Read CHAPTER I of Learning to Fly A Practical Manual for Beginners , free online book, by Claude Grahame-White Harry Harper, on


Only eight years ago, in 1908, it was declared impossible for one man to teach another to fly. Those few men who had risen from the ground in aeroplanes, notably the Wright brothers, were held to be endowed by nature in some very peculiar way; to be men who possessed some remarkable and hitherto unexplained sense of equilibrium. That these men would be able to take other men ordinary members of the human race and teach them in their turn to navigate the air, was a suggestion that was ridiculed. But Wilbur Wright, after a series of brilliant flights, began actually to instruct his first pupils; doing so with the same care and precision, and the same success, that had characterised all his pioneer work. And these first men who were taught to fly on strange machines as apart from the pioneers who had taught themselves to fly with craft of their own construction made progress which confounded the sceptics. They went in easy and leisurely fashion from stage to stage, and learned to become aviators without difficulty, and mainly without accident.

After this, increasing in numbers from two or three to a dozen, and from a dozen to fifty and then a hundred, the army of airmen grew until it could be totalled in thousands. Instead of being haphazard, the teaching of men to fly became a business. Flying schools were established; courses of tuition were arranged; certain pilots specialised in the work of instruction. It was shown beyond doubt that, instead of its being necessary for an aviator to be a species of acrobat, any average man could learn to fly.

Certainly a man who intends to fly should be constitutionally sound; this point is important. When in an aeroplane, one passes very quickly through the air, and such rapid movement and also the effect of varying altitudes entail a certain physical strain. A man with a weak heart might find himself affected adversely by flying; while one whose lungs were not sound might find that his breathing was impeded seriously by a swift passage through the air. More than one fatality, doubtful as to its exact cause, has been attributed to the collapse of a pilot who was not organically sound, or who ascended when in poor health. And here again is an important point. No man, even a normally healthy man, should attempt to pilot a machine in flight when he is feeling unwell. In such cases the strain of flying, and the effect of the swift motion through the air, may cause a temporary collapse; and in the air, when a man is alone in a machine, any slight attack of faintness may be sufficient to bring about a fatality.

A fair judgment of speed, and an eye for distance, are very helpful to the man who would learn to fly, and it is here that a man who has motored a good deal, driving his own car, is at advantage at first over one who has not. But otherwise, and writing generally, any man of average quickness of movement, of average agility, can learn without difficulty to control an aeroplane in flight. It is wrong to imagine that exceptional men are required. An unusual facility, of course, marks the expert pilot; but we are writing of men who would attain an average skill.

There has been discussion as to the age at which a man should learn to fly, or as to the introduction of age limits generally in the piloting of aircraft. But this introduces a difficult question; one which depends so entirely on the individual, and regarding which we need the data that will be provided by further experience. Some men retain from year to year, and to a remarkable extent, the faculties that are necessary; others lose them rapidly. The late Mr. S. F. Cody was flying constantly, and with a very conspicuous skill, at an age when he might have been thought unfit. But then he was a man of a rare vitality and a great enthusiasm a man who, though he flew so often, declared that each of his flights was an “adventure.” Taking men in the average one may say this: the younger a man is, when he learns to fly, the better for him. Much depends, naturally, on the sort of flying he intends to do after he has attained proficiency. If he is going to fly in war, or under conditions that impose a heavy strain, then he must be a young man. But if he intends to fly for his own pleasure, and under favourable conditions, then this factor of age loses much of its importance, and it is only necessary that a man should retain say, an ordinary activity, and a normal quickness of vision and of judgment.

Flying is not difficult. It is in a sense too easy, and this is just where its hidden danger lies. If a pupil is carefully taught, and flies at first only when the weather conditions are suitable, he will find it surprisingly easy to pilot an aeroplane. That it is not dangerous to learn to fly is proved daily. Though hundreds and thousands of pupils have now passed through the schools, anything in the nature of a serious accident is very rarely chronicled. This immunity from accident is due largely to the care and experience of instructors, and also to the fact that all pupils pass through a very carefully graduated tuition, and that no hazardous flights are allowed; while another and an important element of safety lies in the fact that no flying is permitted at the schools unless weather conditions are favourable. It is now a fair contention that, provided a man exercises judgment, and ascends only in weather that is reasonably suitable, there is no more danger in flying an aeroplane than in driving a motor-car.

Much depends of course on the dexterity of the pupil, and particularly on his manual dexterity on what is known, colloquially, as “hands.” Some men, even after they have been carefully taught, are apt to remain heavy and clumsy in their control. Others, though, seem to acquire the right touch almost by instinct; and these are the men who have in them the making of good pilots. Horsemen refer to “hands” when they speak of a man who rides well; and in flying, if a man is to handle a machine skilfully, there is need for that same instinctive delicacy of touch.

Nowadays, when a pupil joins a well-established flying school, he finds that everything is made easy and pleasant for him. Most men enjoy very thoroughly the period of their tuition. A friendly regard springs up between the pupils and their instructors, and men who have learned to fly, and are now expert pilots, bear with them very pleasant reminiscences of their “school” days. But there were times, and it seems already in the dim and distant past, when learning to fly was a strange, haphazard, and hardly pleasant experience; though it had a sporting interest certainly, and offered such prospects of adventure as commended it to bold spirits who were prepared for hardship, and had a well-filled purse. The last requirement was very necessary. In the bad old days, amusing days though they were without doubt, no fixed charge was made to cover such breakages, or damage to an aeroplane, as a pupil might be guilty of during his period of instruction. These items of damage broken propellers, planes, or landing gear were all entered up very carefully on special bills, and presented from time to time to the dismayed novice; and a man who was clumsy or impetuous found learning to fly an expensive affair. There was a pupil who joined a school soon after Bleriot’s crossing of the Channel by air. It was a monoplane school; and the monoplane, unless a man is careful and very patient, is not an easy machine to learn to fly. This beginner was not patient; he was indeed more than usually impetuous. His landings, in particular, were often abrupt. He broke propellers, frequently, to say nothing of wings and of alighting gear. And of all these breakages a note was made. Bills were handed to him long and intricate bills, with each item amounting to so many hundreds of francs. Having a sense of humour, the pupil began to paper his shed with these formidable bills, allowing them to hang in festoons around the walls. What it cost him to learn to fly nobody except himself knew. He paid away certainly, in his bills for breakages, enough money to buy several aeroplanes.

This was in the early days, when aviators were few and all flying schools experimental. To-day a pupil need not concern himself, even if he does damage a machine. Before beginning his tuition he pays his fee, one definite sum which covers all contingencies that may arise. It includes any and all damage that he may do to the aircraft of his instructors; it covers also any third-party claims that may be made against him claims that is to say from any third person who might be injured in an accident for which he was responsible. This inclusive fee varies, in schools of repute, from L75 to L100.

The modern aérodromes, or schools of flight, at which a pupil receives his tuition, have been evolved rapidly from the humblest of beginnings. The first flying grounds were, as a rule, nothing more than open tracts of land, such as offered a fairly smooth landing-place and an absence of dangerous wind-gusts. Then, as aviation developed, pilots came together at these grounds, and sheds were built to house their craft. And after this, quickly as a rule, an organisation was built up. Beginning from rough shelters, erected hastily on the brink of a stretch of open land, there grew row upon row of neatly-built sheds, with workshops near them in which aircraft could be constructed or repaired. And from this stage, not content with the provision made for them by nature, those in control of the aérodromes began to dig up trees, fill in ditches and hollows, and smooth away rough contours of the land, so as to obtain a huge, smooth expanse on which aircraft might alight and manoeuvre without accident. And after this came the building up of fences and entrance gates, the erection of executive offices and restaurants, the provision of telephone exchanges and other facilities the creation in fact of a modern aerodrome.

A pupil to-day, if he decides to learn to fly, finds he has an ample choice in the matter of a school. He may feel indeed that there is almost an embarrassment of facilities. But there are certain very definite requirements, in regard to any modern flying school; and if a novice bears these in mind, and thinks of them carefully when he is considering what school he shall join, he cannot go far wrong. First there is the question of the aerodrome on which, and above which, the pupil will undergo his instruction. This should be of ample size and of an adequately smooth surface; and it should be so situated, also, that it is free from wind eddies and gusts, such as are set up by hills, woods, or contours of the land, and are likely to inconvenience a novice when he makes his first flights. The best position for an aerodrome is in a valley, not abrupt but gently sloping. With a flying ground so placed, shielded well by nature on every hand, it may prove sufficiently calm for instruction even on days when there is a gusty wind blowing across more exposed points; and such a natural advantage is of importance for a pupil. It may mean that he is obtaining his tuition from day to day, when other pupils, learning to fly at grounds less favourably situated, have to remain compulsorily idle, waiting either for the wind to drop, or to veer to some quarter from which their aerodrome is sheltered.

It is very necessary, of course, in the operation of a flying school, that there should be competent instructors; also a sufficient number of these to prevent them from being over-taxed, or having more pupils at any one time than they can handle conveniently. And it is greatly to the advantage of a pupil if these instructors have been chosen with an intelligent care. A man may be a capable pilot, and yet not have the temperament that will suit him for imparting his knowledge to others. The instructor who, besides being a fine flyer, has the patience and sympathy of a born teacher, is by no means easy to find. A school which does find such men, and retains their services, offers attractions for a pupil which in any preliminary visit he pays to a school before joining it he should look for keenly. And he should make certain, too, that the school has a staff of skilled and experienced mechanics.

Another indispensable feature of a school is a sufficient number of aeroplanes, machines suited specially for the purposes of tuition, and maintained at a high efficiency. It has been no uncommon thing though here again one is writing of the past for the total resources of a school to comprise, say, two machines. Hence a couple of smashes would put such a school temporarily out of action, and leave the pupils with nothing to do but kick their heels, and wait until the machines had been repaired. It is certainly an advantage, from the pupil’s point of view, if there are well-equipped workshops in connection with the school he joins; also if the proprietors of his school have an ample supply of engines. With facilities for repair work immediately at hand, and with a spare engine ready at once to put in a machine while one that has been giving trouble is dealt with in the engine-shop there should always be a full complement of craft for the work of instruction. When workshops are in operation in connection with a school an opportunity is usually provided, also, for a novice to gain some knowledge as to the mechanism and working of the aero-motor: and this of course will be useful to him.

There has been discussion as to the type of aeroplane on which one should learn to fly; but in this question, as in that of an age limit for airmen, it is extremely difficult, besides being unwise, to attempt to frame a hard-and-fast rule. The monoplane, for instance, is not an easy machine to learn to fly: it is not easy, that is to say, compared with certain types of biplane. Yet numbers of pupils have been taught on monoplanes, and this without accident. There is also a question whether, among biplanes, it is best to learn on a tractor machine one that is to say with the engine in front of the main planes or on a “pusher” type of craft; this last mentioned having its motor behind the planes. Aeroplanes of both types are in use; and it would be advantageous, of course, for a novice to accustom himself to handle either. But from the point of view of those who operate large flying schools, and have to weigh one point against another, and eliminate so far as possible the elements of risk or difficulty, there are very distinct advantages in a “pusher” biplane. The control of such a machine is simple, and can be grasped quite readily. It provides the novice, when he is seated in it, with a clear and unobstructed view of the ground immediately in front of and below him; and this, in the early stages of tuition, is an extremely important point. A craft of such a type, also, when built specially for instruction, can be given a very strong alighting gear, and this makes for safety when a pupil is in his first tests, and may be guilty of an abrupt or rough descent. Again, while such a school machine as this is engined adequately, it is at the same time comparatively slow in flight, and has the advantage also that it will alight at slow speeds. In the air, too, it has a large measure of stability, and is not too rapid in its response to its controls. It gives a pupil what is very necessary for him in his first flights, and that is a certain latitude for error. It is safe to say, indeed, without being dogmatic, that a “pusher” biplane of the type illustrated, if constructed specially for school work, offers a pupil two very clearly marked advantages. These are: (1) A craft which he can learn to fly quickly; and (2) A machine on which he can pass through his tuition with the least risk of accident.

This last-mentioned point is, naturally, one of extreme importance. It is very necessary, apart from any question of personal injury, that a pupil should be protected during his tuition from anything in the nature of a bad smash. A man should start to learn to fly with full confidence; the more he has the better, provided it is tempered with caution. And if he can go through his training without accident, and preserve the steadily growing confidence that his proficiency will give him, he is on the high road to success as a pilot. But if he meets with an accident while he is learning some sudden and quite unexpected fall this may have a serious and a permanent influence on his nerves, even if he escapes without injury. It happened frequently in the early days that a promising pupil, a man who showed both confidence and skill, had his nerve ruined, and all his “dash” taken from him, by some unlucky accident while he was learning to fly.

There are certain minor points a pupil should consider when he selects a flying school points which have reference mainly to his own comfort and convenience. He will prefer, for instance, other things being equal, a school that is near some large town or city, and not buried away inaccessibly. It is a convenience also, and one that facilitates instruction, if a pupil can obtain, quite near the aerodrome, rooms where he can live temporarily while undergoing his instruction, and so be able to reach the flying ground in a minute or so, whenever and at any time the weather conditions are favourable. It is a convenience again if, either on the aerodrome itself or immediately adjacent, there is a canteen or restaurant where meals and other refreshments can be obtained. Dressing-rooms and reading rooms, when provided by the proprietors of a school, add to the comfort of the novice while he is in attendance on the aerodrome. In winter, particularly, such facilities are required.

At a modern school, if it is well conducted, all heroics or exceptional feats are discouraged. Pupils who want to do wild things must be sternly repressed, even if only for the common good. The aim is to train a certain number of pupils, not hastening over the tuition but giving each man his full and complete course, and to do this with a minimum of risk. In the early days of flying there were remarkable exploits at the schools, and some very dangerous ones also. But nowadays the reckless, happy-go-lucky spirit has gone. Tuition is based on experience. Each pupil must submit to the routine, and listen attentively to the instructions given him. There are no short cuts not at any rate with safety in the art of learning to fly.

The question is asked, often, how long it should take a man to learn to fly. It is almost impossible, though, to specify any fixed time. A very great deal must depend on the weather. A pupil who joins a school in the summer is more likely, naturally, to complete his tuition quickly than one who begins in the winter. In periods when there are high and gusty winds it may be necessary to suspend school work for several days. But at such times the pupil need not be completely idle. Lectures on aviation are organised sometimes by the schools; while a pupil should have opportunities also as has been mentioned before of going into the engine-shop and studying the repair and overhaul of motors and machines.

It is on record that a pupil has learned to fly in a day, even in a few hours; but here the circumstances, and the men, were exceptional. Such an unusual facility represents one extreme; while as another, it may happen that a man, owing to a combination of adverse circumstances, is six months before he gains his certificate of proficiency. It may be taken, as a rule, that a pupil should set aside say a couple of months in order to undergo thoroughly, and without any haste, his full period of tuition. School records prove, as a rule, that the pilots who learn to fly abnormally quickly are apt to experience an abnormal number of accidents at a later date, due principally to a lack of real sound knowledge, which they should have gained during the period of their tuition. One must learn to walk before one can run, and this takes time; and the remark applies aptly to aviation. It is very necessary for the pupil to spend as much time as he can on the aerodrome. Much is to be learned, by an observant man, apart from the actual time during which he is engaged with his instructor. If he watches men who are highly skilled, he may gain many useful hints, though he himself is on the ground.