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Taking Off

Area aviation catches an updraft, as WNMU hosts its first class of private pilot students.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder


Certified pilot instructor Fred Fuller admits it's still something of a mystery. "I mean, you've learned all about how those wings keep you up in the sky, you've done the calculations, you're confident in what you're doing," he says. "And there comes this moment when you're in that cockpit and you look out the window and see those wings that are holding you up, and you go, 'How is this possible?'" He pauses and smiles at his room full of students, looking from face to face, perhaps searching out that spark of recognition, of passion.

Kim Dibble, manager of Mouse of All Trades/The Document Center and future private pilot, shows off her texts and tools for Private Pilot Ground School class at Western New Mexico University.

"It's the 'magic of flight,'" he adds, "and even though it's all very measurable and practical, there's still this element of wonder to it."

Call it a mystery, a wonder, even the "magic of flight," but even after 40-plus years of holding his private pilot's license, after teaching numerous others how to command planes of their own up in the wild blue yonder, Fuller's face still takes on a childlike wonderment as he tries to convey his own experience with and passion for flight to this room full of students.

This is the first Private Pilot Ground School class being taught at Western New Mexico University. The Grant County Pilots Association (GCPA), of which Fuller is a very active member, first approached the university with the idea of a private pilot's course a year and a half ago. Fuller says that the class was added to the curriculum and offered for the first time last June, but lacked the minimum 10 students to, well, get off the ground.

"I don't think we got the word out early enough," he says. Given another shot the next semester, however, the three-credit class immediately filled up. Eighteen students have been meeting for twice weekly instruction since January. Having paged through several thick texts and learned their way around complicated calculation tools that make slide rules look easy, they are preparing to take their final exam and registering to take the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) private pilot's written test in Las Cruces.

Outside the classroom, Fuller talks about the surprising amount of interest in private piloting in Grant County. The GCPA has been cultivating public awareness and interest in flight, offering the public the chance to go up in small planes at special Community Aviation Days at Grant County Airport. The group has sponsored air shows and Young Eagle Flights, giving free airplane rides to local school children (see the July 2005 Desert Exposure). Still, Fuller is surprised at the size of his initial class at WNMU.

"I don't know if in this class of 18 we've tapped everyone locally who's interested in private licensure," he says, "but I guess we'll see."


The students range in age from 18 to the senior years, encompassing a variety of walks of life, motivations and flight goals. Six or seven own their own planes, Fuller says, three of them having purchased their wings since starting the class in January. The class includes full- and part-time university students, retirees and business professionals, and one high-school student. Fuller says that increased mobility obviously motivates professionals to acquire their private pilot's licenses. But it's not just the executive set who benefits.

"I think it's great for this community," he says. "It opens doors of opportunity — jobs in commercial aviation, for example." One student wants to fly fire-fighting planes for the forest service; another wants to join the Air Force. "I think it's especially beneficial to the girls. It gives them an idea of something else, something very exciting that they can do."

Fuller mentions the lone high-school student taking the class as a case in point. "Her stepfather, who's also taking this class, by the way, told me that they had taken a trip somewhere. After the plane had landed and they were getting off, the girl noticed that the head pilot on the flight was a woman," he says. "She was so impressed with that — that this woman could not only be a pilot, but the lead pilot, in charge of the flight!"

He says the girl's stepfather recounted that she couldn't stop talking about the female pilot. Long story made short: Stepdad dangled the carrot of a private pilot's license, the girl's high school grades improved, and the two signed up for Ground School together and have been hitting the books at WNMU, both preparing to take their private pilot licensing tests.

Fuller adds that even if the girl doesn't pass her test the first time around — and a good number don't, he admits — "it's still a wonderful start for her, at that young age, to be working toward something so wonderful, you know, such an inspiring goal."

Female pilots have been known to inspire full-grown women, too. Just ask Kim Dibble, manager of The Document Center (formerly Mouse of All Trades), a copying and business-services company in Silver City. Dibble is a member of GCPA, on its board of directors, in fact, and also is taking the pilot class at WNMU.

"I've just always been fascinated by flying," Dibble says. "My father-in-law has his private pilot's license, and when I was dating my husband, dad would take us flying. It was just thrilling to be able to go up there in a private plane."

In 2003, the Grant County Airport hosted the start of the Women's Air Race Classic, a 2,400-mile, four-day event. This year's race departs June 25 out of Oklahoma City, Okla., and finishes in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada.

A couple of years ago, Dibble adds, KRWG-FM public radio was soliciting people to submit stories, so she interviewed local female pilots Valdeen Wooten and Caroline Baldwin. "It was just so inspiring to see all these women pilots," Dibble says. "Our other instructor, Linda Pecotte, was there, too."


Back in class for another lesson, Fred Fuller is handing out reference materials, stressing the importance of focused study. The final exam is just around the corner and he counsels his charges that any available study time should be spent on the things that matter.

"Don't go off into study tangents," he warns. "No matter how interesting some things may be, you've got to stay focused. I've found out that the FAA test is 60 questions. You'll have two and a half hours to take it."

A clipboard is passed around the room, and students choose slots for the FAA test, which they have to take in Las Cruces before June 1. Admittedly, it's a bit of a cram. They take their final exam for the course at WNMU near the end of May, then must take the certified FAA test before two full weeks are up. Kim Dibble picks her slot on the schedule sheet and passes the clipboard along.

At the front of the room, assistant instructor Linda Pecotte is clicking through images, chart after chart, that are projected from a computer to the big white screen. "Airplane Performance: Know Before You Go" the heading says.

Pecotte's teaching style is to use common-sense language mixed with humor. "Okay, let's look at the conditions. 'Zero wind.' Ha! Not here, right?" she says. "It says we have a dry runway. Okay, here? Quite likely. Remember, you may be landing somewhere else. What other conditions might you come across in other parts of the country? Do you know if you're going to find a dry runway? Of course not. Be prepared."

The students mention rain, of course, even snow. They change their calculations, adding in the possible, the plausible and the unpredictable.

The next question deals with figuring out pressure and altitude.

"Okay, how do I figure out the altitude?" Pecotte asks. Pause. "Well, I'm in an airplane, so I look at the altimeter!" She laughs a good-natured laugh. "Don't forget your instruments. Let them help you out."

She rattles through other questions, other calculations. One student recites a formula — percentage to decrease for landing — while other students jot in their notebooks.

Fuller puts in that whenever students have to round off any performance calculation, they should round up.

"That way you're on the safe side," he says.


Passing the pilot's test is only the first hurdle these budding aviators face. After passing the written exam, would-be pilots have to log flight time.

"You have to contact a flight training school," Fuller says. "There are eight to 10 hours of instruction required before you can solo. Then you have to log 40 to 50 flight hours to become a licensed pilot."

Acknowledging the going rate for private-plane rentals — $80 an hour for one of Las Cruces-based Adventure Aviation's two Cessnas, say — on top of lesson costs (about $100 to $250 per month, depending on how many lessons you take per week), Fuller admits, "Well, it's not a cheap hobby."

Fuller says he and other flight advocates of the GCPA have been talking to WNMU officials and the folks at Adventure Aviation about possibly bringing a plane up to Grant County Airport for a course in practical instruction. It would make things more accessible to the students, possibly make things more cost effective. "But this is just in the rudimentary phase of being looked into," he says. For now, students have to travel to Las Cruces. "Yeah, you have to want it bad," he admits.

Wanting it bad is what it's about for the seven Ground School students gathered on a warm spring evening for an extra study session — on a Friday night, no less. Several of the students have submitted questions to their instructor, asking for help in specific areas to prep for the big test. They delve into figuring weight and balance, some using calculators, others manipulating those tricky-looking slide-rule-on-steroids gadgets.

A student in the first row comments on his own large stature and jokes about sitting just a little farther back in his cockpit seat to compensate for his mass' effect on center of gravity.

"Well, there's that," Fuller responds with a laugh.

He continues through the questions in a no-nonsense, expeditious manner, yet in a friendly, even fatherly tone. "Gotta know it," he reminds his charges in a humorous, almost singsong way.

Just days later, Kim Dibble is working at her job at the soon-to-be-renamed Mouse of All Trades, but is happy to take a moment to talk about aviation. Though she doesn't yet have a plane of her own, Dibble says she may one day. She wants her private pilot's license so she can fly for pleasure.

"It's just incredible freedom," she says.

Asked if she's ready for the big exam, she pauses, then says, "Well, you reach a point where you know it or you don't, and I've been studying!" She laughs, then adds, "Ready or not, here I come!"


The Private Pilot Ground School course at WNMU costs around $550 in tuition, $90 of which covers the fee for the computerized FAA test. The Grant County Pilot Association offers some sponsorships. For more information on local aviation opportunities, contact GCPA at 388-8107 or 574-5280, www.weflynewmexico.com, and Adventure Aviation in Las Cruces, 525-0500, www.zianet.com/comefly.


Senior editor Donna Clayton Lawder actually loves flying, but is more than content to leave the cockpit controls to others.


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