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Flight school gives instructor a lift

RIFLE – “Learn to Fly Here!” reads the big green sign propped in the window of Jessica McMillan’s office at the Garfield County Airport.

McMillan, 50, is a certified flight instructor and the director of the flight school at Corporate Aircraft Services, a fixed-base operation at the Rifle-based airport that also manages, rents, charters and maintains aircraft, and sells fuel.

Like an excited teacher anticipating the first day of the school year, McMillan is fired up about her upcoming ground school course offered through Colorado Mountain College. She’s already taught more than 150 students over the years, and estimates 50 have followed through and earned their pilot licenses. Class starts Jan. 15 and runs for a full semester, 15 weeks.



“It’s all the technical stuff,” she said of the course work, taught in a classroom at CMC’s Blake Avenue academic building. “It’s soup to nuts. The course is very comprehensive.”

Ground school is just that. Classes are held on the ground in classrooms and not in the air, and cover every aspect of flying – from reading weather patterns to the aerodynamics of flying to reading instrument panels. Everything needed to pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s private pilot’s licensing exam is addressed.



“The class is great in that it offers discipline and structure,” McMillan said. “There are books, videos, audio tapes and CDs available for people to study and try to pass the FAA exam on their own. But learning this material in a classroom setting with interactive question and answer, mock tests, quizzes and access to charts is a wonderful way to prepare for flying.”

It takes commitment

Entering the world of flying takes dedication and dinero.

McMillan said about 60 percent of those who register for ground school drop out. Even fewer go on to take flying lessons in an aircraft.

“Learning to fly is a huge commitment, both personally and financially,” she said.

Although the CMC course is reasonably priced – at $123 – learning to fly can add up. McMillan said it costs $5,000 to $6,000 to receive a private pilot license.

“It depends on how often you fly and how quickly you learn,” she said.

McMillan said studying ground school materials and taking actual flying lessons really gets future licensed pilots a well-rounded knowledge of flying.

“Our CMC ground school is separate from the flight school we offer here at Corporate,” McMillan said. “Taking both simultaneously is really beneficial. By getting up in a plane, you physically experience flying. You just can’t get that in a classroom or with a flight simulator.”

Flight school, McMillan said, is a lot like driving school.

“We spend a lot of time learning how to taxi,” she said. “People instinctively want to steer the plane with a steering wheel. I have them sit on their hands and taxi with their feet to learn how to get around on the ground.”

Learning to land takes a lot of practice, too. Students do `touch and gos’ which are landings and take-offs, to rack up experience.

“It’s a lot of repetition,” she said. “Like learning how to change gears in a car, at first the movement is very deliberate. But after flying and maneuvering over and over, students begin to naturally use their muscle memory.”

And unlike driving, pilots need to know how to communicate with each other. Ground school class devotes considerable time to radio etiquette and aviation phraseology.

“Garfield County Airport doesn’t have a tower,” McMillan said. “And out of about 5,600 airports in the country, only about 500 have towers, so it’s important to learn how to talk not only to tower personnel but to other pilots.”

At Corporate Aircraft Services, McMillan uses a 1980, 160 horsepower Cessna 172 – a small, simple plane – for flight school, which rents for $74 an hour. Instruction fees run from $28 an hour for private instruction to $33 an hour for instrument and mountain, or instruction in a student’s aircraft.

Ground school is just the tip of the iceberg. In order to receive a private pilot’s license, students must take an FAA medical exam, pass the written examination, and log over 80 hours of flying time in a variety of conditions prior to taking the FAA’s practical flying test with an examiner.

McMillan said it’s best for students to log flying time “a minimum of once a week, and ideally two or three times a week” to be exposed to all kinds of conditions.”

McMillan, who’s been flying for over 20 years, said it takes a special kind of person to become a pilot.

“You have to be able think on your feet,” she said. “You have to be there. Even though some planes are equipped with automatic pilot, there’s no such thing as auto pilot when you’re in the air. There’s no `off’ time when you’re flying.”

So what kind of people take McMillan’s classes and become successful pilots?

She said several teenagers have taken courses from her and have excelled.

“A single mom came to me with two sons,” she said. “One of her sons was very bright but was getting into trouble. Essentially, he was bored. Flight and ground school really challenged him, and turned his life around. He cleaned up his act and went on to the Air Force Academy. Flying is so good for bright kids like him. It really gives them focus.”

Although McMillan belongs to the 99s, a national organization of women pilots, she said most of her students are men in their 40s and 50s.

“They usually own their own businesses, and a lot of them have kids who are grown and out of the house,” she said. “They’re ready to take the time to learn how to fly.”

McMillan never dreamed of becoming a pilot or of flying when she was growing up. It was love that brought her to the friendly skies.

“My husband and I met through a video dating service,” she said with a smile. “He was a pilot and I wasn’t, though I wanted to learn how to fly. I got my pilot’s license in 1983. We got married in ’84.”

Now, McMillan has logged more hours than her husband. This former graphic designer has turned into a full-fledged female aviator – a real difference from her former work.

“Learning to fly totally changed my life,” she said, with a smile.


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