By CRAIG FREILICH
POTSDAM – You might not think of Potsdam as a flight-training center, and it’s not, not like some places in Arizona and Florida that have aeronautical universities and good flying weather almost all the time.
But Potsdam Municipal Airport, also known as Damon Field, is just as good as lots of other places to get primary training and experience and earn certification as a pilot.
Kurt Thomas, a 29-year-old Cape Air captain with all the higher level authorizations – instrument flying and multi-engine ratings, commercial certification, and airline transport pilot rating -- is also the owner and instructor for Potsdam Aero.
Thomas is certified as a flight instructor to teach everyone from a basic student to another airline pilot. He grew up in Potsdam, graduated from Canton’s Williams High School, and went to SUNY Potsdam. His flight training took place out of Malone-DuFort Airport in nearby Franklin County.
Since he started teaching in 2006, Thomas has trained 36 pilots, and five just this summer. One of this summer’s fliers is a young woman who graduated from high school this year, and who earned both her private pilot’s certificate and her driving license in the same week.
As a Cape Air captain, he generally flies the Massena-to-Albany route, and occasionally a leg to Boston.
“It works out well for me. If I worked for an airline outside the area I wouldn’t be able to teach here. I enjoy teaching flight students.”
And he enjoys North Country flying lore.
On his desk is a copy of a book by Canton writer Chris Angus, “The Extraordinary Adirondack Journey of Clarence Petty,” about the North Country outdoors legend who died two years ago at the age of 104. Petty was an avid flyer who continued teaching pilots into his 90s. Thomas says his primary flight instructor learned from Petty.
Is learning to fly something you might want to do? A lot of people think about it. It is a challenge with a great payoff.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires a minimum of 40 hours of flying time, much of that with an instructor, to get a private pilot’s certificate, but it usually will take longer. The student also has to pass a written test, which covers the gamut of knowledge required of a pilot from aerodynamics and aircraft systems to air traffic control procedures and weather, airport signs and runway markings, aeromedical factors like night vision and hypoxia (the effects of a lack of oxygen at altitude), and the rules – lots and lots of rules.
But the first lesson is generally a fairly simple affair. After a pre-flight “walk-around,” checking for potential problems before they get tragic, the instructor and the student get into the airplane – in this case, a 1977 Cessna 172, a small single-engine aircraft (you soon begin to call planes “aircraft”). The student will get into the left seat, where pilots sit.
You put on the belts, start the engine, and taxi to the end of the runway. Thomas says one of the toughest things for people to overcome is the urge to steer with the yoke while taxiing. It’s actually done with the rudder pedals.
Before entering the runway, there are engine, magneto, vacuum, oil pressure and temperature checks. Make sure the brakes are working. Make sure the ailerons, rudder and elevator are working. Check the fuel gauges, even though you have already checked the tanks during the walk-around.
You get on the radio to tell other aircraft what your intentions are. You look around to see if other people, or birds, are in the air.
You line up in the center at the end of the runway into the wind, and hold the brake.
If your instructor believes you’re up to it, he or she will encourage you to take the controls for takeoff, ready to take over if you get sideways.
You push the throttle all the way in and let off the brakes. You add some right rudder by pushing on the pedal, to counteract the torque of the engine and the prop wash, which want to swing you to the left.
As you pick up speed, you begin to pull back on the yoke, waiting for the moment when there is enough lift to bring the nose-wheel off the runway. When your speed is high enough, you keep the yoke pulled back a bit, and the whole aircraft rises into the air. You're flying.
Most people have seen the Earth from aloft before, but there might be two surprises in store: when you’re not as high as an airliner flies, you can see a lot of things on the ground, even though it might take a while to recognize some things you know well. And if you see something that interests you and you’re doing the flying, you can go take a look.
There are many intermediate steps, like a first solo flight, but to become a certified pilot, in the course of training the student must show proficiency by successfully completing a long solo cross-country flight of at least 150 miles. And the “final exam” is a two-part test. The trainee must show an FAA-designated examiner that he or she can plan a flight, and answer all the questions the examiner might have on any aspect of aviation. Last is a “check ride” with the examiner, where all the required maneuvers, radio work, and safety training come into play. And most important, you will land the plane, safely, several times.
If all that goes well, the student gets certified as a “private pilot.” In the business, that is referred to as “a license to learn,” a starting point for broader experience.
One of the biggest misconceptions Thomas says he faces is the idea “that it’s too expensive – not to say that it’s cheap, but it’s doable if you want to spread it out.”
The entire private pilot certificate course, including ground school, flight training with the instructor, aircraft rental, fuel, study aids, aviation charts and equipment, will run about $4,500 up to about $6,000 depending on how long it takes. Flying once every two weeks rather than twice a week will take more flight hours to get fully proficient because the student will lose sharpness between flights.
“It sounds like a lot of money, but people are buying four-wheelers for $10,000 that won’t last forever. But as a private pilot, you will have that for the rest of your life.
“It’s something anybody can do if they have the commitment.”
Part of that commitment is to make a couple of essentials second nature: concentration and safety are paramount.
“It’s not like getting in a car and going,” Thomas says.
Nor is it like pulling over and stopping on the highway shoulder if something goes wrong. And unlike flying your Xbox or Nintendo, there is no pause button.
But if you take it all seriously and those lessons stick with you, then you can have some fun.