A blog of our adventures around the world as location-independent digital nomads.
Discovery Flight around Austin
This post was written by JT about the discovery flight that we took together.
Ever since I found out that “discovery flights” were a thing, I have had it on my birthday/Christmas wishlist. Discovery flights are flights with a flight instructor which are usually steeply-discounted off of the hourly rate for a plane and instructor – as they want to hook you on flying and get you signed up for lessons.
I was thrilled with my gift! But, before we scheduled it, I wanted to learn a lot of the basics before doing it. I figured perhaps if I knew enough, I might be able to talk with the tower or maybe even take the controls while the plane was in the air! And then tax season happened… and then South Africa… and then Katie was in Turkey/Greece… and then catching-up on things… and then China… and then we get a reminder that our Groupon is expiring soon!
So, I called early August to schedule the flight. To my surprise, there were plenty of options and we could schedule it for the weekend after Katie got back. Working with the scheduler, we chose 10 am on Sunday August 16th. 10 am was a good time – especially on a Sunday – as the tarmac should not be as crowded, the temperature would not be too hot yet, but it would not make us wake up too early 🙂
We have been to the Austin Airport dozens of times, but never in this entrance!
We left the house around 9:15am and – seemingly, for the first time since our wedding – I was early to something. We pulled into the south side of the airport around 20 minutes before 10. The private aircraft are parked here on the south side of the airfield vs. commercial aircraft at the main terminal to the north.
The entrance to Atlantic Aviation
There are two main FBOs (fixed-base operators) on this side: Atlantic Aviation and Signature Flight Support. As our instructor explained, Atlantic Aviation is the “gas station” for Above & Beyond Aviation. But, they are also the place where Above & Beyond stores their planes, has maintenance work done, keeps their aircraft keys, etc.
Reception desk at Atlantic Aviation
Inside, they had a nice lobby – including bathrooms, reasonably-priced vending machines/kitchen area, free coffee machines, and a reception desk. We were instructed to meet our instructor (Bryant) in the vending area. Since we were early, we hung on in there for a while. Part-way through, a couple of young (~20s) guys came in and talked about the flight they just took. In became clear that one was an instructor who was giving feedback to the student. I hung on every word, trying to understand as much as I could.
Right at 10:00am, they wrapped up and Bryant (the instructor from that group) turned his attention to us! We explained that we were there for a Discovery Flight and handed over our Groupon. It seemed that Bryant had not been part of a Groupon Discovery Flight before now, although it seems like the “introductory flight lesson” option had been popular.
Our “bird” for the morning
When scheduling the flight, I was told that we had been assigned N413ES (one of eight aircraft Above & Beyond own and rent). So, when Bryant started looking up which plane we were assigned, I happily noted that we were in “November Four One Three Echo Sierra”, which seemed to earn me some instant credibility. Katie explained that I was “obsessed” with aviation, but I had to walk this back. I have only flown on commercial aircraft (over 200,000 miles in the last 10 years) and grew up near a busy airfield, but had never been on a private plane. Bryant explained his experience was basically the opposite – lots of general aviation experience, but very little commercial aviation experience.
After grabbing an extra headset from a hanger, we walked out on the tarmac to N413ES, a 1997 Cessna 172R. I was fascinated to look over the plane as Bryant did the pre-flight checks. While he answered plenty of questions throughout the process, for time, he did not walk us through the details of the entire checklist.
I got to sit in the left seat!
Pre-flight walk-around checks done, it was time to board the plane. I was shocked when the instructor casually indicated for me to get in the left seat – the one with all of the gauges and instruments!
After climbing in and going through the pre-flight checklist, we dialed into ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) to get the weather, runway information, and jotted down “C” to prove to the tower that we had the correct info. Bryant called the tower. We were instructed to squawk 0202 and stay at 3,000 feet or less. Then, we were cleared to taxi via taxiways Kilo and Bravo to runway 17L and to hold for takeoff clearance.
Lots of aircraft parked near our plane
As we started rolling, I instinctually grabbed for the yoke (the “steering wheel”, but at least I knew better than to call it that) to help steer. Bryant explained that this was a common mistake for newbie pilots and taught me how to use the foot pedals to steer using the rudder while on the ground. Oops…
Looking towards the main terminal from taxiway Bravo
At runway 17L, we pulled to the side and paused to do a final round of pre-flight checks before getting tower clearance for takeoff. With clearance, we pulled onto the runway and Bryant instructed me to push the throttle up to maximum throttle! I did… and then made the cardinal sin of taking my hand off of the throttle. While Bryant had not instructed me about this before, I had already learned basic fact of piloting. It is so important that in commercial planes, many airlines require both pilots to throttle up and hold the throttle there together. Bryant quickly corrected me. We accelerated down the runway and then – at our takeoff speed of 60 knots – Bryant pulled back on the yoke and we took off!
While Bryant continued to hold the yoke, terror quickly set-in for me and I realized that I was holding the controls of a flying aircraft! I was terrified to make any mistakes at such a low altitude. I was certainly not thinking about how the tower had instructed us to turn to ~23 (southwest) upon takeoff. Bryant steered us the right way.
Since we had taken off so close to the start of the runway, our turn took us right over our aircraft parking spot and then over the active runway 17R – a complete surprise to me. I figured, from watching commercial aircraft, that you at least had to wait to the end of the runway to make such a turn.
Not sure if the tower called us or Bryant called the tower, but we were cleared to 2,000 feet and turned north towards the city.
Death grip on the yoke
Upon reaching 2,000 feet, we were further cleared up to our final flight level of 3,000 feet. On the way up, Bryant told me “your controls”, took his hands off of the yoke, and grabbed a binder to start making notes. I was flying the plane all by myself!!
We continued climbing at full throttle as we passed south of downtown, finally reaching 3,000 feet as we turned north to follow MoPac. Bryant showed JT how to throttle back, adjust the trim, and set-up the plane to fly generally straight and level. He did all of the changes himself while I made sure the plane stayed straight.
We continued up MoPac, enjoying our views of downtown, the lakes, out towards the hill country, and even seeing our apartment.
View of our apartments and the Pennybacker Bridge
But, we could not go too far north as our time was running out. So, we turn back towards the airport and contacted the tower. After turning, we were instructed to fly heading 16 right towards the top of runway 17L. As there was incoming traffic, we were instructed to throttle up to get there faster.
Turning back towards the airport
View north towards 183 and beyond
Triangle and UT Intramural Fields
View towards downtown
When we tried to get clearance to land, we were told that we were #2. Ends up, “Hotel Hotel” (N739HH, a 1978 Cessna 172N also owned by Above & Beyond Aviation) was in front of us. We turned due east to extend our approach. Bryant and I both searched for HH, but could not find it – until we saw it take a sharp turn right before the runway and land.
Final views of downtown, still shooting right towards runway 17L
Great view of the airfield as we head due east waiting for our sister plane to land
With HH on the ground, we were cleared to land – and told to do so in a hurry, as we had a [Delta] MD-80 coming in behind us. We turned towards the runway and kept full-throttle. Bryant pointed out the “PAPI” glide slope indicator. We were “red over white” (white-white-red-red) indicating that we were the appropriate angle for landing.
Final turn towards the runway
JT had steered much of the approach, but – once over the runway – Bryant took full control for actually landing. We took a while to finally touch down, even hearing the stall whistle sound for a bit as we tried to touch down (which you can clearly hear in the video below)
Since we landed further than air traffic control expected us to, we were told to speed down the runway to taxiway Juliet to clear out of the way for the MD-80 on final approach right behind us. We cleared off of the runway in time and got a great view of the plane touching down behind us.
MD-80 about to land as we clear runway 17L
I took my hands off of the yoke (still weird!) and steered the plane with Bryant along taxiway Alpha.
The Delta MD-80 was so quick to land and turn off the runway that we were soon facing down the taxiway right towards it. The air traffic controller instructed it to hold short of Kilo to wait for us to clear. The Delta pilot did not seem to know the custom at KAUS: northbound traffic goes on Bravo and southbound traffic on Alpha. The controller pointed this out, instructing him to use Alpha in the future for more “expeditious” taxiing.
Southwest plane (who had been waiting for “Hotel Hotel”, us, and the MD-80 to land) finally getting its chance to take-off. Meanwhile, we are headed right at the Delta MD-80
Delta MD-80 waiting for us to clear the taxiway
Bryant skillfully pulled us into a spot and we walked through the shutdown checklist.
Cockpit shut down and ready for the next pilot
As we wrapped up, Bryant bragged that I had control of the plane for most of the flight – although this seemed quite generous of a statement. He took quite a bit of time to explain to me what the basic steps and requirements are to get a private pilot license. Good thing I have absolutely no practical use for it, or I would be paying the $4,000 (what some of his students have paid) to $10,000 (about what he paid) to get the license… because that was fun!! 😀