Taking Off

Flight instructor Freeman Blakney demonstrates how to flair the airplane on landing.

Student Johnny Dailey and instructor Freeman Blakney walk to one of BFC’s Cessna 172s for a flight lesson.

High flying at the Birmingham Flight Center 

Written and photographed by Cameron Carnes

Sometimes, flying a plane can be the freest and most peaceful thing you can imagine. Few things are as satisfying as watching the sun set while fluffy clouds wash around the wings of your plane. As the temperature drops outside and inside your plane, life is just about perfect.

But other days aren’t quite so serene. Weather, new airfields, instrument malfunctions—things do go wrong. As a pilot, you’re entirely in control of the aircraft traveling thousands of feet above the earth. To make sure that you and everyone else around you is safe, there are more than a few steps between walking onto an airfield and actually getting a plane in the air.

Luckily, Birmingham has the Birmingham Flight Center (BFC). Located at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, the newly renovated flight center has everything you need to get your private pilot’s license and more.

With seven planes, one-on-one and group classrooms, a fully licensed testing center, and the only Redbird flight simulator at a flight school in the state, the BFC is perfectly outfitted to teach you how to fly. Before you commit, you can take a discounted exploratory flight to figure out if you’re truly interested in working towards your private pilot’s license. This certification allows you to rent aircraft and fly anywhere in the U.S., but only if the weather is good.

For the student, this process could take anywhere from four months to two years. To earn this license, a student must put in at least 40 hours of flight time, but the national average is 50–70. “If you’re coming in once every two weeks, it takes about a year,” says BFC Director of Operations Greg Floyd. “But if you’re here three times a week, you can knock it out in about three months.”

Student Johnny Dailey performs pre-flight checks.

Student Johnny Dailey performs pre-flight checks.

Instruction is broken up into three phases: solo, cross-country, and testing. Each phase focuses on a slightly different aspect of flying. The solo phase focuses on learning all the airplane’s characteristics; the cross-country teaches better flight planning; and the testing phase gets students ready for the final certification test.

Much of the focus in the solo phase especially is on safe landing. This tends to be “one of the more challenging aspects of flying,” says Floyd. At the end of the solo phase comes many students’ favorite part: the first solo flight. Although you’re just taking the plane on a short flight around the airport’s pattern, “it’s kind of a magical moment,” he says. “I still remember my first solo. It’s something that never leaves you.”

“You now know how to fly the airplane,” says Floyd. “Now, you’re going to go at least 50 nautical miles. It shows you how to plan—fuel, weather, emergency prep, etc. You learn a lot about aviation.”

After a student has completed his or her private pilot’s license, they have a few options of things they can work toward next. The next step is an instrument rating, which teaches pilots to navigate and land using only their instruments. Requiring about 50 hours of flight time, this rating is the next step toward making money by flying a plane.

If a student wants to pursue aviation as a career, he or she must rack up 250 hours in the sky. This number is comprehensive, so it includes the hours flown to get the private pilot’s license and instrument rating. Even then, it’s unlikely that you’d be able to get a commercial piloting job right away. On average, they look for pilots with 800–1,200 hours of flight time. “Hours are a direct representation of a pilot’s experience,” says Floyd.

One of the coolest parts of Birmingham Flight Center is the full motion Redbird Flight Simulator. Per hour, it’s cheaper than flying a plane with an instructor, and some hours logged here can count towards certifications. Since it runs simulations, instructors can program instrument malfunctions as well as emergency situations that would require unique landing situations.

Redbird FMX flight simulator.

Redbird FMX flight simulator.

But certifications aren’t the only thing that the flight center offers. They also offer mechanical support and aircraft management services especially for smaller piston aircraft. Much of this side of the business is focused on engine repair and annual inspections, but they also offer aircraft sales. For many of the services, BFC’s turnaround is much faster than many of their competitors.

Though they’ve only been offering these services for about a year, they’ve already expanded from one mechanic to three. “The floor is one of the coolest places in the world,” says Floyd. “We know that everything will pass the tough minimum standards. Aviation is the safest industry in the world. It isn’t for everybody, but I think it’s the most fun you can possibly have.”

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