t get my timings quite right on the first day and casually rolled into the induction class a few minutes late and pretty wet, having just walked in the rain from my hotel. I took my seat and the short presentation got under way, with everything from accommodation to flying to ground school being discussed. It was at this point that I discovered that my time in Florida was going to be far from a holiday. We were told that our ground school for our first licence – the Private Pilot – began that evening at 5.00pm and that our flying would begin the next day!

Like so many other students, I had opted for the school’s own accommodation and ended up moving into a house just a stone’s throw from the school, shared with Igor, Will and Conal. We later moved out of the house because it didn’t offer fantastic value for money and there were one or two issues with the cleanliness of the place. Having all become good friends, we moved together into a much cheaper but much nicer house at Bella Vida, just two miles away and we have been there ever since. The house, the facilities on the complex and the friendliness of the Park Square Homes staff were second to none (and still are).

We had been introduced to our flight instructors on the induction day and arrived for our first flights on the Tuesday morning. Will and I had the same instructor so our first flights were spent back-seating each other. I sat in the left seat of our small Piper PA-28 (Cadet), tail number N40755, and we went up for 1.4 hours, learning the basics; climbing, turning and descending. After landing back at Kissimmee, we switched places and went and did the same again. After around three hours in the air, I felt a little nauseous – after all, I wasn’t used to this – and could probably have thrown up if I had tried!

After a week or so of flying, I just wasn’t getting along with my instructor and I felt that his approach to instructing was different to almost every other instructor at the school. His method of teaching was to sit back and relax, swearing now and again, insisting that his students, “fly the plane motherf*****”. Perhaps other students liked being taught this way but I found it completely ineffective and with a great deal of money being invested in my training, something had to change. The school dealt with the issue efficiently and asked me what I wanted to do going forward. My two options were to switch to an alternative instructor or to give my current one a chance to change his ways. I agreed to spend one more week with this instructor, hoping that he might have changed, but he hadn’t. This man did everything you wouldn’t want (nor expect) from an instructor. Again, the school were only too happy to switch me to somebody else. Some weeks later, my old instructor left.

With my new instructor, I had a little under two months to complete my private pilot training, and that was eventually completed in early April, allowing me to move on to the next instalment of training; the ATPL ground school, which began on 13 April, and that was set to last for six months. For me, this was always going to be the biggest and most daunting obstacle to overcome. Not only did we have to spend long days in the classroom and sit numerous class tests but we then had to sit fourteen exams, ranging in size from 23 to 90 questions, and pass all of them with 75% or greater. With some good instructors and the Bristol question bank, I eventually passed my final exam in November. I wasn’t too disappointed to have failed two of the exams – Instrumentation and Meteorology – and was pleased to have come away having used only four of my permitted six sittings.

During the study week of our second ATPL module in late July, I decided to take a break and to return home to England for a week. I needed a break from the heat, the food and everything to do with flying. Of course, I had to remember that this was a study week and I didn’t want to abuse it. I spent my mornings and afternoons studying for the exams and then had the evenings to do whatever I pleased. All too soon, the week was over, and I found myself back at Heathrow Airport catching my flight back to America. As well as spending time with the family and telling them all about my experiences of the previous six months, I caught up with some friends as well, enjoyed some decent food and even managed to squeeze in a trip to Thorpe Park. But when you’ve been experiencing the thrills of Universal Studios for so many months, the rides on offer back in the UK seemed tame in comparison – and disappointing, too.

My parents wanted to visit me in America but because of work, it wasn’t easy, and I was led to believe that their visit might never happen. Every time their visit was brought up in conversation, it became clearer to me that there wouldn’t be a visit, and I eventually learnt to accept that. I felt I had achieved a lot in the previous months, and even though I had started to build lots of hours with people I had met in Florida, I wanted a chance to show off my new skills to my family. Being a private pilot wouldn’t sink in until I had carried a member of the family as a passenger.

In early September, I headed off to Walmart and McDonald’s one night. I had been studying for only an hour or so and was already bored and needed a distraction to give me a break from it. Upon returning to the house, an unfamiliar car was parked outside, but I didn’t give it very much thought, so I carried on and entered the house, only to find my parents sitting there. It was great to see them, even if I had been at home only a month or so before. Their visit was a huge surprise, especially considering that I had only been speaking to both of them barely 24 hours ago, and there had been no mention of it whatsoever! Study was the most important thing for me at the time of their visit, so I spent much of the following week continuing my own studies at the house as well as attending ground school. I still spent a lot of time with my family and managed to eventually get them up for a flight over Kissimmee, which they both seemed to enjoy. We said goodbye at the end of their visit, they headed off home and it was to be a little over three months before I would get to see them again – at Christmas.

In October, I had some visitors; Ben came down from Philadelphia and Andrew and his friends came from England. My friend, Marc, was booked to travel to Orlando in October as well but he was forced to cancel his trip due to reasons outside of his control. With people visiting, it meant that I could take a break and enjoy myself. With Ben, I took my first trip to Clearwater on the west coast of Florida, as well as going to Seaworld, Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Busch Gardens. Even with lots of study to be cracking on with, I was able to take some time out now and again and to enjoy myself. After all, no visit to Florida – whether visiting for pleasure or not – is complete with a trip to some of its many theme parks!

After completing my exam re-sits in November, I got to work on my FAA Instrument Rating, which I am still working on at the moment, along with building some much-needed hours. The beauty of instrument flying is that you can fly in whatever conditions Mother Nature throws at you, be it low cloud, heavy rain or fog. And unlike flying under VFR (visual flight rules), you can fly in and out of the clouds as much as you like. It was quite a surreal experience the first time we flew into a cloud and I couldn’t resist sticking my hand out of the window and touching a cloud!

In order to complete the instrument rating, 50 hours of cross country flying is required, and qualifying flights are those of 50 nautical miles or greater. Throughout this training, I have travelled the length and the breadth of Florida, visiting a few dozen airports throughout the state. Some of the airports have been disappointing so we landed, taxied back to the runway and departed again. Others have been good and we have often jumped out of the plane to stretch our legs and to enjoy some of the freebies that the many FBOs (fixed base operators) have to offer; free drinks, internet access, snacks and more. The longest flight to date has been to Key West, which, at a distance of more than 300 miles from Kissimmee, took some time to reach. After arriving, we headed into the town for a few hours and walked around, admiring the sights and the most amazing sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. After dinner at the island’s pricey Hard Rock Café, we headed home, eventually landing back at Kissimmee some time after 1.00am. It was a long but thoroughly enjoyable day. In early December, we also left Florida for the first time, making a flight to Valdosta (KVLD) in the south of Georgia. It was only just over the border but still an exciting trip nonetheless.

I am really looking forward to completing my training in Florida; completing my instrument rating and then my commercial licence and then heading back home to the UK. Some people seem amazed that I am in Florida doing something that I love and you could say that some are envious, which is understandable, but there really is no place like home. As much as I love being in Florida, it is in Wokingham that I want to be. I was one of these people that used to whine about how depressing and boring life in the UK was, but you really do start to miss it.

This year has been an amazing one and I have had the time of my life learning all about aircraft, both in the air and on the ground. There are so many people who I ought to acknowledge for getting me to where I am today and for making 2009 the best year yet; Will, Igor and Conal (the clowns I have lived with since day one), Jim and Steve (my flight instructors), Jerome, Steve, Doug, Cuneyt and Rob (my ATPL instructors) and others. But most of all, it is family that I have to thank. Without them, I would never have had this fantastic opportunity. They have supported me, both financially and emotionally, every step of the way.

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