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Wednesday, February 25 2015 00:00

Any Excuse to Fly: Building Time in a Cherokee 235

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With four years of flying experience at age 21, the sky is the limit for Mitchell Miller.

February 2015-

Instrument-rated pilot Mitchell Miller is a native of Riverside, Calif. who attained his private pilot certificate at age 17 (with just 41 hours!) and his instrument rating in 2012. Miller might be a newer pilot, but he’s got an age-old outlook about aviation. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “any kind of paying flying gig is better than the best office job!” With more than 195 hours in his logs now, Miller is actively looking to build more time. Of course, he does have to finish college, too: he’s in his last year in the economics program at UC–Santa Barbara and will complete his studies in June 2015. “A lot of my friends don’t have any clue about aviation. I always like to take friends up and explain what’s going on,” said Miller.
As far as his post-college plans go, Miller wants to be a career pilot. But he’s realistic about his path. “I’m still very new in the aviation world, and I don’t know exactly where I’m headed.” He continued, “There’s a lot more hurdles to jump over, but I think I eventually want to be a commercial pilot captain. I always thought that after college I’d join the Air National Guard. I’m planning to stay in California, and [it would] pay for my [further] training.”

“I wanted to be that guy”
“Most people look up at planes and don’t really think about the actual pilot who is flying the plane,” said Miller. “But I did. And I wanted to be that guy.” I never went to a ‘real’ flight school,” he continued. “But I’ve had a great flight instructor in my family friend—and mentor—Tom Hamm. He knew I was interested in aviation, and when I was 16, Tom asked me if I wanted to start flying. “Tom donated his time, and I paid for the gas and the airplane. He helped me out enormously,” recalled Miller. “He would just tell what areas to study and I mostly learned by doing.” “I think that is the best method of teaching,” he continued, “and I managed my flight time very well. By the time I hit 40 hours, I had met all the PPL requirements and was prepared to take the test.” But, preparation, as we all know, doesn’t make you immune from anxiety—or inoculate you from encountering the unexpected. “During my first solo cross-country, my VOR broke in-flight,” Miller told me. “I started to freak out and called my instructor from the air. Tom told me that Lindbergh made it from New York to France with a stopwatch and a compass—and that I needed to relax and trust my flight planning.”
“I knew my headings and times,” he continued. “I was looking for Ramona Airport (KRNM) near San Diego as I flew my headings—but saw nothing.” “Once my time expired, I knew I was supposed to be there. I was nervous I’d overshot it and was flying into Mexico. Then I looked out my window and I was directly over the runway!” This experience taught Miller that dead reckoning really does work.

Forced to be comfortable in a high workload environment
Miller has done much of his training in Southern California airspace. “In some places [around the country], there’s no Bravo airspace at all—but I’m forced to be comfortable with it.” “I really don’t have a problem with that. I fly into Santa Monica, and now I’m familiar with VFR corridors. I pick up an IFR clearance and then I don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “I try to anticipate what [ATC] will tell me to do—and stay ahead of the airplane. If I get a new squawk code, I put that right in… an altimeter setting, I’ll dial that in right away,” he explained. “If you can deal with SoCal, you can deal with anyone!”

A fractional arrangement offers both fun and benefits of ownership
Miller took his instruction in a Cherokee 140 as well as in a 1967 Piper Cherokee 235, N9239W. The 235 is tied down on the ramp at Riverside Municipal Airport (KRAL). And now, Miller can really call it “his,” because he took 25 percent ownership last summer. “I’ve been flying Three-Nine Whiskey since I began getting my PPL in 2010. Tom let me rent from him, and I probably have around 90 hours in it,” he said. “It’s fun being an owner,” he continued. “I decided to buy into the plane for a couple reasons. I was comfortable in the plane, but also, I knew where this plane had been and I know Tom has taken great care of it. It’s a great plane with a strong engine and good avionics,” Miller said. The group uses Google calendar to schedule the plane. The aircraft has a reserve fund, and each pilot pays for their own fuel. Every hour flown means a $25 deposit into the fund. This is enough to cover the annual and other routine maintenance, and leftovers will contribute to offsetting the cost of an engine overhaul. On top of the “pay-as-you-go” type costs, each of the three owners pays $114 a month for tiedown fees and insurance. One of the big selling points for Miller buying into the aircraft was that his mentor was overseeing the management of the arrangement. “He eventually wants me to take over the plane, and I’m planning on it; the budget is all built in,” said Miller. “But right now he takes care of it, and that makes it really easy on me.”

Making it count
Because, let’s not forget, Miller is a full-time student, too. When he needs to be in Santa Barbara, he’ll occasionally fly the Cherokee 235 from Riverside. “Once, I flew the airplane to take a final exam. I was done with my test and back down in Riverside by 2 p.m.” The airplane is available all the time, but Miller can only fly a few days every month. When he does fly, though, he makes it count. I talked with Miller last September, when he was on a break from school—and surfing in Oceanside. He had flown himself and a friend from Riverside to Oceanside Municipal (KOKB) for this adventure. All of Miller’s current flying might be for pleasure, but it’s done with the goal of building time and making a career out of it. “I’m pushing for my commercial license, and so I look for any excuse to fly. I fly to visit friends. I take the plane up to school in Santa Barbara for a couple days at a time. I take friends to lunch,” he explained. He flies with his mentor Tom Hamm as much as he can, too. “Whenever my instructor is available I go up with him to work on commercial stuff. [I look for] any excuse to go flying to build time,” Miller said. “Someday” flights for Miller include a cross-country trip to play golf in Utah with his dad, and going camping at Catalina Island. The 235 should be well suited for these plans. “The 235’s useful load is great. I can put four people in the plane, full main tanks, full tiptanks—and still have room for luggage while being within the CG range,” Miller said.

Eventually Miller wants to add a Garmin 430, but told me, “That’s not a super-big deal, because I like the old-school setup and I like using a chart.” He also uses his iPad and ForeFlight, along with a GPS attachment from Bad Elf as added insurance. “Of course I don’t rely on that [for GPS]. I fly off of VORs and intersections. But it’s always nice to have a backup. I do use ForeFlight for taxiway diagrams.” Miller’s flying philosophy is “Don’t be complacent. There’s always something to learn from every situation. If you have a question, find the answer. If you can’t find it, don’t be afraid to ask. Pilots love helping other pilots out.” With this kind of attitude—and the help he’s gotten already—Mitchell Miller seems to be well on his way to accomplishing every single one of his goals. And something tells me that someday he’ll be paying it forward. That seems to be The Pilot’s Way.

Heather Skumatz is managing editor for Piper Flyer. Send questions or comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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