Last Tuesday, I found myself at Santa Barbara Municipal Airport walking behind Andrea Read, owner and chief flight instructor of Spitfire Aviation Flight School. It seemed like just a normal walk across concrete until we passed behind a plane readying for takeoff and I was hit by the prop wash. In that moment, while my clothes and hair were blown sideways, I realized I was actually going to be in the air, flying a plane over UCSB and Santa Barbara in a matter of minutes. I flew the plane myself for nearly the entire lesson, including take-off and a trip down the coast to the southern edge of Santa Barbara. Nothing could have prepared me for the thrill – and horrifying realization – that I was actually flying the plane.
The airport is literally feet away from the edge of campus, yet we don’t realize it is actually possible to fly ourselves. Whether you are interested in getting your pilot’s license or just want to see what it is like to fly a plane, you can book a discovery flight at Spitfire any day of the week. This flight, for $79, will take you along the edge of campus and along the coast over the harbor and cemetery before heading back to the airport.
If the discovery flight tickles your fancy and you want to join the ranks of the thousands of private pilots in the United States, it is relatively easy as long as you have the cash to back up your desire. Spitfire quotes that the average student will pay about $8,800 during the process. This number, though steep, includes 55 hours of plane rental, 20 hours of ground instruction, the textbook and mandatory medical exam. The lessons prepare you for the Federal Aviation Administration exams, which consist of a written multiple-choice exam, a two-hour oral exam, and a “check flight” exam. This last portion is akin to a really long driver license test. After completion of the exams, you will be a certified private pilot, capable of throwing your buddies into a plane and zipping off to Vegas, Mammoth, San Francisco or wherever your heart desires. If the price is out of your reach, you can always ask Mommy and Daddy for a pilot’s license. Let them think of it as an opportunity to see you more often. Andrea, my flight instructor, and a former Gaucho, explains it is possible to get your license as fast as you want. It is based upon how quickly you complete the lessons – you can fly daily if your schedule and your wallet will allow it. “Think of it as a quarter-length course,” Andrea explained. It’s a little more expensive than that intermediate yoga class you have been taking, but an “A” in this course means the ability to fly, which is way cooler than the ability to bend into a pretzel.
If you have only ever flown in large planes, flying in small planes is quite an experience. With a small plane you do not get the comfort of a major jet, leg space is cramped, head space is minimal, and you have to basically crawl in and out of the door. The flight itself is a little nerve-wracking at first – the aircraft bumps along more than drunks on Del Playa. Despite the drawbacks, flight in a single engine two-passenger plane is incredibly intimate. There is something entirely peaceful about looking out at Isla Vista, campus and Santa Barbara from 2,200 feet in the air, even with a huge engine just a few feet in front of you. It is also probably the fastest I will ever make a vehicle go, about 150 mph. After getting used to the bumps in the sky, even this flight-fearing columnist was able to face his fear through the windshield of a small plane and land. And it is also definitely the best reason so far to skip a black cinema course.