With a Sport Pilot License in a Week, 'Hey, Mom, I Can Fly'

By Published on .

Research editor Davin Coburn is not, truth be told, an inveterate thrill seeker. But at age 26, he is looking for risks to take.

He found one in an unlikely way: by fact-checking an article in Popular Mechanics, the Hearst title where he is a researcher. The magazine reported in its November issue that the Federal Aviation Administration had introduced a relatively easy-to-get sport pilot license. An accompanying story covered a full-immersion school designed to rush wanna-be fliers through and into the air.

"Part of the beauty is that they didn't sound easy," said Mr. Coburn, who grew up in Columbia, Md., and studied journalism at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. About the only other thing he'd tried that sounded as difficult or exciting was his move to New York two years ago.

So using vacation time, Mr. Coburn left Brooklyn and reported to Mid-Atlantic Sport Planes in Basye, Va., for training on Dec. 11. A mere eight days later, he received his pilot's certification.

His parents didn't find out until afterward. "In hindsight," he said, "that was the wrong way to play it, but I remembered their reactions to various other adventures I've had, and I was afraid that having them think about their son stalling an airplane would cost them a solid week of sleep."

A handful of immersion schools have blossomed to help usher students to certification in the minimum (safe) time. As far as he knows-and that often is what matters when it comes to adventuring-no one had gone from zero aeronautical experience to federal flight approval as quickly as he did.

However, Mr. Coburn empha- sized, that process was not easy. "They were 10-hour, 12-hour, 14-hour days in flight training and in ground work studying up on the regulations and other things you have to know for the FAA test," he said.

"On an average takeoff, I was just trying to keep the thing going in a straight line," he said. "On the ground, you steer the plane with left and right foot pedals, one of the few things that didn't feel like a driving crossover. At the start of the week, I kept trying to mash a clutch. On takeoff, when you power up and the prop gets blurry, the plane pulls harder to the left. Getting flung into the trees would have ended things in a hurry."

Mr. Coburn reported no near-disasters but said he was nervous a few times before getting in the plane he was learning to fly, a single-engine Zodiac 601XL from Zenith Aircraft. (The plane's maximum weight, he said, is 1,320 pounds-less than half the load that can be supported by the elevators at Advertising Age's New York office.)

Anxiety gripped him hardest the day before his "cross-country" solo flight. "That really was my instructor handing me the keys and saying, `Get yourself to the airport, make sure the plane's ready to fly, gas it up and go fly for a couple hours,' " he said. "That's when you think, `Wow, I really got myself into something serious here.' There was a lot of pacing around the house that morning."

He managed, however. The takeoffs and landings were run-of-the-mill and he even stopped and bought T-shirts at some airports. "It's at once very easy and terribly complex," he said, "sort of like driving a car in three dimensions."

It was harder for Mr. Coburn to convey how he felt in the air. "It's a difficult feeling to describe, whether you're looking at I-81 from a new angle or you're looking down at the mountains," he said. "It's a little difficult to describe how neat that feels. A perfect flight is described as uneventful." One does, he added, smile all the way home.

Since returning to performing routine fact-checking and other chores at Popular Mechanics, Mr. Coburn has slipped away once to fly again in Virginia. Now he is touring small airports in the New York area lining up more flying adventures.

Devoted to a worthy cause? Have a secret fishing hideaway? Rabid about participatory sports? Ad Age is looking for interesting Off Hours stories from marketer world executives. If you have a fascinating Off Hours activity, describe your passion in an email to Mike Ryan at mryan@crain.com.

Davin Coburn

Research editor at Popular Mechanics

Professional airline pilots generally begin at a young age, taking flying lessons after getting a student pilot’s license. Then they test to get a private license, an instrument rating, commercial pilot’s license and often a flight instructor’s license. Many pilots join the military and after service, or assorted flight activity in charter/corporate planes, apply to commercial airlines. Acceptance process is rigorous involving tests, ground school and more tests, especially in simulators. Routinely, pilots have logged more than 2,500 hours of flight time--before training in specific commercial jets.

In this article:
Most Popular