PHOTO: DAVE ZATAL/OAHU ISLAND NEWS                                     

“Hawaii is a great place

 to learn to fly”

 By Mary Young
Oahu Island News

The first thing you noticed, standing next to a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, was how small it was. The rows of single-engine planes parked outside the flight school resembled so many neatly arranged toys. This might have been amusing if you, the novice, were not about to take your first flight in one of them.

Climbing into the cockpit, you had to duck your head to avoid hitting the wing. “Cessna 172s seat four people,” said Wallace Frelander, president and owner of Flight School Hawaii, Inc., “So think of it as kind of like a family car, size-wise.” But the Skyhawk weighs a mere 1,600 pounds – almost 1,000 pounds less than a Honda Civic.

Inside, the aircraft did feel like a small car. You were shoulder-to-shoulder with your flight instructor, Larry Mitchell, who took you through the procedure for take-off. You eyed the control panel, with its array of gauges and radios. Directly in front of you was a small steering wheel, called a yoke, and a pedal for each foot. You noted with relief that Mitchell had a duplicate set of controls, just like driver’s ed in high school. “Today, you’re actually going to fly the airplane yourself,” he said. “You’re going to take off, learn to make right and left turns, and you’ll even take the controls for awhile.”

Mitchell helped you with your seat belt, handed you a loaner headset (the pros carry their own), and explained that you would hear a lot of voices during your flight: clearance delivery before leaving the ground; ground control, the tower controller and departure control. You would hear Mitchell’s voice and your own on the headset, too.

This introductory lesson was about 35 minutes long, with 20 minutes in the air. It was sponsored by the nonprofit organization “BE A PILOT,” a national education program to help the public become more familiar with general aviation – non-airline flying for personal and business reasons. Flight School Hawaii is one of eight participating flight schools on Oahu. The lesson costs $49.

“BE A PILOT is basically the industry, all the manufacturers and all the players in aviation banding together to take their limited resources and pool it together for marketing and letting people know about learning to fly,” said Frelander.

This Cessna 172 is a 2003 model, but its flight instruments are already becoming outdated. Newer Skyhawks have a glass panel with two computer monitors instead of the circular “steam gauges,” as Mitchell called them. The monitors give readings on the aircraft’s altitude, heading, and speed, as well as a color GPS, autopilot, and a transponder.

“It provides the same information, and more, in a totally different format,” said Frelander.

You turned the key in the ignition, which was located below and to the left of the yoke. The engine roared in response. The thrust from the propellers nudged the plane a few feet down the runway. “One hundred eighty horsepower,” Mitchell said. “It wants to go – it wants to fly.”


At Mitchell’s direction, you pushed on a black knob – the throttle – giving full power to the engines. Then you pumped the pedals gently to control the spin of the wheels.

And you were airborne, climbing fast. At first the plane rocked from side to side a little, but it smoothed out and soon you were soaring 1,500 feet above the ground. Heading toward Wheeler Airfield, you were in the school’s “north practice area.” You looked to your right and saw the Koolau range, to your left and saw the Waianaes. But you were not particularly interested in looking down.

Then you hit some rough air. The airplane dipped, but your stomach stayed where it was. This felt more immediate, more personal than turbulence on a jet liner. You glanced anxiously at your instructor. “That’s the wind coming through the valley – right where the H-3 cuts through there,” Mitchell said. You heard his calm voice on the headset, requesting permission from ground control to climb to 2,500 feet.

Turning seemed pretty easy. For a left turn, you pushed the left pedal and steered left. Reversed the process to go right. Mitchell guided you through a couple of practice turns, and it was time to start back.

Now you were heading straight toward Diamond Head, taking in the beautiful aerial view. You gazed downward and realized how green everything was. Mitchell was looking up, though. “Do you know what I’m looking for?” he asked. “Other airplanes.” Honolulu Class B airspace – the FAA designation for a major airport – is among the busiest in the world, he explains. “If you learn to fly here, you can fly anywhere.”

Kapolei resident David McKean took an introductory lesson a year ago. “I always wanted to be a pilot,” he said, “And I thought, might as well take that instead of starting training and then
go, wow, this really wasn’t something I wanted.” Since then, McKean has earned private pilot and commercial ratings, an instrument rating, and he recently qualified to be a multi-engine instructor.

Earning a private pilot certificate (pilots get a “certificate,” not a license) requires a minimum of 40 flight hours. There is also a required written test and a flight test with an FAA-designated examiner.

The average cost for a private pilot certificate is $6,500, more or less depending on the amount of time you can commit to training. Frelander said most people spend three or four months and take two to three lessons a week.

There are two ways to train as a private pilot, and Flight School Hawaii offers both. Training under Federal Aviation Regulations Part 141 provides a standardized curriculum and close supervision by a specially certified instructor. Part 61 training is more flexible; the student rearranges the order to suit his schedule, which is convenient for those who can only fly on weekends and evenings. The student must pass the FAA written exam, with no required ground school training provided by the school.

Frelander has a clear preference. “It’s much better to do your training under 141 than it is 61,” he said. “With 61, if you do training in a not-as-structured environment, and if you have a relatively inexperienced instructor, it can take you forever to get your license. Whereas under 141, you’re more likely to finish in the appropriate time and you’re also less likely to miss anything.”

Either way, Frelander said, Hawaii is a great place to learn to fly. The winds tend to be stronger than normal flying conditions, and he added, “At the same time you’re learning to fly in mountainous terrain and over ocean, so you’re getting the experience of flying in all the various environments.

“Whereas on the mainland, if you’re flying out of a small airstrip in Kansas, then you’re really going to be good at flying out of small strips in Kansas but anywhere else, you’re going to have a harder time.”

McKean likes the challenge of flying at night over water. He said pilots typically rely on roads and lighting on the ground to help stay on course. “But out here, you go out over to the ocean and it’s 100 percent by your gauges. There is no light,” he said. “It’s like a lot of pilots say, once you go flying out here in Hawaii, you fly out into space because there’s nothing out there to give you any reference where you are. You really have to trust your gauges.”

Your first flight was over. Mitchell brought the plane in and landed it with finesse. In flight training, he said, you’d be able to fly the airplane and land it in about three to four hours. “It wouldn’t be the best landing,” he said, “But it wouldn’t hurt you.”

Before you went home, you didn’t forget to ask for a logbook and record your flight time. The introductory flight was considered training, and can be applied toward your 40-hour requirement. And who knows, you just might be back.