“You don’t need a real licence”

20 Aug 10 10 Comments

I have been collecting my essays, articles and blog-posts into a single volume to see if it would read well as a book. This is the introduction: how I ended up studying for my Private Pilot’s Licence out of a grudge rather than actual interest. It didn’t take long before I was hooked!

“You don’t need a real licence,” Tom said. The stern-faced ex-RAF instructor had already chided me for dressing inappropriately in my skirt and open-toed sandals. Now I realised he wanted to get rid of me.

He continued. “You want a wife’s licence. Forget the technical mumbo-jumbo. I’ll show you the radio and we’ll go up — you can even play with the flight controls.”

A strangled sound escaped me. A wife’s licence?

His condescending smile didn’t falter. “You’ll be done in a day so you can leave your boyfriend to concentrate on his studies. But if he has a heart attack in the air, you’ll know how to contact ATC and take instruction.”

It was Cliff with the crazy idea of buying a plane. I was just along for the ride, no interest in slogging through physics and engine mechanics. I was too old for exams. But wife’s licence? As if I weren’t competent to learn.

I twisted in my seat towards Cliff. The bastard was grinning.

“I’m getting my pilot’s licence.” The grit in my voice surprised even me.

“Fine,” said Tom. He turned his back to me, stacking up the course books at the front of the room. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow. In long trousers and sensible shoes.”

“You will.” I walked out without another word and sat in the car until Cliff came out to join me.

My determination lasted until dinner time.

“Honey, I don’t think I’m going to be able to learn from Tom.” As the owner of the flight school, his attitude towards me was going to affect all of us but I didn’t think I could manage to stay polite for the four weeks of the course.

“You don’t need to.” Cliff was reassuring, clearly thrilled that I’d decided to take this on. “He’s going back to England next week.”

English flying lessons local to us in Andalucía had been Cliff’s idea and he’d dealt directly with Tom to make it viable. The Oxford-based school had flown over with two Cessnas and three instructors, specifically to teach a group of four men that Cliff had gathered together to do a four-week, intensive course for the Private Pilot’s Licence, taking advantage of the weather. When the course was finished, the instructors would fly the two aircraft back to England to resume teaching at Oxford. Tom’s instructors had jumped at the chance to spend a few weeks in Spain and Cliff had found enough people to commit to full-time training that it was worth Tom’s time. Adding another person would make everyone happy and Cliff clearly thought I should get my PPL.

“You got along fine with the younger instructors,” he said. “I’m sure you won’t have any problems. It’ll be fun. And it’s only four weeks.”

Which was part of the problem. What if I didn’t keep up? At a normal flight school, I would keep doing lessons until I was good enough to take the exams. This set-up meant that if I lagged behind, the flight school was going to disband around me – or worse, take a loss trying to get me up to speed before they leave. Or really worst – push me to fly a plane before I was competent to do so.

Also, I’d looked at the books again. I started easy and sat down with the meteorology book – it was just weather, how hard could it be? I discovered wind charts and METAR’s and Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts with coded messages that were supposed to tell me if it was safe to fly. The radio-telephony book offered some solace: I already knew my international alphabet and I amused myself for a short time by parroting the phrases in a mock English accent. But the bulk of the stack was simply frightening. There were seven volumes, with detailed text on Flight Training Manoeuvres, Aviation Law, Navigation, Mechanics, Human Factors…

This did not sound like a fun holiday in Spain. This sounded like a lot of cramming, along with early mornings to fly “before the runway got too hot” and no beer at lunch time and at the end of it, I was going to know fine detail about a plane I didn’t even like.

“What’s it called again? The plane you bought.”

“Piper Saratoga.” Cliff waved the brochures at me, I was pretty sure he carried them with him everywhere. He told me, once again, what made it special and why it was the perfect aircraft for us. It looked like a plane.

I cleared the table and made my escape, leaving Cliff trailing a loving finger over a photograph of the propeller. He’d last flown over a decade previously but he’d done all this before, so he was simply renewing his PPL, not learning it all for the first time. It was easy for him.

The stack of books leant precariously on the coffee table. I turned my back on them and sat down at the computer to play solitaire.

They were all Englishmen, white, middle-class businessmen looking for adventure. I was a German-American woman, far from home and out of my depth. I’d lived abroad for over a decade: it was probably time that I got used to it. On the bright side, I had more time than the men – I was working freelance and could pare my projects down to the bone for the four weeks. They had to worry about businesses and family whereas my son was just at an age where he was happier hanging out with his friends and Cliff certainly wasn’t going to be jealous of my attention if I actually did this.

So I had a time advantage.

On the other hand, they’d discussed engines and mechanics with a comfortable ease. The conversation about airflow may as well have been in a foreign language: angles of attack and incidence, centrifugal force, lateral stability. They shouted loudly at each other as they cased the two Cessnas, peering at the wings and trying out the “captain’s seat” in the cockpit. I did too, of course, but at just under 5-foot in height, I couldn’t reach the pedals. I did not feel like a natural talent.

Solitaire, now there was something I could play all night long. A useful skill, solitaire.

The computer bleeped, an email from my best friend asking what was new. At least I would have something interesting to write back. I consoled myself with that thought. I’d be the life of the party, telling people all about the grease and the physics lessons and the macho comments and the spluttering engines and the weirdness of taking exams as a grown-up.

And it would be good for me to read the books. It would build character. So I’d go along for a laugh, take the tests, prove to Tom that girls could fly too. And then, I could forget it all and go back to being the passenger I’d intended to be all along.

Read the whole story in my ebook: You Fly Like a Woman

Category: Learning to Fly,


  • A wife’s licence?! No wonder you learned to fly!

    I don’t know why I never come over here incidentally. But I happened to be on Twitter at the right time to get the link, so I’ll bookmark it now!

  • Hurray, hi J! I think it’s a bit of a mixed bag here from a writing point of view but I don’t mind nudging you when I continue with the essay posts!

  • Cool! I’m thinking maybe I should just turn it into an online serial, actually. Then it is available all over the world and I’ll have motivation to finally finish it!

  • Your adventures coupled with your writing ability (and add that WrigleyWit) and it’s a natural. Do It.

  • A “Wife’s license!” WOW!
    Sexism is a word I use sparingly, but that is certainly a clear cut example! I hope you get the chance (if you haven’t already!) to rub your license in that instructor’s face and make sure he never forgets it!

    I really admire people who get told they can’t do something, and take it as a challenge, and then go on to prove the naysayers wrong! :) I wish I was more like that! If someone tells me I can’t do something, I mostly just accept it! :(

      • Aww! That’s a sweet offer, but I think I’ll just buy the book. It’s only a pound at Amazon, and besides, you absolutely deserve to be remunerated for your excellent work! :)

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