The cross country navigation exercise is required to complete the JAR private pilot’s licence. It is effectively the first time the pilot is left alone with the plane, dependent on the new skills learned over the past few weeks. It is now not simply a case of handling the plane but also juggling the full navigation and radio without someone to take over if it becomes hectic. This is a flight that I think every pilot remembers, regardless of how long ago it was.
At Axarquía we made blind radio calls. There was no one officially manning the radio on the ground so the pilots using the airfield simply talked to each other. You can speak either in Spanish or English on the radio in Spain. That works fine when there is an air traffic controller speaking to the pilots and keeping everyone up-to-date but in a tiny airfield like Axarquía it could be somewhat confusing. I made a point of doing my calls in English, keeping to the specific set phrases we had learned, so any Spaniard who had studied English Radiotelephony (rather than English as a language) would have no problems understanding me.
I do speak Spanish, in a conversational sense. I speak enough to get by as long as I don’t drink too much red wine and I avoid deep philosophical conversations. But I am very reliant on context and body language. I knew I was prone to guessing words, filling in the blanks when then Spaniards began speaking quickly. So I did not admit to understanding Spanish when I was on the radio, trying to lessen the chance of a misunderstanding – or at least, to ensure that if there was one, it wasn’t my fault.
On this last leg of my solo cross country, I left Almería and followed the coast. I turned inland at Torre del Mar and called on the Axarquía frequency to say that I was inbound to the airfield. I didn’t expect a response. The afternoon wind always came in from the mountains, which meant it would be blowing straight down the runway towards me. I didn’t even have to do a circuit, I could fly straight in and land.
I was surprised to hear Mercedes, the woman from the office, make a call in rapid Spanish. She knew who I was – if her call were meant for me, she would speak more slowly, or even find someone to translate and pass me the message. I hadn’t heard anyone else in the air so she was likely to be speaking to someone on the ground. That fit with the few key words I’d understood: something about people on the left of the runway. I felt sorry for them, I had a tendency to land slightly to the left which would be loud and possibly nerve-wracking for whoever was on the grass. I didn’t give it any further thought as I started my downwind checks.
I set up the plane for my final approach and looked out to see who was on the field. It was Juan, mowing the grass alongside the runway. His granddaughter and the airfield guard dog were bounding in circles around him. They were far to the left and not in my way. I reduced power and continued my descent.
I was about 200 feet above the ground, just passing the threshold, when the dog – this dog who had spent his entire life on the airfield – inexplicably panicked at the sound of my engine. I was focused on the runway, willing myself to get the flare right and finish this expedition with a perfectly smooth landing. Oliver would be proud of me.
At that moment I saw … I’m not sure I knew what I saw, something brown and black cross my field of vision. The dog, I thought. The goddamn dog just cut across the runway right in front of me. I can’t believe it just ran into the runway.
That’s when I saw the girl chasing after it.
There was no time to breath, no time even to think. I put on full power and pushed the nose up up up, anything to get away from the runway suddenly filled with child.
I went straight into the circuit, turned onto crosswind and levelled out without conscious effort. I felt almost dizzy with adrenaline. My heart was still pounding with fear.
I turned parallel to the runway and made another radio call, downwind. No response. I could see the girl running across the apron, still chasing the dog, her grandfather trying to keep up with her. I completed the circuit and came in to land, still shaking.
Oliver and Cliff came running to the plane as I taxied to the parking spot. “Jesus,” Oliver said and then, belatedly, “well done.”
“I had visions of blood on the windshield.”
“We were up in the disused tower, I was screaming GO AROUND, GO AROUND”
“I couldn’t hear you,” I said. I was trembling.
“You did fine.” He hugged me. “You did it! You’ve done your cross country solo.” He turned back to Cliff. “She’s unbelievable. She just ran, right across the runway. Right in front of the plane! I’ve never seen anything like that.” Then he remembered me again. “You did it! You were great.”
“I did it. And now I want a beer.”
I sat in the dark gloom of the bar, watching the Andalucían men crowded around the ancient oak table, watching the news. Oliver chattered excitedly about the runway incursion, repeating again he’d never seen such a thing in all his years at small airfields. I sat at one of the low tables and sipped my beer. Juan sat in the darkness behind the bar with a small glass of brandy. The grass, he told me, could wait. I could see the little girl, playing with her dolls in the gravel of the parking lot. She was laughing. She had no idea.
One of the men tipped his head at me. “Pilota,” he said with a wink. I smiled back. Today, I had conquered my fears. I was flying.