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Up, Up, and Away


Fear. That's what I expected to feel during my first flying lesson in a single-engine propeller airplane. But taxiing down the narrow airstrip of Lincoln Park Airport in Morris County, N.J., sitting in the left front seat of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk SP, I wasn't scared. Something about flying a plane really focuses the mind. I push in the throttle and my instructor, Nancy Ahlers, steers us down the runway. We quickly accelerate to 65 mph, Nancy pulls back on the yoke ever so slightly, and we lift off into the sky. Yeeha!

Tens of thousands of new pilots are experiencing the same thrill this year. After shunning the friendly skies for the past decade, Americans have renewed their love affair with flying private airplanes. Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued 106,100 student pilot certificates, an increase of 9% over 1999. Most of the licenses went to middle-age men taking up flying as a new hobby, followed by women hobbiests and young adults scouting career opportunities.

Be A Pilot (www.beapilot.com), founded in 1997 by companies in the aviation industry, has sparked a lot of interest in flying. Funded by $2 million in contributions, the nonprofit program offers introductory flight lessons for $49, half the typical price. Last year, more than 35,000 people signed up, the busiest year on record. And registrations are up 11% through the first quarter of this year. "Call it a comeback after a 15-year recession in our business," says Drew Steketee, CEO of the Be a Pilot program. Until the mid-1990s, product liability lawsuits nearly wiped out the general aviation industry, and manufacturers such as Cessna stopped making planes. But after Congress passed a law in 1994 limiting manufacturers' liability, the industry has slowly come back to life.

Learning how to fly is cheaper and easier than you might think. To get a private pilot's license, the FAA requires students to take 40 hours of training--20 hours of flight instruction and 20 hours of solo flying. But most students average 50 to 60 hours by the time they take the test. Instructors charge $25 to $50 an hour. Plus, you'll have to rent a plane. All told, it costs $3,000 to $5,000 to earn the basic license. From there, you can work to attain higher levels such as an instrument rating, which takes another 40 hours of training, and allows you to fly in bad weather and through clouds.

Private pilots are evenly divided between those who own and those who rent. The Cessna I flew, with four seats and a range of 500 miles, costs $170,000 new, but most starter pilots buy used planes for $20,000 to $75,000. Rental rates usually run $60 to $100 an hour for a four-seat aircraft and $50 an hour for a two-seater, with a daily minimum of two hours on weekdays and three or four hours on weekends.

Still scared? Flying small planes is safer than you might think. The accident rate per 100,000 hours flown in general aviation planes--that excludes commercial airline and military incidents--has declined by 45% since 1982, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Out of 31 million flight hours last year, there were 1,835 accidents, 341 of which involved fatalities. Industry experts attribute the increased safety to improvements in training, aircraft, and navigation technology.

ACROBATICS? "I'm hooked," says Susan Bandy, 45, of Louisville, Ky. Bandy, who co-owns an advertising agency and travels a lot for business, decided to take flying lessons after completing a 10-hour road trip a few years ago. She started training in July, 1998, and took only four months to get her private license. She now flies three days a week, zipping around to St. Louis, Springfield, Ill., and Indianapolis to meet with clients. She uses her own plane, a four-seat, fully loaded 1987 Mooney 252TSE, which she bought last year for $185,000. "It seems like such a big thing, but if you take it one step at a time, it brings a huge sense of accomplishment," says Bandy, who plans to learn how to do aerial acrobatics one day.

I probably won't take it that far. But after my two-hour lesson, I see why people catch the flying bug. Our mission is to fly the Hudson River Corridor, a designated flight zone and mecca for pilots that runs 24 miles, from the Tappan Zee Bridge near Tarrytown, N.Y., to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn and Staten Island. It's a beautiful, sunny day, with good visibility.

On the ground, we conduct a preflight check. I help inspect dozens of things, such as the wing's nuts and bolts and the fuel quality. Experienced pilots run a flight-check in 15 or 20 minutes, but we take 45 minutes since it is my first lesson. We begin our ascent. Nancy takes the plane up to 2,500 feet, lines up the nose with a building in the distance, and lets me take the reins. I gently grab the yoke, turning it to the right while also pressing down on the right floor pedal to accentuate the turn. If I make a mistake, Nancy can use her own yoke to take control of the plane. I fly us all the way to the Hudson, zigzagging back and forth to get a feel for the plane. I see a helicopter and hum Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries.

Nancy takes over the plane as we fly into the Corridor. "Hudson River Traffic, this is November 814 Lima Papa," says Nancy, broadcasting our position. "We're at 900 feet over the George Washington Bridge, southbound on the New Jersey side." At this low altitude, Manhattan looks like a city in a giant miniature train set, and everything seems close enough to touch. I spot Yankee Stadium; then Central Park's green swath comes into view. I stare at the tips of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. I look below and the sun's rays glisten off the Hudson's emerald-green surface. Then a blimp whizzes by us on the other side of the river. "I have never seen that," says Nancy. "That's cool."

Some 30 minutes into the flight, we fly past the Statue of Liberty and head back up the river. It's exhilarating, this flying thing, like riding a motorcycle in the air. Cruising in a light single-engine plane, you are inside the experience, living it, feeling it, rather than viewing it as a detached observer through a tiny portal. When we land in New Jersey, I feel disoriented, exhausted, and a bit queasy. At that moment, the thrill is gone. But I know I'll want to taste it again. By Spencer E. Ante


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