I recently received a discovery flight in a Cessna 172 as a birthday present. It was out of Gorge Winds Aviation in Troutdale, Oregon (KTTD). A discovery flight is a chance to sit in the left seat of a small plane with a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) there to guide you. The CFI handles the hard stuff, like the initial take-off and landing, but you are given the opportunity to take the controls for just about everything else.
My CFI, Jason, already had the plane prepared and pre-flight checked before I arrived. I was in the cockpit with the engine running within 5 minutes of my arrival.
The plane we flew was a Cessna 172, tail number N5201H. It was built in 1975 and the cockpit showed its age. Everything was in working order, though, and I had no fears or doubts about its reliability and the maintenance care Gorge Winds provided it.
We taxied to the hold-short line of runway 25 and performed the run-up procedure. This entails revving the engine to 1800 rpm and checking the magnetos and gauges. After waiting for another Cessna to land, we moved out onto the runway and without delay were airborne.
The first thing that surprised me was how rapidly those little planes can gain altitude. My ears popped right away. The second thing that surprised me was how little visibility you have forward over the engine when climbing at that rate. We rose at 600-700 feet per minute and at that angle of attack, you can’t see anything directly in front of you. After we reached 500 MSL (mean sea level), we reduced our rate of climb to about 300 fpm.
To my left I saw a helicopter moving parallel to the runway at about 100 ft. AGL, below us. Soon we banked left and headed south. Jason mentioned we were in the KPDX air space and had to stay at or below 1,200 feet MSL to stay below incoming airliners. Once we got out of a particular radius from the main PDX airport, we were able to climb to a higher altitude.
Once we made our bank to the left and Jason got the aircraft trimmed up, I took the controls. The yoke was fairly small, a bit smaller than I anticipated. Even though we didn’t have much wind–calm to 3 mph–we got moved around a bit at different times during the flight. At one point the aircraft yawed rather abruptly to the left and down. I instinctively corrected and righted the plane without any fuss.
I was impressed by how deftly Jason handled the comms. He was conversing with me, listening to air traffic control, and giving them updates as we flew, all without missing a beat. Jason also kept a small tablet on his kneeboard (a clipboard strapped to one leg) and tracked where we were at all times on a digital map.
We followed highway 26 at about 1,800 ft. MSL and made our way to my hometown of Sandy, Oregon. Although I didn’t specifically see my house, I could see my neighborhood. We flew directly above it. As we maneuvered further south, I was surprised by how dense the trees are in east Multnomah and west Clackamas counties. When I fly over the area in X-Plane with photo-realistic scenery, everything is in its place and even larger buildings are replicated rather well, but the density of trees is not very accurate in the simulator.
I was allowed to choose our course and fly there, and Jason never took over the controls until we were on the final turn to land back at Troutdale. We passed over my house another time, then flew above the Sandy River back toward home base.
As we flew, Jason remarked at how smooth and well coordinated my turns were. He was surprised that I have never actually flown before; my only experience is conceptual and simulated. The principles are easy to follow, though, and I have a fair bit of coordination after riding motorcycles all my life and playing drums since grade school.
When we approached KTTD, Jason gave me the opportunity to have my hands on the wheel as he performed the landing. I wasn’t comfortable with that, as I didn’t want to risk influencing his control inputs. I was satisfied with observing and noting his actions. Jason described what he was doing every step of the way, which I greatly appreciated. I soaked it up like a sponge.
We came in close for a ‘short final’ approach, just west of the bluff above Troutdale. In my simulator, I had always flown over the bluff further to the east, making a longer and more gradual final approach. Jason dropped the flaps to full (30 degrees), slowed it up, and dropped us down for a steep approach. He flared the aircraft and made a nice landing.
In the real aircraft, I had a much more accurate sense for how far we were above the runway. In the simulator, it’s harder to tell where and when to flare because you don’t have the same sense of altitude.
We taxied off the runway, contacted ATC, and made our way back to the parking area outside the Gorge Winds office.
I helped Jason tie down the plane, took a minute to snap some photos, then went inside. I purchased a pilot log book and Jason noted our flight within.
The experience was a thrill and completed a bucket list item I’ve had since I was a small boy. I definitely wish to fly again, and hope to take the controls a bit more next time.