Sarah Sheppard, Gleim Accounting coordinator, sparked an interest in flight after her first landing on the Gleim Virtual Cockpit.

This week we are highlighting one of our very own Gleim employees, Sarah Sheppard, the Sales Department and Campus Rep Coordinator for our accounting team. In her average workday, she seldom works on aviation projects despite being in the same office! During a team training exercise, Sarah had an opportunity to fly the Gleim Virtual Cockpit for the very first time, and it left her asking some pretty big questions about the future. Sarah details her forays into the world of aviation, beginning with that first simulator flight.


It started when I was sitting in a flight simulator. Sitting down at the controls, I approached the airport for a landing from 3 miles out. I breezed right past it, hardly noticing the runway. On my second attempt, we went to 10 miles. This time, I was actually able to spot the airport, but my approach wasn’t on target.

I looked to my colleague for help, but he didn’t take the controls. Instead he offered advice and instruction, and before I knew it, I was rolling to a stop on the ground. Sure, it may have been in the grass next to the runway, but the plane was intact and the “passengers” were safe.

Once I had stood up from the sim, I heard the question that started all of this.

Have you ever considered getting your pilot’s license?”

The truth was, I hadn’t. It never seemed like something someone could just do. But the question kept tumbling around my head.

I spoke to my partner at home, and after a bit of an incredulous look, we agreed that it sounded pretty interesting. So I started to look into my options to learn to fly.

First up, the Gleim Learn to Fly booklet. I picked up a copy when I was flying the Gleim simulator, and it did a great job of getting me excited for the next step. Next, I started looking up potential careers, how the industry is doing, and how to get into it. I was surprised by how simple it all seemed, but I wasn’t sure where I should start.

Websites and forums advised doing a discovery flight before jumping in the deep end. I had never heard of such a thing, but apparently some schools will take interested parties up and give them a bit of a taste of flying. I heard I might even get to “hold the stick” for a bit of the flight. Given that this all started with Gleim – my employer – I decided to reach out to the aviation department (I work with the Accounting team) to see if they had any recommendations.

University Air Center operates a full service FBO, flight school, maintenance, and avionics shop in Gainesville, FL (KGNV).

I was directed to call the local flight school, University Air Center (UAC) in Gainesville, FL. UAC works closely with us and they have a lot of experience teaching new pilots.

I called the UAC and spoke to Pam Landis, who I expected to tell me I got onto a long list and I might get into a plane by the end of 2020. Imagine my surprise when we were able to schedule a flight for the upcoming Sunday afternoon. I would be flying in a Cessna 172.

I was so excited and just a little nervous. I tried my best not to guess what to expect, but of course I failed to some extent. I did a lot of research because I wanted to make a good impression and took to pilot forums to see how these flights typically went and what to expect from my instructor. The consensus was:

  • Wear sunscreen and sunglasses
  • Dress for the weather
  • You will likely taxi the plane for a short period as well as control the plane in the air (read: wear appropriate footwear like sneakers or closed-toed shoes)
  • The instructor won’t let you do anything that they aren’t comfortable with
  • Be prepared to take photos

It was a long week of anticipation, but eventually Sunday came. Waking up on the day of my discovery flight, I found my nerves building up. I busied myself getting ready—coffee and a starchy breakfast, petting my dog—and left early to make it across town to the airport.

Some pre-flight jitters before Sarah took off on her first ever discovery flight.

I arrived 30 minutes early, plenty of time to soak in the surroundings. I skimmed through the Learn to Fly booklet again and listened to nearby planes. It was very different from the passenger terminal of a large commercial airport, and all the noise was oddly comforting. Seeing all the people and the steady hum of activity helped calm my nerves before I walked in—confident that I at least knew the very basics of flight. As I approached the hangar door, I was still anxious about getting in the plane. I knew the instructor wouldn’t let me get over my head, so I was not afraid but mostly concerned about embarrassing myself (the primary culprit was the thought of taxiing the plane)!

I knocked on the door, glancing at the Learn to Fly banner waving lazily above it while I waited. Larry Diamond opened the door for me and introduced himself as the senior instructor that would be taking me up that day. Over the next hour, we talked a lot about my interest in flying, Larry’s background, and a short, basic ground school lesson on why and how planes fly. I remember one question in particular.

Larry asked me: “How do planes fly?” I was pretty sure I knew this one.

“Lift and Wind?” I said inquisitively. Larry nodded and smiled.

“Anything else?” Stumped, I shrugged. “Money,” he added, still smiling.

Joking aside, it really helped lighten the mood and allowed me to ask him all of the questions I had been holding on to. After our conversation, I had a better understanding of the time and money required to become a pilot.

Larry showed me around the hangar and described the airplanes and helicopter inside. He described how the Gainesville Regional Airport’s runways were positioned, and we were fortunate to be able to watch two jets landing. I even got to meet some of the UAC pilots who were in-between flights.

Larry performs the preflight inspection on the Cessna172 before taking off for Sarah’s first discovery flight.

After our conversation, Larry gathered up some gear and we walked across the tarmac to the Cessna 172 reserved for my flight. He described all of his preflight checks as he did them, explaining both what he was doing and why. I was pretty impressed with how naturally it all came to him, but as he walked me through everything, it made a lot of sense.

We got in the Cessna and he began to do the interior checks and start the plane. The Garmin panels were pretty different from what I had used in the simulator. I had trouble finding the gauges I remembered, but I followed along with all of his checks as he went through the list.

With the preflight checks complete, Larry radioed the tower for permission to take off. We were guided to hold short of our runway, where we waited a few minutes for another plane to land. When we got the go ahead we taxied onto the runway! At this point, Larry instructed me to place my hands on the controls and feet on the pedals.

Freeze frame—I knew I would be flying the plane at some point during the discovery flight, but taking off?! Up until this moment, I’d convinced myself that I would fly for a few minutes. Now I was beginning to realize I was going to be a lot more than a passenger on this flight.—Back to the flight…

Sarah holds on to the yolk as flight instructor Larry snaps a photo over the University of Florida football stadium, The Swamp.

Larry controlled the throttle (i.e., the speed and power), and I mimicked his motions on the yoke and began to pull back as we sped down the runway. Before I knew it, the plane began to lift into the air. I’d felt it before from the cramped seat of a packed passenger cabin, but this was different. Even now, it is hard to describe that moment. It was exhilarating!

When we reached cruising altitude, Larry looked over at me and said, “That was basically all you.” I was probably gripping the controls a bit too tightly at that instant, but I know it wasn’t fear anymore, it was excitement.

I was struck by just how different things looked from above. We were permitted to fly over the university’s football stadium, lovingly called The Swamp on the University of Florida campus. Being in the air was much calmer than I expected; there was some light turbulence, but not having to worry about other “cars on the road” was strangely peaceful. In some circumstances—like on the edge of tall buildings or climbing a rock wall—I’ve been afraid of heights, but I never felt that fear during the flight.

I was surprised by how simple the controls seemed, but I was very glad to have an expert walking me through everything and providing peace of mind.

As we passed over the campus, Larry took over the controls to let me take some photos. I know Gainesville well, and I never imagined it looking so large and small at the same time.

Flying over the University of Florida campus with a view of Paynes Prairie in the distance.

Our last sight was a quick pass over Paynes Prairie State Park, a freshwater marsh, so we could see it from above. I couldn’t see any alligators from our height—a typical sight on the ground—but that didn’t stop me from looking. On my next flight I’ll keep my eyes peeled for the elusive Gainesville Buffalo!

From there, we started to head back to the airport and Larry called in our approach. A passenger jet was coming in to land as we were approaching, so we were asked to slow our approach. The jet pilot responded that he would speed up to match, and I felt an odd sense of camaraderie with the unseen pilot.

As we approached, Larry had me keep an eye out for where the jet would appear from the clouds. When I did spot it, it was much lower than I expected. I had been looking for the jet at our level or slightly above us. As a result, it took longer than I’d care to admit to notice the jet, but it was a great reminder that keeping track of things in three dimensions takes some getting used to.

After the jet landed, we began our descent. Thankfully, this is when Larry really took over the controls. I kept my hands and feet in place so that I could get a feel for what Larry was doing. As we got closer to the runway, it was hard to tell how high up we were, and I kept thinking we might have touched down. Then I was sure we’d touched down. Then we actually touched down.

Our landing was quick, and I was surprised by how little of the runway we used. Once we came to a complete stop, Larry had me sit on my hands and taxi the plane with just the pedals. Honestly, this was the scariest part for me, but I was able to guide us back to our parking spot without too much difficulty—if a lot of anxiety.

We exited the plane and tied it down again before heading inside. Larry spoke to me for a few minutes about flying and the next steps I’d need to take. He also took some time to fill out the first entry of my log book! In the end, I received 1.5 hours of ground instruction and 30 minutes of flight time. Maybe not much, but it was a start!

As we talked about my plans going forward (including the writing of this blog), I found out that Larry actually writes for AOPA! I made a note to check out what he’s written and said my goodbyes.

Getting into my car to drive home, my heart was still pounding from the adrenaline. Driving home took an eternity, and I was reminded how much I hate traffic. I kept finding my gaze drifting into the blue afternoon sky, jealous of everyone who was enjoying that freedom while I was stuck behind a blue Buick.

Looking back on the experience, flying the plane was actually a lot easier than I expected. Larry was very good about letting me know what actions to take, when, and why. The foundation I got from the Learn to Fly booklet really helped me follow along with what Larry was telling me!

I was nervous at the beginning, but everything I learned taught me that I didn’t need to be. My instructor didn’t let me attempt anything too complicated, and if something had gone wrong, he’d have been able to take control. I just needed to treat the situation with respect and trust in the knowledge and experience of those who had come before me.

After her first flight, Sarah was all smiles as she was leaving the Gainesville airport.

My extra tips

  • Bring a hair tie if you have longer hair
  • Wear comfortable shoes
  • Ask about seat adjustments if you are on the shorter side

The discovery flight definitely boosted my confidence about flying. I am starting out with the Gleim Private Pilot Online Ground School and am exploring my training options. I’m excited for my next opportunity to go up!

Written by and photos courtesy of Sarah Sheppard.