You are taking the first step to accomplishing what has probably been a nearly life long dream. You are going out into the unknown in search of your dream, a thrill, or even the romance of flying. The first step in most things is usually the most difficult. When facing the journey to becoming a well-trained and safe pilot this may seem more like a leap for many. So, what should you expect on day one? This article will spell out what a typical first lesson should be like at many flight schools.
By: Jacob Kasprzyk Gold Seal CFI, CFII, MEI, ATP
It’s your first time heading to the airport for a flight lesson. This trek and procedure will be something probably entirely new to you. This is an excellent time to keep your eyes and ears open for clues into how the rest of your flight training will go.
Plan on arriving at least 30 minutes early. This is so that you can check in with the staff working in the office and so you can get a start on some of the paperwork. Yes, there will be paperwork. The flight school will need proof of your citizenship before you can enroll in any flight training program. So, bring your passport or birth certificate along. If you are a foreign national, make sure you have your approval from the TSA as well as your Visa or Passport. While filling out some of the basic paperwork, this is a great time to look around and see how things are running in the office. Is the office clean and well organized; is there staff on hand to help? This is usually your first in-person impression of your flight school. Do you like what you see and hear?
Your flight instructor should show up at your scheduled time and not be late. There are often times that a previous lesson may run late for an instructor for many sensible reasons, but they should not be late because of their alarm clock! If you’re interested in what to look for in a flight instructor we recommend you read our article on How to Choose a Flight Instructor.
Your instructor should take the time and sit down with you to answer any questions that you may have. You should ask the instructor about their experience and background so that you can begin to get to know each other. They should also take the time to explain to you what the process is like to become a pilot. They should explain what the course of your training would be, the syllabus they intend to use, and the commitments you’re going to face in both time and money.
After this your instructor should take some time with you to explain what you are about to do on your first lesson. A Flight school’s syllabi may vary, but the first lesson will likely focus on pre-flight procedures, starting the aircraft, taxiing, pre-flight run-up, takeoff, climbs, turns, descents, straight and level, the relation of pitch and power, and post-flight procedures. Your instructor prior to the flight should explain a basic theory of aerodynamics. What are the 4 forces of flight? What is lift and how is it generated? Why do you need to add backpressure to maintain a level turn? They should not get into a PhD level discussion with you that ends up taking half of the lesson; you are here because you want to go flying! But, they should ensure that you have the fundamental knowledge to understand what you’re about to be doing.
After answering any questions that you have, you and your instructor should go through the process of dispatching your flight. This may be as simple as your instructor grabbing some keys, or it may involve submitting weather and weight and balance to a dispatcher who in turns gives you your keys and aircraft info. Once the keys are in hand you and your instructor will walk out to your aircraft together.
While walking out to the ramp and your aircraft, your instructor should take the time to begin to explain the airport environment that you will be training in. They should take the effort to explain airport security, what parts of the airport you’re allowed in, and what part of the airport your flight school operates within.
Upon reaching your aircraft, your instructor should (if not earilier) introduce you to your new best friend, your checklists! Every pilot should use them for every flight! They will then take the time to do an entire pre-flight inspection with you with a checklist and explain what it is they are doing and looking for. They may not get too in depth at this point, but they should answer any questions that you may have. This pre-flight will become part of your ritual before every flight. I always tell my students that this is a time when you want to find something wrong with the aircraft. It is always better to be down here wishing you were up there, than up there wishing you were down here! Take your pre-flight inspections seriously! It’s designed to help safe your life and the lives of others.
You will then climb into the aircraft with your instructor as they explain the pre-starting and starting procedures for the aircraft. Once the two of you have the aircraft started and running, your instructor will walk you through the required pre-taxi procedures and will show you have to maneuver the aircraft on the ground. By the end of a lesson or two, you will probably have the knack for taxiing your training aircraft.
Prior to take-off your instructor will take your aircraft to a safe area to do a ‘Run-Up’. This is a last check prior to take-off to ensure that all systems are working properly on the aircraft. They will use a checklist to verify and test a number of systems. They should check to ensure that all the flight controls are working properly, that the engine is running smoothly without any issues, and they may take the time to check navigation and radio systems. Again this is when you want to find something wrong! These checks prior to take-off are vital for the safety of the flight and should be treated with immense respect!
After completing the pre-takeoff checks, your instructor ensures that you are clear for take-off and you roll the aircraft out onto the runway. You turn the aircraft and line-up on the centerline looking down the length of the runway. Your instructor is there on the controls with you as they instruct you to smoothly apply full power while simultaneously adding some right rudder. As you start to roll down the runway your instructor will verify all the engine gauges and ensure that everything is running smoothly. Upon reaching your rotation speed (Vr) you will apply backpressure to lift the nose of the aircraft off the ground, and all of a sudden the aircraft lifts off and you’re flying! You have just successfully took-off in an aircraft and you are flying!
During the climb out your instructor will verify the climb checklist for you and instruct you to dip the nose every 500ft or so to ensure that there are no aircraft ahead of you. Looking for traffic and checking blind spots prior to turns will hopefully become something second natured to you. It is similar to wearing a seatbelt in your car, 99.999% of the time you don’t need to, but that one time that you do…
Upon reaching your pre-determined climbing altitude your instructor will explain to you how to level off the aircraft and allow the airspeed to increase. You will learn the value of trim (to relieve required control pressure) while your instructor goes over the cruise checklist with you and how to lean the aircraft. From here you will learn how to maintain altitude using visual references and what the controls feel like. You will be instructed on how to make coordinated turns while maintaining altitude and how to make descents in the aircraft. If you’re lucky your instructor will also demonstrate the dynamic stability of your aircraft and how they tend to keep flying even if you let go. They may also demonstrate how much rudder in generally needed in most turns by demonstrating ‘dutch-rolls’. This is a great maneuver I usually do each time I fly a new aircraft. It will help you learn about adverse yaw and the ‘feel’ of your aircraft.
After this you will return to your home airport and go through the arrival procedures with your instructor. They will again go through a checklist to ensure that the aircraft is prepared for landing. They will walk you through the necessary steps and will show you what it is like to land an aircraft. Your instructor will most likely have you ‘shadowing’ the controls so that you begin to get a feel of what the required control inputs will be to land an aircraft.
Your actual flight time will probably not be all that long, maybe about 45 minutes or so. This is for a few reasons, but primarily because they don’t want to overload you with too much learning on the first day. Different people have different tolerances for flying. They want to ensure that your first lesson is enjoyable! Don’t worry about remembering everything. It is most important to ensure that this is something you enjoy and something you want to continue doing! You will continue to reinforce what you’ve already learned on each subsequent flight.
After you have landed and have safely left the runway, you will go through your after landing checks and will go through the procedure to taxi back to your ramp to park your aircraft. You will learn how to properly shut down your aircraft, how to secure it in its parking spot, and what your post-flight procedures will be.
After securing the aircraft you and your instructor will walk back to the office and sit down for a debriefing. This is when your instructor will go over how the flight went, will critique you on your performance, answer any questions that you may have and will tell you what to study and what to expect for your next lesson. This is also an excellent time to ensure that you have more lessons scheduled. Make sure that you ask any questions that you have and make sure your instructor is sincere in taking the time to answer them. Be wary of the instructor who is only interested in signing your logbook and moving on to the next student as soon as possible!
At the end of all this you will probably feel a bit over-whelmed. That’s ok! You just experienced something that less than 1% of people will ever feel or experience. You just flew an airplane! Hopefully the experience was pleasant and enjoyable for you, and I hope you catch the same bug for flying that I have! Through subsequent lessons you will continue to reinforce what you learned on your first lesson while introducing new material each time. The journey ahead of you to becoming a pilot is a long one, its not easy, but its one heck of a fun ride! Happy and safe flying!