Color blindness doesn’t ground Princeton man’s dream of flying

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Chad Rygwall on the day he got his pilot’s license with the Cessna two-seater. Contributed photo

To fly… to soar over the treetops, looking down at lakes and streams, roofs and roads – that is the dream of many young boys.  Chad Rygwall, of Princeton, was no exception.

Chad was lucky enough to have an uncle who was a pilot, so he was able to get a taste of his dream at a young age. He accompanied his uncle Jim on trips to the North Shore, Mille Lacs, and all over Minnesota. His favorite trip with his uncle was going to the North Shore, especially in the fall, when the leaves turned to golds and fiery reds and the blue of Lake Superior stretched out below. Chad looked forward to the day when he could be the one at the controls, and hoped for a career as a commercial pilot.

But a high school diagnosis of color blindness dashed Chad’s dreams before he could begin training for his pilot’s license. Becoming a commercial pilot when you are color blind is an unlikely outcome – most folks would say it is impossible. (The term color blindness is misleading – it does not mean being blind to all colors, but rather having difficulty distinguishing between colors.  So people who are color blind may see reds as pinks or browns, and may not be able to distinguish between different colors of green.  Since airports use colored lights to signal planes, it is important that pilots be able to tell the difference between colors.)  Chad gave up his dream of being a pilot, instead going to school for HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and building maintenance.

Many years later, with his career in full swing, Chad began to think again about flying.  When uncle Jim’s son, Brian, got his pilot’s license, Chad accompanied him a number of times on short flights around Minnesota. But a family and job kept him busy; for many years he didn’t find time to go flying.  Finally, when a health issue cropped up around Chad’s 40th birthday, he began to think again about flying.

According to Chad, his health concerns definitely influenced his decision.  “It was kind of like a bucket list,” he said.

Another flight with his cousin, Brian, cemented the idea.  “That was when I decided to go for it,” said Chad, and he began to do some research into getting his pilot’s license.

It didn’t take long before Chad found that, although color blindness may prevent a person from getting a commercial pilot’s license, a private license is not quite as restrictive.

“You do have to pass another test through the Federal Aviation Administration.  You have to learn a different way to know which color is which,” explained Chad.  The FAA also has your license flagged based on your degree of color blindness, so you might not be able to fly at night or under certain conditions.

The health issues were also something he had to contend with.  Chad had to have a medical exam, including blood tests, and has to complete a “stress test” every two years.  A medical certificate from an FAA-approved doctor every two years is a requirement.

Chad soon discovered that a friend of his cousin’s is a flight instructor.   Jason Erickson, Brian’s friend, is not just a certified flight instructor; he is the owner of Ascend Aviation, a flight school with locations in both Princeton and Maple Lake.  In fact, the Princeton location is just a few miles from Chad’s home.

Soon Chad was taking lessons from Jason at Ascend Aviation, who commutes by air between the Princeton and Maple Lake locations.

“He takes you up; you do maneuvers, steep turns, stalls, circles, all kinds of things.  After about 10 hours you learn how to take off and land.  Then there is more practice,” said Chad.  A minimum of 40 hours flight time is required in order to get a private pilot’s license.

“You also have to do a certain amount of hours of ground school and pass written tests.  And you have to do two solo cross-country trips – flying by maps,” said Chad.

The entire process took 13 months.  Then there was the test – a 2 ½ – 3 hour ordeal including a written test, an oral test, and then an air test – going up in the air with the examiner.

“You show them all your maneuvers – turns, stalls, steep turns, and emergency landings,” remembered Chad, “and if you pass, they sign off.”

Chad was thrilled that he was able to pass the first time.  He got his license on Nov. 19, 2012, and has been flying ever since.  Soon after Chad got his pilot’s license he purchased a Cessna 172 Taildragger, which, he explains, is like a bush plane. It has big tires and can land on grass, on the beach, on tundra, wherever you want to.

Chad flies now about two to three days a week, depending on the weather.  His wife, Jill, and son, Andrew, have gone with him on short trips throughout Minnesota.  They have attended festivals and “fly-ins” and have even taken trips just to go to lunch somewhere.  Since he can land anywhere with the Taildragger, he has visited neighbors and friends, even landing in a field behind his house (by permission, of course).

But Chad’s favorite trip is still heading to the North Shore in the fall – flying above the trees and along the shore, with the blue lake and the gorgeous reds and yellows of the leaves painting a beautiful and varied palette below him.