Classroom in the Clouds

It’s a foggy August afternoon, and Ben Khader has just finished his second flight lesson of the day at Monterey Regional Airport. He’s ready to get back in the air.

He greets his next student – me, cashing in on a Christmas present from last year for flight lessons – and starts by explaining the Bernoulli Principle and Newton’s third law. Then it’s on to checking the aircraft – wings, lights, gas level. Once we’re in the cockpit, things move quickly. Headsets plugged in. Check. Lights on. Check. Fuses in. Check.

“Alright,” Khader says. “Start her up, just like a Porsche!”

I turn the key and the propeller spins. The whole plane rumbles with the satisfying shake of the engine. I just started an airplane! But there’s no time to celebrate for a first-timer.

Throttle halfway in. Fuel mixture set to rich. Flaps down. We are taxiing to the runway. Khader shows me how to steer with my feet. “Just like that, stay on the yellow line,” he says.

It’s harder than I expect, the pedal’s heavy and the plane slow to react. A few times, I nearly veer off the runway. Khader saves us each time, unfazed, using his own set of pedals – similar to a driver’s ed car with dual sets of brakes – to quickly set us back on track.

Khader briefly explains the takeoff procedure, asks air traffic control for clearance and then it’s time. Throttle all the way in, we hurtle down the runway, bouncing and skipping as we go. We reach the optimal take-off speed of 60 knots, roughly 70 mph, but it feels much faster.

“Pull back a little,” Khader says. As I do, I accidentally tweak us to the right at full speed. It’s a move that can be dangerous, but Khader is a pro at guiding new pilots, and he calmly moves the plane back on track as we hurtle along, using his controls.

“Don’t fight me,” Khader counsels.

I pull back, more gently this time. Suddenly we are in the air, and the plane feels like a bicycle on the freeway, shaking side to side with turbulence as we launch into the wind.

“See, it’s that easy,” Khader says. “You are flying now.” He still keeps his hands on the controls.

Since 2018 Khader has been a flight school teacher, offering up to 20 one-on-one lessons a week, at a cost of $295 each. It takes 40 hours of training with a certified instructor to get a pilot’s license, something Khader pursued himself in 2013.

Growing up in Jordan, Khader dreamed of flying since age 3. “Those dreams gave me such passion for the freedom of flight,” he says.

He knew if he wanted to spend time in the air he had two choices: “You can work for an airline or become an instructor, and I wanted to be at the teaching level.”

In 2013, he opened the restaurant Yafa in Carmel, and since then says he’s spent every cent he could on flying. He spends six hours a day in the air on average, probably another two doing pre-flight checks – and all of that before heading to his restaurant at around 5pm.

“Every day in the sky is a great day,” Khader says. “I love the feeling of being able to go anywhere.” And he likes watching first-timers stare in awe at the scenery below.

“Is there anywhere to the east you would like to see?” Khader asks through the headset. I ask to see Pinnacles National Park, and as we climb at 500 feet per minute, cars below look like toys on the Laguna Seca raceway.

We soar over the prisons in Soledad as we make a wide turn at the south end of Pinnacles. To see the whole place at once is simultaneously breathtaking and anticlimactic: I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my life, but something so grand looks small.

The return leg of the trip is just as exciting. After 20 minutes bouncing along like an old roller coaster, the runway comes into sight. Up until this point, Khader has given me zero insight as to how to land the plane. I ask, and get more of a philosophical answer than practical directions.

“I don’t like to call it ‘landing,’” Khader says. “I like to call it, flying low until you touch the ground.”

And with that, we pull the throttle back until there’s just enough power to keep us in the air, and turn the fuel mixture to rich once more. We fly lower and lower. Finally, just when it seems like we might crash, the wheels touch earth and we bounce down the runway.

The most intense experience of the flight is yet to come – trying to control the plane as it slows during landing. We tear down the runway, flaps down, slowing us down. As we come to a crawl, Khader turns to me and says, “You see that brother? You just landed a plane.”

We park the plane and complete post-flight checks. Khader notes my first flight hour in a log book. “You only have 39 more flight hours,” he says.

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