Learning to fly
Photo: Suzanne Rent
“Did you eat anything?” That’s the first question I am asked when I step into the door at the Debert Flight Centre. David DeBay, general manager of the centre and chief flight instructor, tells me new students often get airsick. I hadn’t considered that possibility.
I’m here to take a Discovery Flight, a lesson offered by the centre to introduce people to flying. The club itself is located at the end of Spitfire Road in Debert. Several small planes line the area between the club and the runway.
Today, we are flying a Cessna 172, a small two-seat plane that rumbles when we start its engine. DeBay says these Cessnas are the most stable and common planes for students. “You can go up and do a spin or a stall, and it will almost recover itself,” he says. Tomahawks, or as he calls them “Traumahawks,” used to be the standard trainer plane, but instructors have phased them out due to their tendency to go into uncontrolled spins.
After we buckle in and put on our headsets, DeBay goes over a checklist of safety and operational details. Even though the plane has an instrument panel with several dials, knobs and gauges, DeBay says students first learn to fly without relying on those instruments.
During many lessons, he covers over the instruments completely, so students learn how to control the plane without them. That instrument training takes place at ground school here in Debert or at a school in Fall River.
DeBay tells me to place an upright fist on the dash. The horizon should be level with my thumb. If I should ever need to level out the plane, I should just place my fist on the dash to once again find the horizon.
Focusing on the horizon also helps with the airsickness. DeBay points out the white paper airsickness bags in a pocket close to the floor, just in case I need one.
DeBay checks in with air control and we take off. The plane leaves the ground smoothly and while I feel every movement, there is little wind to bounce it around.
“How long have you been flying?” I ask.
“You don’t ask a pilot how long he’s been flying,” he counters. “You ask how many hours he has.”
He has 2,000. DeBay started flying in his 20s, encouraged by his father. He’s been the general manager at the flying club for seven months now. He says there is one reason he loves to fly: because it’s fun.
“You don’t do it for the money,” DeBay says. “You do it because you love to fly. It’s definitely a passion.”
Those students working toward a commercial license come to the Debert Flight Centre from around the region.
Many of those go to work with commercial airlines, but they also work on planes for fire patrols or for companies in the north. Many of the students who are learning to fly as a hobby are from the Halifax area. DeBay encourages those learning to fly try teaching, too.
“Anyone doing this for a living, I recommend the instructor route because you learn more than with just a commercial license,” he says. “And it’s a lot of fun taking the students up and teaching them.”
DeBay’s teaching style is laid back with a good dose of humour. Once we climb to an altitude of about 2,000 feet, he shows me what the plane can do. He banks it steeply to the left and then to the right. I get the immediate rush of fun and laugh that I am actually getting a chance to do this. DeBay says students should be here to have a good time.
“If it makes you nervous, that’s not what we are about here,” says DeBay. “You want people to be relaxed and enjoy it.”
The view is spectacular. We are flying over Cobequid Bay and the farmland near Debert. While the trees are losing their autumn brilliance, the day is clear.
Once we level out, it’s my turn to fly the plane. “You have control,” DeBay says, handing over control of the plane to me. “I have control,” I answer back. DeBay can easily retake control.
Flying the plane requires more coordination than I expect. It’s a bit like driving a go-kart. Pressing the bottom portion of pedals on the cockpit floor help turn the plane left or right. Pressing the top portion of the pedal controls the brakes for landing and use on the runway.
Unlike driving a car where a drive should have two hands in a 10-2 position on the steering wheel, you only use one hand on the yoke or the control column. The grip should be loose but controlled and steady. Pulling the column out brings the nose of the plane up. Pushing the column in points the nose down.
“Pretend you’re playing a video game,” DeBay says.
DeBay allows me to control the plane for a good portion of the flight, including lining up the plane for landing. DeBay lands the plane himself. While students will learn how to take off as quickly as the second lesson, their first landing won’t happen until several lessons in.
Beyond take off and landing, students will learn how to handle spins and stalls and, most importantly, safety. “A lot of the training involves, ‘If this happens, what are you going to do about it,” DeBay says. “That’s pilot decision making, as they call it. It’s the most fun you’ll ever have in school.”
DeBay says after just one lesson, students are hooked. “Most people come in and nine times out of 10, they want to come back,” he says.
While DeBay has an easy way about teaching flying, safety is his priority. “The joke is don’t break the plane because you’re in it,” he laughs.
After landing, I asked DeBay how I did on my first lesson. “About the usual,” he says.
Not once during the flight did I feel unsafe. And not once did I feel sick. I’ll take it.
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This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.