Learning to fly a small aircraft -- a glider plane, helicopter or fixed-wing airplane -- is an exercise in patience and coordination. How much can you learn in a basic lesson? Enough to at least get off the ground.
The small yellow helicopter kept trying to spin in circles.
It was a bit unnerving, but the Robinson R22 was hovering only a few feet above a Republic Airport taxiway and there was an instructor in the other seat telling me what to do.
It was the beginning of my first pilot's lesson with a company optimistically named Flying Helicopters Made Easy. I was tense because I knew eventually I would have to manipulate three controls simultaneously. And initially I was doing a poor job of managing just the foot pedals that control the direction the helicopter travels.
Instructor Stefan Stumpp kept telling me to apply more pressure to one pedal and eventually I was able to get the helicopter to zigzag out to the runway.
"You really have to make small adjustments quickly," Stumpp, 22, said, handing the other controls over to me.
I was pleased to be able to use them to fly reasonably straight until the instructor pointed out another problem. "You need a little bit of nose-down attitude to fly forward" at a set altitude, Stumpp said. But when I focused on the horizon as instructed, the airplane went higher -- a common beginner's mistake.
Eventually the Robinson seemed to go pretty much where I wanted it to, so I began to release my death grip on the controls and even snatch a few glimpses of the world below.
At Mid Island Air Service, Inc. at Long Island MacArthur Airport, instructor David Schreiber, 28, briefed me about the single-engine Cessna 172R Skyhawk.
Schreiber said we would use the yoke steering control to climb or descend and turn in conjunction with the rudder pedals.
Once Schreiber got us airborne, we climbed to 2,100 feet. A combination of wind gusts and my inexperience had the plane dipping and rising and pitching from side to side. But when we leveled off over Great South Bay, keeping the plane flying straight was simple. It was, however, difficult to keep the altitude from going up 100 feet and then down 100 feet while looking at the horizon as instructed.
Compared to the helicopter flight, this one was easy enough to take a few moments periodically to sightsee.
With no engine, fewer controls and only three gauges, I figured -- accurately -- that a glider would be the simplest of the three aircraft to fly.
At Sky Sailors Glider School in Westhampton Beach, instructor Richard Barrow, 80, briefed me on the two-seater L23 Super Blanik: the stick controls the pitch up and down for speed and elevation as well as the angle of the wings to control direction; the rudder pedals are used with the stick for turning.
"You don't want to make any large movements," he warned, because the steering is very sensitive.
A tow plane quickly pulled the 27-foot glider with a 53-foot wingspan into the air. At 3,500 feet, Barrow told me to pull the towline release lever and we began gliding at 45 miles an hour.
As much as I tried to use a light touch on the stick, at first I continued to overcorrect. But before the half-hour flight was over, I was able to make turns that may not have been graceful but at least kept us heading where we wanted to go.
WHERE TO LEARN TO FLY
Acquiring a basic pilot's license requires a minimum of 40 hours flight time, but most people put in around 60 hours before taking the test.
FLYING HELICOPTERS MADE EASY, 1100 New Hwy. (At Sheltair), East Farmingdale. 855-359-6969, ext. 0. FLY-NY.com
Lessons cost $285 an hour.
HELICOPTER FLIGHT TRAINING, INC., 2111 Smithtown Ave., Ronkonkoma, at Long Island MacArthur Airport, 631-467-2232, helicopterflighttraininginc.com
Lessons cost $276 per hour.
Fixed-wing small planes:
MID ISLAND AIR SERVICE, INC., 101 Hering Dr., Ronkonkoma, at Long Island MacArthur Airport, 631-588-5400; or 1300 William Floyd Pkwy., Shirley, 631-281-5400, midislandair.com
A 45-minute introductory lesson costs $150. Subsequent lessons $225 per hour.
VENTURA FLIGHT TRAINING, 8100 Republic Airport, East Farmingdale, 631-756-5500, ventura.aero
Lessons are $189 for one hour in the air, plus ground briefing.
GLOBAL AVIATION CENTER, Republic Airport, 9100 Route 109, Atlantic Building Suite 106, East Farmingdale, 631-391-9110, globalaviationcorp.net
Introductory lesson with 45 minutes in the air is $139. Subsequent lessons cost about $180 an hour.
SKY SAILORS GLIDER SCHOOL, Building 313, Rust Avenue, Gabreski Airport, Westhampton Beach, 631-288-5858, skysailors.com
Introductory lesson is $300 for two flights.