My “Top Gun Moment” flight lesson may have had me as more of a Goose than Iceman or Maverick.
This trip is one of those experiences that came out of the blue. Those are some of my favorite ways to travel.
I have a friend that lives in Sausalito who had a weekend with his wife out of town. He called me on Thursday and invited me up for a since we haven’t hung out since his wedding last year. I’ve been trying to say yes to anything that gets me out of my Los Angeles bubble lately, so I couldn’t really say no to this random travel. I just wanted to make sure we weren’t just going to waste time playing video games and going to bars so I did still ask what he had planned for the weekend. He said he was going to be taking a flight lesson and I could sit in the back while we flew over Petaluma and parts of wine country.
Yeah, that sounded like a pretty solid offer so I hopped onto Google Flights and found a round trip ticket for $80. 18 hours later I was on an American Airlines flight headed up to San Fran.
What I didn’t realize before the trip was that this would be Chris’ first-ever flight lesson. He was just starting to learn to fly from some Youtube videos and this was the first time with an instructor in a plane. Most people would be crazy to agree to hop in the back of a tiny plane their friend was flying for the first time, but I thought it would be fun.
Chris originally had a smaller plane booked, but had to get a “bigger” plane so I could fit in the back. We were scheduled to fly a Cessna 172 Skyhawk made in the mid 1970s.
The Ground Flight Training
This was something that I got lucky with sitting in on. Since I was just coming along for the ride, the instructor was cool with me sitting in on the ground instruction. So I basically got a free hour of flight instruction that usually runs about $50-$80 per hour.
This was really introductory so it was going over a lot of the reading material Chris was going to have to buy, FAA rules, how long it will take to get a private pilot license, etc. It was pretty much like the first day of school getting a syllabus from the teacher.
I wasn’t paying nearly as much attention since I was just going to sit in the back taking pictures, but I picked up a few interesting facts. I felt like I got some advanced physics lessons explained to me in a very dumbed-down version. It was really easy to understand since it was applying to something we were doing. Something like Bernoulli’s Principle I immediately understood, which would have probably taken a lot of head-scratching to figure out in a classroom for myself.
The first flight lesson is based on getting a feel for flying the plane, turning, and ascent/descent. Take off and landing is later lessons, so we didn’t have to cover that. That also got rid of the only real fear I had from the flight since I was worried about my buddy trying to land for the first time with me holding on in the backseat.
Like I mentioned before, we were in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. The plane is from the ’70s but it was in mint condition. I guess planes age better than cars and way better than boats. I wonder what the upkeep is on them. If anyone reading this knows, please leave a comment about that.
The plane was a single propeller plane with 4 seats. Given I was sitting alone in the back, but it was still pretty roomy.
I always thought it would be insanely expensive to rent a plane, but it wasn’t that bad. Apparently it was only about $130 to rent it for an hour. That’s $130 per hour that the engine is actually running so you get charged by flight time. Yeah, I know that isn’t cheap in the grand scheme of things, but it is cheaper than I thought it would be to rent an airplane!
I sat back and watched the instructor show Chris how to go around the plane and do the mandatory pre-flight checklist. This is all safety stuff to make sure everything is moving correctly, held together, and the gas is good to use. I found it pretty fascinating just how simple these planes are. My car has more parts than this thing that flies through the sky.
Chris Learning to Fly
It was a nice little adrenaline burst getting into the back of that little Cessna airplane. I had time to fan out across the back seat with my camera, backpack, and set up a GoPro for Chris.
I almost didn’t even realize we were taking off when we were. We basically went from taxiing to taxiing really fast to being in the air. It wasn’t like a commercial jet where you feel pressed into the seat with that sinking feeling when you leave the ground. You just drive fast and then look down to see the ground getting a little further away.
I also thought there would be a lot of turbulence, but the flight was really smooth.
Luckily they gave me a headphone set up so I could hear what the two of them were talking about. Chris’s first turn was a little sharper than the instructor’s but they discussed it before so I was expecting it. After that, Chris did a really good job. He was a natural.
It wasn’t until about halfway into the flight that I realized what a great deal I got. A lot of people would pay good money to take a flight over wine country, and I got a free one! We flew over some vineyards and had a great view of San Francisco and The Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.
The only time I got a little nervous on the flight was when the pilot wanted to teach Chris that a plane can fly itself. He had Chris put his hands on his lap and cross his legs under him. Then the pilot pulled back on the yoke and we went UP! Then he said “Now I’ll let the plane fly us. The plane wants to fly” and he put his hands up. At that moment I thought he was crazy, especially when we did a nosedive and I felt my stomach in my throat.
Apparently the physics of an airplane can keep it in the air without needing the help of the pilot, although I’m not sure for how long. Just like the pilot said, we did 5 oscillations where the plane would dip down then pull itself back up. After the 5th oscillation, the plane was flying itself straight without either of them touching anything. That made me feel a little safer about flying in general.
We only had an hour booked, so the pilot took us in for a nice smooth landing and the lesson was over.
The Rest of The Day
In case you’re still reading up to this point…
We were only a few miles from some of the best wineries in the world, so it would have been just wrong to not at least stop at one of them, right? That’s how all “bro weekends” should end up. Right?
Chris’ wife also wanted us to pick up a case of wine from a winery that they had a membership at, so we didn’t have much choice. We pulled up to this beautiful estate but saw a sign saying it was closed for an event. There was wine to be picked up, so we went in anyway.
It turns out the event was for members for a quarterly wine pickup party. Chris just so happened to be a member, so we got to hang out and enjoy the day. There was one free tasting of a sample of their upcoming Pinot Noir and also some free food coming up if we wanted to hang out for a while. We were the first ones there so we just sat around with a bottle of wine waiting while they roasted a lamb for some delicious tacos.
I was really impressed with the turnout that this place had. There were a lot of people all there having a great time. Scribe Winery did a great job setting it up with plenty of seating and blankets available for lounging in the grass and on the hill. They also had a seemingly never-ending supply of the most amazing strawberries I’ve ever tasted filling bowls at every table.
Best Dinner in San Francisco
I’ve only been to San Francisco a few times, but I’m feeling safe giving this place my stamp of approval. Rich Table in the Hayes Valley neighborhood has to be the best restaurant in the city. This was hands down one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
The menu is apparently always changing, so if you go there you might get something different offered. The one thing I know is always there is this incredible porcini mushroom doughnut that this restaurant is known for. I wasn’t really expecting much as it was the first thing to come out, but it was one of those foods that you take a bit of and close your eyes in disbelief.
The chef is out there plating every single dish in full view. He created some seriously innovative ideas for the dishes on the menu. The other meal highlight was trying the strawberry rhubarb foie gras pie. Sounds gross, right? It was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. There was a perfect combination of flavors and a perfect texture to it that I got upset I had to share the little slice.