Looking for a thrill? Take the pilot's seat

When Christine Murakami turned 40, the Dublin teacher, who had dreamed of piloting a plane as a girl, decided to take flying lessons.During her first one, the instructor let her take-off, and she was hooked.

"Taking off is a piece of cake," said Murakami, now 47. "It took me forever to learn to land."

Learning to fly is a thrill almost any adult can try, with enough guts (and money).

Would-be pilots officially need 20 or 40 hours of instruction (depending on license type), though many opt for more. The cost is typically $5,500 to $10,000.

A sport pilot license, recently created by the Federal Aviation Administration, can be completed in 20 hours but has restrictions: Sport pilots must fly light-sport planes-small, two-seaters-and cannot fly at night. A private license requires 40 hours of instruction.

Students who spend several hours a week taking lessons can earn the sport pilot license in about six weeks, said Richard Willis, president of New Flyers Association, a flying school based at the Ohio State University Airport. Lessons involve hands-on training in the air, and ground school, where students study weather, navigation and basic aerodynamics. Most people do their coursework online, Willis said.

Flight instructors typically allow students to take control of the plane early on in the process, said Mark Hollander, flight instructor and assistant operations manager at Capital City Aviation, located at the Ohio State Airport. "You'd be surprised," he said. "The teacher may hardly touch the controls during the lesson."

It's common for students to exceed the minimum requirements. Most people take about 75 hours of training, Hollander said.

When a student feels confident in her abilities, she can schedule a test with the FAA. Applicants must undergo an interview, and then pass a written test and flying test. Pilot candidates seeking a private license also must pass a medical examination.

Most schools offer introductory classes, where potential students can go up in a plane and see if they would like to pursue lessons. The classes cost $100 to $150.

Murakami recommends an introductory lessson for others who think they may have an interest. She spent about a year learning to fly. She figures she took 60 to 70 hours of lessons, which at the time cost about $100 an hour.

She finds flying a rewarding challenge.

"It's incredibly satisfying intellectually to do something like that," she said. "You have to have total focus."

My First Lesson

When I asked my flight instructor what I could expect from my first flying lesson, he said we'd keep things simple.

"It's getting used to being in the airplane and looking out and being amazed that the houses are getting smaller," said Richard Willis, president of New Flyers Association, an Ohio State University-based flight school.

That sounded reasonable, as I can barely fly a kite.

Steering with his feet, Willis, an Air Force veteran, moved the Cessna 172 Skyhawk toward the runway for take-off. I couldn't help but notice that the low fuel light was blinking as we barreled down the runway. As we rose steadily into the air, the light kept flashing. Now, I've been known to push the limits of the gas tank while driving around town. But thousands of feet in the air, it seemed a little risky. Willis, who was planning on filling the tank at a neighboring airport where fuel was $1 cheaper a gallon, decided to err on the side of caution. He turned the plane around, landed and bought a few gallons of fuel.

Then we flew to the Madison County Airport to fill the tank. After we were completely fueled up, my lesson officially began.

Shortly after we were in the air, Willis told me to take control. Palms sweating, I asked him whether it was more important to watch the gauges or look out the window.

"You're supposed to be looking out the window all the time," he said, "and looking at the controls just once in while."

He showed me the direction we needed to go, and I gingerly moved the controls that way. I was surprised at how simple it seemed to stay on course and how easily the plane responded to my maneuvers.

When it was time to land, I let Willis do the work, though I kept my hands on the controls so I could feel what he was doing.

Steering the plane, which has less interior room than my minivan, may have seemed easy, but I didn't want any part of landing it. After all, I still occasionally ask my husband to back the van down my narrow driveway.