This is yet another follow-up to my previous posts about returning to flying, 43 years after earning a Private Pilot Certificate and VFR (Visual Flight Rules) rating. Now, I’m glad to report that this is the last time I’ll refer to myself as a “rusty” pilot.
Here’s what’s happened so far:
I repeated a ground school course, even though my Private Pilot Certificate is good for life, but I wanted to refresh what I learned long ago.
After researching the best online ground school for me, I chose Fly8MA, completed their ground school course, and reviewed a number of their other course offerings.
Dozens of YouTube and other videos help with specific questions.
I use Rod Machado’s Private Pilot Handbook, an excellent reference book, to complement my other efforts.
After doing the online portion of the mandatory flight physical at FAA MedXPress, I consulted a local Aviation Medical Examiner for a thorough flight physical which I’m grateful to have passed.
Next, I updated my contact information with the FAA, and they sent me an updated Private Pilot wallet card.
So with my license and my medical updated, I was good to go flying!
I’ve started back in planes with traditional avionics while studying the Garmin aviation GPS/Nav/Com programs and the rest of the digital instrumentation you find in modern “glass” cockpit panels.
ForeFlight is an indispensable flying app with too many features to mention. I hesitate to call it an app, as it’s truly a full-featured program for pilots. I specifically bought an iPad Pro 11 with built-in GPS to run ForeFlight, as recommended in several online reviews.
I transferred my ancient, handwritten logbook entries into digital format in ForeFlight using ConvertMyLogbook, though I could have probably spent hours figuring it out and doing it myself. I can definitely recommend ConvertMyLogbook — they did an excellent job, quickly and at a good price.
Another big purchase was a fabulous headset, a Lightspeed Zulu 3. I decided my hearing was worth the expense, and I’m grateful I can afford it at this point in my life.
Now I’m a regular at the Piedmont Flight Training school at our local Smith Reynolds Airport. After I regain currency/proficiency and pass a required flight review, I’ll start working toward an IFR rating.
You can check out the school’s planes on their website. Though I flew the Cessna 172, I gravitated to the Piper Archer IIs since I learned on Pipers and feel totally at home in them. The school’s Archers are IFR equipped, so I’ll be spending a bit of time in them (and I’ll also use the school’s simulators for some of my IFR training.) Later, I’ll also fly their Pipistrel Alpha Trainers, even though they’re only VFR equipped, because they are less expensive to rent, they have some digital avionics, and the main reason… because they’re flat-out cool!
As you can see, it took some doing, but it is totally worth it. I can’t describe the feeling of finally being back in the air, flying these old planes, and looking forward to the modern ones. There is a healthy, fun excitement to it. I’m doing it carefully and methodically, safety being the key consideration. It is a mental and physical challenge, involving moment-to-moment problem-solving. For me, this is heaven!
This is another follow-up to my previous posts about possibly returning to flying, 43 years after obtaining my Private Pilot Certificate and VFR (Visual Flight Rules) rating. So far, things are going better than expected.
Here’s what I’ve accomplished so far:
I decided to repeat a good ground school course, even though my Private Pilot Certificate is good for life, and I do not need to repeat the written and oral exams.
After researching the best online ground school for me, I decided on Fly8MA, and I’m quite happy with that decision.
I have now completed the ground school course, passing the quizzes after each section.
I’m now finishing Fly8MA’s Rusty Pilot course, and I’ll certainly take a few others since I’m paying a monthly fee to access all their courses anyway.
I did the online portion of the mandatory flight physical at FAA MedXPress, then scheduled my medical exam. A local Aviation Medical Examiner then gave me a thorough flight physical, reviewing every detail of my past medical history, and I passed!
Next, I updated my contact information with the FAA, and they’re sending me an updated Private Pilot wallet card.
So now I have my license and my medical, and I’m good to go!
Mastering the Garmin aviation navigation programs is next on the list. I’ve already gotten my feet wet with it, and what they’ve accomplished during my absence from aviation is astounding.
Learning how to use ForeFlight is equally important, and to optimize its functions, it really needs to run on an iPad with a built-in GPS. So I just purchased the model that was recommended in several online reviews.
After that, I’ll be ready! The Piedmont Flight Training school at our local Smith Reynolds Airport is close by and convenient. I’ve already picked out the instructor who I think will work well with me to bring me back up to speed. I decided I can do that while working toward an IFR rating at the same time.
In these past two days, I had the extreme pleasure of sharing my aviation enthusiasm with wife Gail and stepson Eric. It happened like this: The same company that makes the beautiful airplane shown above is now introducing its remarkable 4-seater called the Pipistrel Panthera. It’s currently on a country-wide inauguration tour, and they just happened to make a stop here in Winston Salem. We went to see the plane and got to take a ride in it. It was a memorable experience for all. This was important because everyone needs to be “on board” with this project if it’s going to go forward, and for now, all systems remain GO!
So there it is. I’ll post more updates as things develop.
This is a follow-up to my previous post where I reminisced about earning my Private Pilot Certificate in 1977, but then put it on hold in 1979 when medical school, marriage, children, jobs, etc, etc, etc made it impossible to keep flying. Now, 43 years later, after stumbling into a beautiful little Pipistrel Alpha Electric at our local airport, I’m suddenly wanting to pick it up again.
So here’s what I’ve done about it in the past 4 weeks:
I decided to repeat a good ground school course.
After researching the best online ground school for me, I decided on Fly8MA.
I enrolled in their ground school course, and I’m 75% through it so far, passing the quizzes after each section. (I’m surprised at how much I remember from 43 years ago!)
Then I’ll take Fly8MA’s Rusty Pilot course, and probably a few others, since I’m paying a monthly fee to access all their courses anyway.
After that, I’ll learn how to use the Garmin aviation navigation programs. This part will be totally new for me, and I’m sure it’ll be a blast.
Meanwhile, I found a local Aviation Medical Examiner and have scheduled an appointment for my flight physical. I need to pass this if I’m going to get off the ground at all. I’ll be prepared with my latest eye exam reports, as that is my weakest link, but I should be good to go.
I did the required online portion of the flight physical at FAA MedXPress.
If I pass the medical exam and they give me an updated Medical Certificate, I’ll be technically approved to fly. But I’ll update all my knowledge before I approach the flight school, including learning how to use ForeFlight.
I finished college in December of 1976 and I was to start medical school in June of 1977, so I had six months to kill. I did that by taking extra college courses just for fun, and… I learned how to fly! My mother and father gave me flying lessons as a graduation present!
I learned at the Toledo Express Airport under the watchful eye of my certified flight instructor, Del Vesey. There are some moments from that time I’ll never forget, like my first solo flight. Del and I did several touch and go’s that day, when I’d land the plane and immediately take off again, go around the pattern, and land again, and again, until after one of those landings he said, “Just drop me off right here.”
“Right where?” I asked him, because we were on the airport’s runway!
“Right here on the grass,” he said, pointing to the narrow strip of grass next to the runway of the moderately busy airport.
I could tell he was serious, and I did as he asked, dropping him off while the propeller of the 140 HP single-engine Piper PA-28 Cherokee was still spinning.
“You’re ready,” he said. “Take it back around.” He pointed vaguely up to the traffic pattern in the sky and slammed the plane’s little door shut before I could say anything.
I remember feeling shocked and tremendously excited. I was 22 years old at the time and knew no fear. In my heart, I knew I was ready, but still, I had never flown a plane by myself. I waved anxiously at Del, radioed something to traffic control, and “floored” the throttle. There was plenty of runway left for the small plane to reach take off speed, and when it did, I pulled back on the wheel.
I was in the air! The ground was further and further below me, and I was yelling at the top of my lungs. I remember hooting and hollering in raw excitement — the sheer joy of living such a crazy moment.
Other memories from that time include landing on the grass field at his farm, doing some night flying, and an introduction to instrument flight with a funny hooded cap that only allowed me to see the instrument cluster. Little treasures, those memories.
So I became a licensed Private Pilot in the Spring of 1977, and then I started med school a few months later in June, and got married in February 1978. Suddenly, there was no time or money for flying, and I put the whole thing aside to pick up again some day in the future. Many years later, I realized that day was gone for good.
But maybe not. 43 years after obtaining my Private Pilot license, I found myself at the Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston Salem, NC in search of something other than flying — I was birdwatching. Friends had spotted a Horned Lark, a rare sighting in Forsyth County, and I was there with wife Gail to try to find it. We didn’t, but what I did find were small planes all over the place — old Pipers like what I learned on, Cessnas, a Beech Bonanza which I always thought was so cool, small jets, and a strange little plane, obviously a trainer, with huge side windows, a narrow little tail, and the words “Pipistrel” written on the side. I saw a student and teacher walk all around it, obviously doing a preflight inspection. I saw them climb in and got a brief glimpse of the avionics on the dash, like an iPad, much like a Tessla’s dashboard. They started the engine, and I was impressed at how smooth and quiet it was, which I figured was because of the small size. They cruised to the runway and took off smoothly. My heart was soaring right along with them!
When I got home that night, a couple of nights ago, I looked up the plane and found out it is electric! I was floored. I never heard of such a thing. It has probably been 30 years since I stopped subscribing to Flying magazine, and 20 years since I’ve read one at all. I still love airplanes, but I haven’t kept up with the latest and greatest.
The Pipistrel Alpha Electric
So I did a little more research and discovered, to my surprise, that the Private Pilot license I earned so many years ago, in 1977, is still valid! And I found my actual wallet license buried in a stack of old “important’ stuff I have in the attic. I also found my Student Pilot license and my original Medical Certificate, because you have to pass a flight physical before you can fly. A little more research told me that at my age, I would have to pass a flight physical every two years.
Now I’m really interested. Despite the various physical flaws I’ve picked up along the way during my 65 years on the planet, I think I just might be able to pass the flight physical. I’ve already done the online part of it on the FAA site (also something new since my pre-internet flying days), and I also learned that there are many people flying even in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. I think I’m mentally and physically sound enough to be one of them.
When I mentioned to Gail that I might want to fly again, she replied with an emphatic, “No!” I totally respect that. I wouldn’t want to put our good lives at risk by doing something stupid. This whole idea of flying would require a lot of thought, and my willingness to abandon it for one reason or another. Gail’s concern is reason enough for me.
But there’s no reason I can’t pursue the “idea” of it. I can learn and prepare, even if I never take to the skies again.
I found an AME (Aviation Medical Examiner) who has an office two miles from our house. Isn’t that interestingly convenient, as if the universe is conspiring? If I could pass the flight physical, I would be technically licensed to fly. For some reason, that alone would be psychologically/emotionally pleasing to me.
But the fun part would be in the learning, or re-learning, because so much has changed in these past 43 years.
As I said, I learned to fly in the pre-internet days. So imagine working with paper maps, rulers, and protractors to determine distances and plot courses, and pencil/paper to do aviation math — time in flight, the effect of winds aloft, how much time I had for a given amount of fuel, the effect of the plane’s weight, etc, etc, etc. We learned to “read” the skies, but a pilot had to make a phone call before every flight to obtain current aviation weather. I imagine that now everything is much easier on an iPhone or iPad. That would be fun to figure out again.
And navigation used old analog technology back in my day. In addition to a physical paper map in-flight to help visually determine my position, I used a magnetic compass and learned to use navigational aids like the Non-directional Beacon System, Loran-C, and VOR. I mainly used VOR. I had books and charts to research the navigation radio frequencies I would need for a given trip. Today, GPS has completely changed the game, and the avionics in the cockpit reflect those changes. Same way for the radio frequencies I might need for alternate airports along the way. I’m sure all that information is now a few clicks away on a smart phone or tablet. I want to know all these things!
So, I researched online ground schools and found a plethora of them. I’ll pick one and start the process of learning everything that’s changed in these past 43 years. Technology has exploded in that period of time, so I’m sure there’s a lot of delicious stuff to learn, and I’ll have a blast doing just that, even if I never leave the ground.
But if I ever do, it will be specifically to fly that cool little Pipistrel electric!
Set your lens to the widest aperture and manual focus
Use Bulb mode on the camera
Use Live View
Start with ISO 2000, then more/less
Use a wired/wireless shutter release
Start with 10-sec exposure, then more/less (20 seconds yields unacceptable star trails)
Pro tip: you can paint interesting foreground objects with a flashlight
In post-production, combine 2-4 exposures in your favorite HDR program, making sure you align the images
Process your HDR composite in your favorite photo editor
Pro tip: denoise to reduce graininess, but take care to not “denoise” too many stars from the image
Above is a summary of the general instructions, which you can copy and paste into a note on your smart phone for future reference. And here are a few more ideas to make your Milky Way photo session a success.
First of all, you’ll need dark sky. A tiny bit of light pollution might be okay, but the darker the sky the better. So if you’re like most of us and live in a light-polluted world, this needs to be pre-planned. A simple drive out of the city might do it; a quiet country road might be ideal. Better yet, identify several potential sites so you’re ready when the weather is. Keep your eye on the weather. Obviously, you’ll need a clear sky. Sometimes, the “stars will all line up” — you’ll have time and energy to go out at night in the dark to take your picture of the Milky Way when the weather cooperates. Even bright moonlight interferes to some degree, a full moon to a significant degree, so ideally you’ll have a moonless night or a minimal moon. I might also mention wind. Again, a little wind is okay, but if it’s strong enough to shake your camera/tripod, your Milky Way photo shoot is already doomed.
So let’s talk about equipment. You’ll need a camera… LOL. Seriously, any DSLR that has a “Bulb” mode setting will be okay. That’s usually marked with a “B” on the mode dial. (Nope, you won’t get a good Milky Way shot in Automatic mode. But don’t worry — Bulb mode is easy.)
The lens for this project should be a wide angle, so you can picture a good swath of the sky. Anything between 10-20mm on the wide end will do fine. The best lenses will be “fast,” and that means they allow a wide aperture (a low f-stop). A good f/4 lens is fine, an f/2.8 is finer.
Your camera should also have a “live view” screen, because not only would looking through the viewfinder be impractical and frustrating, but you will also want a quick view of each image you take.
Finally, your camera must have the ability to plug in a wired or wireless remote shutter release. That’s so you don’t touch your camera when you take a picture. Why? Because we don’t want any shake. Let me repeat… NO SHAKE. None. Nada whatsoever. If we’re going to worry about wind causing the camera to shake, we’ll also worry about the shake caused by your finger on the physical shutter. So, get a wired or wireless shutter release. Mandatory.
For the same reason, you won’t be holding your camera. It will be attached to a good tripod. What’s good? A sturdy one that won’t shake. Cheap ones do. The best ones even have a hook where you can attach a weight (like your backpack or camera bag) to really fix the tripod to the ground, but that is not usually necessary. Good tripods will have a system to easily attach and remove your camera.
And that’s it for essential equipment. It’s a lot, I know. But on the upside, all of this equipment will be useful for many other photography projects, not just photographing the Milky Way.
A fun, optional piece of “equipment” is an app of the night sky for your smart phone. Get one that moves — that is, one that shows whatever part of the sky at which you are pointing the camera. I’ve used several of these. Right now I’m using “Sky Guide” for iOS.
Oh, and one more thing, a little flashlight with red light. Red light won’t wreck your night vision. Once your eyes are adjusted to the dark, you’ll see more stars with your naked eye. Bright white light will wreck that. But you’ll need some light to make camera adjustments, so get a little red light. Cheap.
Okay, so now you’re ready. It’s nighttime, the sky is clear, there’s a skinny moon, there’s only a gentle breeze, and you have the time and energy to go out. You have your location pre-planned.
So you gather your equipment (and you don’t forget something like you did last time). Your camera battery is charged. The lens is clean. Etc, etc, etc.
Now you arrive to your location and settle into the dark. Your eyes gradually adjust as you set up your tripod, attach the camera, and aim it toward the southern sky. Yes, the southern sky. That’s where the Milky Way is for most of us in the US. If you’re not in the US, figure it out before you head out to your dark sky location. But if the sky is dark enough and your eyes have adjusted, you’ll probably see the Milky Way with your naked eyes anyway.
You’ve attached the shutter release, you’ve set the camera to Bulb mode, set the lens to manual focus, and now you’re ready for your first of many shots.
Set your aperture to the widest possible (the lowest f-stop number) and keep it there for the duration — that won’t change.
Start with an ISO setting of 2000 — and that WILL change. Now play with the shutter speed until you can see stars in the viewfinder. This is just so we can adjust the focus. Work the manual focus until the stars are sharp, tiny dots. Now leave the focus alone. That part also will not change.
Okay then, you’re ready… take your first shot. Press the shutter release and either time an exact ten seconds, or do what I do and count “one one thousand, two one thousand,” and like that. In other words, it’s not essential to be exact. When the time is up, let go of the shutter release to end the exposure. Now take a look at your image and see if it’s dark or light. If it’s dark, increase the next exposure to 12 or 15 seconds. You’ll want dark and light exposures anyway. If the first exposure was light, reduce the next one by a few seconds. Get it?
Now, once you’ve gotten some exposures that look darkish on the viewfinder, and others that look lighter, do the same thing all over again with a different ISO. Change it from 2000 either higher, like 2400, to make the images lighter, or lower, like 1600, to make the images darker. Take another series of shots with varying exposure times. Keep doing other series at different ISO settings until you are satisfied you have enough shots. Pro tip — your goal is to take a series of shots that give you dark/medium/light exposure results at the lowest ISO possible, with exposure times between 10-15 seconds. Keeping the ISO as low as possible will reduce the graininess of the final image.
As you can see, you will be making adjustments on the fly, and that’s a lot of the fun. When you’re done, you’ll have a good number of exposures all showing stars, but some will look dark, some medium, and some light. You want a range because you’ll work with them in post production.
A note about the movement of stars — within twenty seconds, your camera can capture star movement seen in your image as “trails.” Unless you’re doing a shoot specifically for star trails, you don’t want them in your photo. You definitely don’t want them in your Milky Way shoot. That’s why we limit each exposure to less than twenty seconds. And for each series of shots at a certain ISO, you’ll want to get your images as quickly as possible, so there won’t be too much shift in the position of the stars.
And now you’re done shooting. You should have something like 20-50 pictures, and maybe more. Pack up your stuff and go home.
Now, process your pictures in an HDR program, using two or three images of different exposures that you took fairly close together timewise. Be sure to tell the program to “align” the images. Now, use your program to find a pleasing composite and save.
Finally, now use that saved image on your favorite photo editing program. Important note — many of these programs will want to automatically “denoise” the image. Don’t do it unless you intend to. Sure, you might want to denoise some graininess from a high ISO image, but when you denoise an image with tiny stars, you will lose some of them. Just be careful with your presets. Check the denoise level and adjust to taste. You might want to create a preset of your own specifically for stars.
So there you have it. There are many steps to this project, but it’s all doable, and the process is a lot of fun. You’ll be amazed when you see your first photograph of the Milky Way!
Here is my first effort last year, taken under dark skies from south-facing Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina. Unfortunately, there was a cluster of lights from a nearby community that affected the entire lower part of the photo, but that serves as an example of what light pollution does to astrophotography. Still, I hope this image gives you an idea of what you can do with simple equipment.
If you found this information useful and you use it to take a good picture of the Milky Way, please post the picture in the comments. I’d love to see it! 😀