Becoming a pilot opens up a whole new world of possibilities that you may never knew existed. Returning home to Pensacola for my first visit since 2009 held a special excitement for me. Not only is it the Navy’s 100th Anniversary, the Blue Angels are flying this weekend and I was determined to book a flight to fly over the beaches if I could find a place that would take a student pilot up.
A few days before I was scheduled to leave for Pensacola, I got an idea that maybe I could find a school that would let me schedule a couple of hours of flight time with an instructor while I was down there on vacation. I kept thinking about how incredible it would be to see Pensacola Beach from the air and take photographs for the blog to share with all of my friends.
The first thing I did was reach out to one of my new pilot friends on Share Aviation at www.shareaviation.com that I know flies out of KPNS and see what flight school he attends. I also asked if he knew if they would book a flight with a nonmember. Thanks to Andrew, he hooked me up with his school, Sky Warrior located at PNS. I checked out their website, www.skywarriorinc.com and sent an email to enquire. I was upfront and let them know that I’m still a student pilot and that I’d be there on vacation but wanted to see if I could book a couple of hours with an instructor more for a tour than a lesson. Greg hit me back the same day and said it was no problem. I picked up the phone and gave him a call to see about getting my flight set up. He hooked me up and I got on the schedule for Friday. Well, that was easy enough.
I arrived in Pensacola on Wednesday afternoon. I flew commercial from Charlotte Douglass and there was zero visibility, definitely not a VRF day. I couldn’t see anything but clouds from the air, good thing I brought a book, Richard Bach’s, A Gift of Wings and my AOPA Flight Training Magazine. It was a great flight. Our landing on arrival was flawless from my point of view.
Friday morning finally arrived and I was just a little excited about flying today. I walked through the doors of Sky Warrior to a bustling office full of people. This is nothing like the three flight schools I’ve seen, one, maybe two people at the most and it’s usually very quiet. This place is hopping! I looked around and spotted a tall guy behind the counter that immediately made eye contact with me, pointed and said, “What’s your name?” “Angela Sells,” I said back to him from across the crowd. Greg greeted me with a warm welcome and I felt right at home. One thing I’ve learned while flight training, is that pilots are a friendly group and always eager to help. I knew right away, I had picked a great place to fly. It may be busy but it’s organized. I watched as Greg took calls, helped with schedules and provided directions to whoever needed it as I was waiting for a CFI to come and get me.
My wait was short, Russell Hill came around the corner and we made introductions. He’ll be my flight instructor for the day. I gave him a quick background update on where I’m at with my training, handed him my logbook to review and explained what I hoped to do today on this flight.
PNS is a Class C airport and a good bit busier today than my home airport of KQF. They put a TFR in affect for a 5 mile radius around the base which is not far from PNS. I also checked METARS for the weather this morning. It’s incredibly clear but windy and I confirmed that it’s gusting to 19kts.
We walk outside to pre-flight the airplane together. I’m stunned at how many airplanes are sitting out here. A row of Navy T-46 training planes graces the view in front of me and to the left of them are more Navy trainers, the T-6 Texan’s are also sitting there and preparing to fly. For some, this might be a little intimidating but for me, I’m looking at pilot eye candy and thinking how amazing is it that I’m going to share a runway with the Navy pilots today! Russ explains that they have been temporarily moved here because of the air show this weekend so it won’t interfere with their training.
He continues telling me with the TFR in effect it could keep us from getting over to the beaches, but he says he’ll ask for access to the flight training area and see if they will grant it. Once we finish the pre-flight check, he makes the call to get cleared to taxi and asks for access to the training area over the beach near Navarre and gets clearance. I start the engine and pull out to taxi, passing the T-46’s and falling third in behind a T-6 for departure.
I pull out onto the runway, straighten it up, full throttle and we’re moving, rotation speed obtained, pull back gently on the yoke and we are airborne. It’s gusting nicely but no problem handling the plane. Russ gives me headings as we turn to head out over the water. I throw him my iPhone and tell him he’s in charge of picture taking for a while. He tells me we are heading out over Garson Point and then across to Navarre Beach. Russ goes, “selfie” and I look and we laugh as he takes this shot.
Words escape me as I see the bay below and look to the island, Pensacola Beach to the right of me and Navarre to my left. It’s absolutely stunning and not only are the skies clear, the water is like glass. It’s even more beautiful than I imagined it would be from up here.
The breathtaking deep blues melt into emerald green against the sugar white sand beaches for an incredible scenic painting brushed by nature. From the air, I’m awe struck as I make my way to the Navarre Bridge, that’s our turn around point because the military airspace begins on the other side and we aren’t cleared to enter. After making the turn, I ask Russ to take over the controls so that I can try to get some pictures with the Canon Rebel. I only hope I can do it justice with my amateur photography skills. I open the window and realize it’s cold up here today. It was 58 on the ground when I arrived.
As we near Pensacola Beach, Russ asks ATC if we can get a course to go to Gulf Shores. He isn’t sure we can get access but he asks. Almost immediately, we get a yes response back. We are told to climb above three thousand five hundred feet and they give a heading. This will take us around the edge of the TFR, up towards Saufley Field and then to Gulf Shores. I can see the Naval Base runways just to my left as we make our way around. I’m taking pictures along the way, hoping that I get some memorable shots. Russ comments that the controllers are being exceptionally helpful today in navigating us around the TFR and allowing us access to the points we want to go.
Once we get to Gulf Shores, we are directed out over the ocean and will be flying down the island back towards Pensacola. I never dreamed I’d be flying over the ocean. I thought we might graze the coastline but we are about eight miles out over open water. I realize that with an engine loss right now, we might be hard pressed to get back on land, and I bet the water is quite a bit chiller than I would like if we had to ditch. Well, it was just a quick thought and I move on to taking pictures and admiring the view again.
Russ is excited about handling the controls today. He says he never gets the opportunity to fly just for fun these days. He’s usually teaching and focusing on training but today is different for both of us. I’m not really a student today, and he’s not really acting as an instructor. We are just enjoying the amazing view and remembering why we love flying. This is one of those moments that you sit back, relax, take a deep breath and go, “Yes!” This is why we fly. This is why it’s worth it.
I know many pilots fly from Pensacola on a regular basis, but for me, this is the most amazing flight I’ve had yet from a scenic point of view. I can’t imagine if this was my home airport. I’d be so distracted, I might have problems focusing on training. It’s just breathtaking in every direction. This view we pilots share, should never be taken for granted. It’s the reason we do what we do; and student pilots, like me, keep going back and striving for our goal, a Private Pilots License so that we can enjoy the view as often as possible.
We few, we pilots of all kinds; we are bound by this incredible connection that we call flying. There is something in each of us that yearns to be up with the clouds, something that burns in us and calls to us like a lover. We can’t explain it fully to those that don’t share our hunger or desire. It’s something that makes our heads turn skyward, our ears perk up at the sound of an engine, our hearts ache when we are a way from it too long. It’s something that makes us unique and draws us together. We look for excuses just to get our butts back in the air as often as possible. I don’t think that once you’ve tasted it, you ever get over that longing to be back in the air again.
Heading back inland towards Pensacola Beach, ATC tells us to watch for traffic in front of us, there are two T-46’s that will be passing over the runway and separating in a practice pass. We spot them and keep them in sight as we make our way to the runway for landing. It’s not everyday you get to fly with military jets in the pattern.
There is a Delta jet sitting at the end of the runway waiting on us so they can depart. Russ says he hopes that our slow Cessna isn’t holding them up since it’ll take us a couple of minutes to get down and off the runway. He’s having to crab the plane in due to the crosswind on this landing. I’m glad this one was his landing today and not mine.
I’m so thankful to the folks at Sky Warrior for my flight time today and especially to my CFI for the day, Russ, for helping make my first flight out of PNS a memorable one and a great learning experience. If you get down their way, look them up and tell them Southern Fly Girl sent you!