Only Along the Gulfshore

Finding Freedom through Flying Lessons

To challenge her anxieties, to try to live more freely, the author learns to fly—with surprising results.

BY July 31, 2017


In my dreams, my teeth fall out.

Usually it starts with a loosening, and as I attempt to spit out the wiggly one the rest tumble into my palm like failed popcorn kernels. At this point, I recognize it as a dream and startle awake. The dream, a classic one for many people, has been lodged in my subconscious at least 20 years. Interpretations of it run the gamut: fear, anxiety, fear and anxiety about the loss of control or power, repression of emotions, a reminder of death, castration—nothing too enviable.

Lately, it is the only dream I remember.

To avoid this kind of dream, a Jungian psychotherapist told The Huffington Post that one should seek to “live freely.” If I were living freely, maybe I’d fly in my dreams. Asleep or awake, never have I dreamed of flying. I see death in most modes of transport. Put me on a horse and I meet my future as a paraplegic. Each time I cross the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa it reminds me to Google “how to escape a sinking car” because I never remember if you must close or open the windows as the car plummets into water (Google, by the way, says open). During turbulence, I coach myself through visions of panic attacks before securing my daughters’ oxygen masks.

My older brother loves to fly. When he earned his private pilot’s license in his 30s, it was as if he had been granted a superpower inaccessible to me and thus had concreted his role in our sibling experience as the pilot while mine was the white-knuckled passenger gripping the door handle. I wanted to be the kind of woman who is free enough to be a pilot. Once I was, but I lost her amid marriage, kids and a mortgage. Now I am the kind of woman who orders a how-to book. The book, You Can Be a Pilot! Answers to 25 Popular Questions about Learning to Fly hollered from across the digital netherlands. Though inherently wary of exclamation points as grammatical overcompensation for something unseen, I ordered the book largely for its unabashed enthusiasm.

Book: Hey you!!!

Me: Me?

Book: Yes, you! You can be a pilot!

Me: Ya think?

Once the book arrived, I let it hang around the kitchen counter to periodically cheer me on. While scrambling eggs or emptying the dishwasher, I’d glance over and it would inevitably call out, “You can be a pilot!”

Me: You don’t know me.

But the title page underlined its suggestion with aplomb, “You Can Be a Pilot!” OK, OK, I’ll read on. Inside there was no shortage of exclamation points.        

Some things I learned from this guide and other sources:

1. You (Yes, you too!) can likely be a pilot if you are not prone to motion sickness, not afraid of flying, have “decent” reflexes and hand-eye coordination, and are in pretty good health. The Federal Aviation Administration insists: “People of all shapes and sizes, ages and abilities have learned to fly. It’s fun, and from the beginning of your training, you get to do most of the actual flying!” 

2. Flight training is great! It consists of phases such as learning basic techniques, training to solo and for shorter and longer flights and for your exam.

3. It’s pricey. It costs about $10,000 or more locally to become a private pilot and requires at least 40 hours of flight time. But if you love it, you will find a way!

4. If engine failure occurs, which rarely happens, your lessons will cover that, too!

Me: Wait, what?

Book: Um, I mean … You can be a pilot!

Me: Hmm. I’m not so sure. 

I signed up for a $150 discovery flight in Naples. Flight schools offer intro flights as a gateway to flight training. It’s also a way to see if you and the instructor click. My brother had more confidence in my pilot potential than I did. “You should try to solo! Sometimes you can do it in as little as 10 hours.” 

I love my brother, but this sounded like crazy talk.

First Lesson

On the day of my discovery flight, I stand frozen in my closet. Can one be a proper pilot in chunky-heeled sandals? I slip on loafers before driving to Naples Municipal Airport to meet Kyle Nornberg, chief flight instructor at Sun Coast Aviation. Nornberg moved to Southwest Florida in 2012. After 15 years of working construction in his native Minnesota, he dreamed of flying full-time in Florida.

Sun Coast caters to local students, Nornberg says. Most are men, which falls in line with national statistics. Of the roughly 584,000 pilots in this country, only about 7 percent or 40,000 pilots are women, according to last year’s statistics from the U.S. Civil Airmen, which even in name demonstrates the masculine majority. The average age of a student pilot is 32. You find out early if you want to be a pilot, says Nornberg, who is now 36. “You either love it or you don’t.”

I ask him about my brother’s assertion about a solo after 10 hours of flight instruction. It’s possible, he tells me, but the average is more like 20 on top of a slew of FAA requirements to meet before doing so. This seemed like a good thing. 

As we walk to the tiny Cessna 172, my pulse quickens. “It’s a very stable, very forgiving airplane,” he assures, which is why many schools use it for training. This particular plane was built in 1979, the year of my birth, and came complete with a sign of those times: ashtrays. Nornberg introduces me to basics: the yoke, basically the control wheel of the plane, and the throttle. My feet rest on pedals, which serve as brakes on the top and rudder control on the bottom. As the propeller speeds, I remind myself to breathe. Nothing good could come of a panic attack with a stranger.

The plane lifts as we head past the Naples Pier and out to the Gulf of Mexico. Nornberg points out dolphins near Cape Romano. Cruising up the 3,000 feet, the Gulf seems friendlier, a blanket of turquoise. Maybe it’s the clouds, maybe it’s the sea, but it’s peaceful in the air. I’m breathing—freely. He lets me turn the plane toward the airport. Controlling the plane provokes less anxiety in me than pulling the reins of a horse. “Well, we survived,” he announces upon landing. He makes it feel so easy that I wonder if maybe planes really aren’t all that hard to land. 

“Are these pretty hard to crash?”

He smiles. “You can definitely easily crash one, but, knock on wood, I have never crashed one,” he says, before adding, “You should never crash an airplane.”

(Later, I would find this pithy explanation from Amelia Earhart in her book The Fun of It: “Trouble in the air is very rare. It is hitting the ground that causes it.”)  

As we wrap up, I second-guess my role in anything related to moving the aircraft. “Did I really turn the airplane?”

He seems amused, “You turned the plane.” This was enough of an accomplishment for the day. In less than an hour, I switched from I-could-never-be-a-pilot to could-this-become-a-dream?

When did my dreams become less colorful? When did my de-facto dream become teeth-spitting? Sleep once delivered Technicolor nighttime ditties: bold, steamy, absurd. People over the age of 10 typically dream at least four to six times a night, yet most people forget 95 to 99 percent of their dreams, says The Quantitative Study of Dreams, a website from researchers connected to the University of California, Santa Cruz. Those who remember their dreams do so largely because they are motivated to remember them, researchers say. To remember dreams you must pay attention to them. I wanted to make space for a new dream. I was bored with losing my teeth.

I scheduled a second flight in Fort Myers.

Second Lesson

Upon further reflection of my first flight, I was less impressed with my ability to “fly.” What I did was more akin to plopping a toddler on your lap in the driveway and letting her “drive” (“Look at you driving!”) than really flying. My next flight is with Paragon Flight Training at Page Field. I feel hip stepping inside their office, an airy modern space with a lounge offering free coffee and Cokes, and comfy chairs.

A trio of 30-somethings own Paragon. One of them is Jeffrey Wolf, the chief flight instructor whose training began at Page Field as a teenager. He’s my instructor this particular day. He earned his pilot’s license at the age of 18, studied aviation in college and was a commercial pilot by the age of 22.

He and the other owners aim to make the flight school experience less intimidating, more customer-oriented, and provide training on
newer-model planes. Over the years, they’ve earned many accolades, including the 2014 ranking of best flight school in the country from Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Wolf’s bona fides instill instant comfort as we board a 2016 Cirrus SR22 plane, or as his Paragon partner calls it, “the Bentley of the sky.” The slick gray plane is a dandy with soft leather seats, AC and a trademark whole-plane parachute.

“Be outside,” Wolf advises before we begin and after running through several pages of checklists. Don’t pay too much attention to the screens. Look toward the horizon. His advice extends beyond planes. He runs down the steps to execute before taking off but I forget his instructions as soon as he says them. I do remember to push the throttle slowly.  One Mississippi. Two Mississippi, I count as we accelerate. As the plane lifts, I release a giddy squeal, “YEEEEEEE…!”

Wolf allows me to take over as we follow the Caloosahatchee River from Fort Myers to Fort Myers Beach. I am flying as much as you can fly while being completely unqualified to fly. As Wolf removes his hands from the controls and rests his hands on his legs, I refrain from asking, Are you sure you should sit like that? (This stance is intentional, he tells me later. A student must build confidence, and, “There’s nothing you can do that I can’t recover from.”)

“You have finesse,” he compliments as I guide the plane’s nose up.

No one has ever told me that. Not when I was learning to drive stick shift on country roads in Illinois, not during my 12 years of dance classes. Apparently people get anxious and they grip the yoke and they herk, they jerk, but not me.

Wolf takes over once I align the plane with the runway. Finesse is not enough to navigate this expensive aircraft back to the hangar. “Are you hooked?” Wolf asks, grinning, as we emerge.

“Yes! Surprisingly. I’m typically anxious but not up there.”

On the way out, I stop by their old-fashioned Coke machine, pop the top of a soda, and sip—satisfied. The dopey grin plastered to my face remains as I almost skip to my car, buoyant with the feeling that this could be the start of something. One day, when my girls are older, I could be a pilot. In the meantime, I have something more to dream about than my teeth. The trick, it seems, is remembering to dream.


How to Become a Pilot

There are about 584,000 U.S. pilots, including about 40,000 women. The average age of a student pilot is 32 years old. The average age of a pilot is 45. There are about 325 million people in the U.S. That means less than 2 percent of people in this country are pilots. That’s enough to make anyone feel special.

When can you solo? It depends on you. There is no set number, but the instructor must make sure you perform certain maneuvers, including safe landings and takeoffs, before allowing you to solo. You must also have a medical certificate and a student pilot’s certificate.

How long does it take? It depends on the person, but a person who applies to become a private pilot must log at least 40 hours of flight time with at least 20 hours of flight training from an authorized instructor and 10 hours of solo flight training. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association estimates it to take about four months of flying two to three times a week.

How much does it cost? It could cost about $7,000 to $14,000.

Are there age restrictions? You have to be at least 16 to solo and 17 to be issued a private pilot certificate.

—Sources: FAA, AOPA, interviews, U.S. Civil Airmen statistics


Related Images: