Passed with Flying Colors

It was a gusty night on July 22, 2010 in Hartford, Conn. Winds reached 22 mph making trees flow like they were doing “the wave” at a football game, but Michael Gundlach was determined to land his 1981, 2-seat, single-engine Cessna 152 airplane.

It was Gundlach’s first solo cross-country trip, after he spent the summer training for his pilot’s license. Thus far, everything had gone smoothly on his trip from Mid-Island Air Service that runs out of the Brookhaven Airport in Shirley, N.Y. But as he prepared to land his tiny plane, he found himself drifting back and forth like a ship with a broken sail. Gundlach put his engine on idle to slow the machine for a safe landing, but as the plane slowed, the winds whipped the miniature aircraft with more ferocity.

Despite the challenges, Gundlach managed to safely land his plane, but his journey was far from over. In order to complete his mission, Gundlach had to take off once again in what was becoming a whirlwind of wild gusts.

He checked the weather and recalculated his route. Frank Pinter, Gundlach’s mentor and main instructor, told him the trip presented “nothing you can’t handle.” Gundlach prepared to begin his expedition back to New York.

“There were un-forecasted winds, so he had to draw on his prior experience in gusty winds,” said Pinter, who received his teaching certificate in 1955.

At take off, Gundlach knew he had to watch his speed because if he accelerated too quickly, the plane’s wings wouldn’t produce enough lift and would eventually stall. With chills running down his spine and sweat soaking his palms, Gundlach gripped the plane’s yolk, or steering wheel, and took control of the situation.

“At take off I’m rockin’ and rollin’ back and forth. It was by far the scariest moment of my training, but it was a great experience,” said Gundlach.

Gundlach had never been confronted by winds of this strength. He was able to handle the situation even after the turbulence forced him to drop his clip board containing his navigation log and flight plan. The voyage’s check points, destination, departure and landing information, course route and his desired altitude were sprawled across the floor.

“In the end everything went very smoothly. He went through the flight program the best way you can, exceeding all expectations,” Pinter said of Gundlach.

After successfully landing back at the Mid-Island Air Service, Gundlach was only a month away from becoming a licensed pilot.

Gunlach, 23, a business management major at SUNY New Paltz, says he has been infatuated by planes and the thought of flying “basically my whole life.” Even as a 5-year-old playing soccer, Gundlach says he would often stop and look up at the planes. His interest inspired him to enroll in a Board of Cooperative Educational Services class for air traffic controllers during his senior year of high school. At BOCES, Gundlach completed ground school, studying aerodynamics and the effects of the weather.

After taking time away from flying to concentrate on school, Gundlach decided to become reacquainted with a familiar passion. On May 26, Gundlach took his first lesson.

Throughout the next three months, Gundlach conducted 40 hours of flight time that included dual and solo cross country flights, along with nighttime flying. On June 18, Gundlach performed his first solo flight that included taking off and landing three times at the Brookhaven Airport.

“During the first solo mission I was very anxious for him because I could see everything. I knew he developed the necessary skills. The end result was great and Mike came back with a big smile,” said Pinter, who has been a teacher at Mid-Island Air Service for a year.

In addition, Gundlach also had to pass a 60-question multiple choice exam followed by an oral exam that quizzed him on any deficiencies presented by the earlier exam.

According to Gundlach, the exam was the hardest part of the  training because of the vast amount of information he needed to digest. Gundlach had to study several lengthy textbooks to learn aerodynamics, the effect of weather along a route, air traffic control signals, codes, instruments in the plane what those instruments do and how to work a navigation system.

On Aug. 20, two days after passing the two exams, Gundlach received his single-engine pilot’s license. While becoming a pilot is a great achievement, it comes with restrictions. Gundlach is unable to fly through thick clouds or other factors that cause low visibility. The reason for this restriction is that he doesn’t have the proper training to fully depend on the instruments that pilots must rely on when they can’t see. Gundlach says he will continue his training to help “use navigation tools as your eyes.”

The license also restricts Gundlach to planes with tricycle landing gear that has two main gears along with a nose wheel.

According to Gundlach, after his graduation from New Paltz this December, he will attend Beaver County Community College for air traffic control. Since Gundlach has already obtained a license, he will skip the first semester. Gundlach says that his goal is to become an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration that oversees the industry, similar to the way the Department of Motor Vehicles oversees driving.

“This is a tough industry to get into so I decided to become an air traffic controller because it is a federal job that is stable and has benefits. I still want to fly whenever I can. I love being able to go to different places and just being up in the air,” said Gundlach.

Chris Valdez

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