“You see how the nose dropped when we started this 45 degree turn?” the flight instructor asked. Oh I definitely did. I saw how the nose dropped alright, and I felt the queasiness in my stomach too. The only thing that kept the rise of fear at bay was the fact that he was so calm.
“So you have to compensate by pulling back a bit,” he added, “Try it now. Pull back. I want you to feel how hard it is at this angle.” My hand squeezed tighter onto the flight controls that I had previously loosened my grip on. I pulled just as he let go of his side. Not ready for the pull back I got in return, I grunted a little.
“Pretty strong, huh?” he said.
“Jesus!” I said. He laughed and told me I’d get used to it.
The controls had been feather light up until then. The plane seemed to bounce and move with every wisp of the wind. Just the tiniest pressure with my left hand tilting the controls left or right moved the plane back and forth effortlessly. Too easy, I thought. It was too easy to look out the window or at one of the many confusing gauges and accidentally turn the plane. I really expected it to be much more difficult, but apparently when everything is working correctly, it’s not. I couldn’t decide if that was good or bad.
An hour ago I had been sitting in the waiting area of the Charlottesville Flight School, listening to one student – at the end of his training – and his instructor going over his flight plan. It was to be the student’s first solo cross-country flight and the instructor was critiquing all of his documentation. They talked about air speeds, tail winds vs. head winds and their effects on fuel usage and flight times, temperatures, plane weight, and weather patterns. The numbers and calculations they seemed to throw around with such ease boggled my flight-ignorant mind.
As I sat contemplating the possibility of progressing to the point of the near-pilot there, I began to wonder if the math would make it too hard for me. I’ve never been any good at math and most often when complex calculations are involved, my brain just shuts down. Quits. Gives up. But then I noticed he was using some sort of graph. A wheeled thing that apparently spun around and lined up with certain numbers, giving him some of his answers. Well, if all I had to do was learn how to use a tool, that I could do!
Faith in my math-challenged brain restored, my mind went to my next obstacle: cost. No doubt, that was a big obstacle. The cost of getting your private pilot’s license is between 8 and 10 grand. It’s a pretty significant investment of time and money. But, I was there for an introductory lesson, to see if I even wanted to go further at all. Maybe I wouldn’t want to, but somehow I had the feeling I would. I decided that if I did, it would have to wait until after I finished my Accelerated Free Fall class and my sailing lessons, so maybe next year. At least after today, I would know though.
He showed me to the plane and went over all of the significant parts – wings, fuel, propeller, flaps, rudder. Then we got in. While the cockpit felt cramped at first, once in the air it didn’t seem so small. He let me steer the plane, (with your feet!) to the runway, accelerate and finally, pull back the controls and lift the nose. And then, I was flying. I was fucking flying a plane.
We climbed to 2500 feet and then did circles around town. I played with the tail rudders so I could feel what they did. Pressing the pedals made the tail sweep left and right, like a pickup truck fish-tailing. We made gradual turns left and right, and then a hard turn right so he could show me the difference.
The runway was in front of us and we started to come in for our landing. That’s when fear gripped me. I hate landing. Even on big commercial airliners, I hate landing. The scariest part of skydiving for me is the landing. I seem to be fine floating around in the air – plane or parachute – but trying to touch back down again suddenly makes all of the risks involved very real and, kind of right there in your face.
My hand dropped from the controls. “Yeah… I think I’ll just let you do this.” I knew there was no way he was going to let me land the plane anyway, but I didn’t even want to be touching the controls in case I did something very wrong and screwed everything up.
“No, keep your hand on the controls. I want you to feel what I’m doing,” he said. With reluctance, I rested my left hand back onto the control. Lightly. “Now, push the throttle in more, we need to slow down.” I did, even though I was worried I would do it too fast or too slow and shortly I was going to find myself in a burning pile of twisted metal. Again I remind myself that he’s not going to let me do something that will kill us. Right?
“We’ll just make tiny adjustments as we come in. We have a bit of a crosswind today, that makes it a little more complicated, ” he said, “You feel that?” I nodded. I wasn’t sure if he meant the fact that the plane felt like it was in the middle of some invisible game of tug-of-war or the spike of adrenaline and fear that was making my stomach lurch.
“Rear wheels first, nose up,” the tires gently touched the runway, “and then let the nose down. Done!”
A huge grin appeared on my face with the wave of relief and excitement. “That was awesome!” I said. He told me that people find flying as addictive as any drug, but much more expensive. We taxied in, with my feet steering us until he took over to park the plane as easily as I would park my car.
“So, about the flying lessons that I want to start…” I said as we walked back in to discuss costs. That may have been my first lesson, but it wasn’t going to be my last.