Sitting and Waiting
After my first solo, that wondrous moment of suddenly feeling in control of the plane and realising that I could fly, dammit! I kicked into high gear.
There was only one week of the course left.
Desperate to catch up, I got up earlier and earlier, leaving my seven-year-old son fast asleep for the childminder to take to school, getting to the airfield as early as Oliver would meet me.
The weather turned bad. Oh, it was still sunny and hot but a grey haze descended over the horizon and the wind picked up, gusting along the runway. I needed more general handling practice before I could do my cross country solo but Oliver didn’t want me out in questionable conditions, struggling with the plane and the wind and losing my newfound confidence.
I sat at the airfield every day, hopeful to get a chance to fly. I even begged Oliver to meet me on Saturday, promising Connor a special day out, the chance to see where Mommy had been all week.
Connor loved the airfield. But the planes (and the fact that his Mommy was flying one of them!) interested him not at all. He’d met the 5-year-old daughter of the airfield manageress. The girl had been exploring the airfield ever since she’d learned to toddle and she was thrilled to show the older boy all the nooks and crannies. They climbed up the disused tower, poked around the old equipment, pointed at the enemy aircraft (my Cessna, still doing circuits) and shouted ratatatatatatata in an attempt to defend Spain. As the sun rose and the temperatures grew, she showed him where the garden hose was and dragged a small plastic pool out of a hangar. They filled it up and splashed, not bothering to take off their clothes, just happy for the cool water.
The summer heat was not so easily chased away from my point of view. We managed an hour in the morning but then the afternoon was unflyable again: the horizon lost in a grey murk of sea meshing into sky. “No good,” said Oliver, shaking his head sadly. “You won’t learn general handling without a horizon – it’s pointless. You can do another round of circuits, if you want.” I didn’t want, but it was better than not flying at all. I gradually became more despondent.
I did what I could, I finished the ground work, practised navigation, took the written exams. But to finish the PPL I had to prove myself in the air and time had run out. A week after my first solo, I still hadn’t left the airfield on my own and some days I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to.
On my final day, the sea was covered with whitecaps from the gusty winds. Oliver kept checking the wind sock and shaking his head. The others had done their time, the plane was free for me but we couldn’t do the general handling practice that I needed. Instead, I spent hours sitting at the big table by the bar, road maps of Spain in front of me, working out routes and windspeeds and time so that I could navigate my way around the local area.
When the examiner arrived, he was introduced to the other students and test flights were organised. I stayed out of the way.
That afternoon, we gathered in the bar, sitting at the low tables pushed against the wall. A group of old men sat in a row at the dining table, sipping small glasses of beer and watching the television. Occasionally one would comment, a brief sentence in a thick Andalucian accent. The others grumbled their assent and then silence fell back on the men until the next news story.
Oliver gave a chirpy “Hello!” every time he walked into the room, the mens’ heads all bobbed in a sort of soundless acknowledgement that he existed.
That had been the extent of our interaction until that day. We were collapsed along the long sofa, escaping the heat and nursing our water, when one of the men made an abrupt sound. Juan moved faster than I have ever seen, grabbing the remote from behind the bar to turn up the television. The images immediately took our attention: Wreckage of a small plane near a riverbed. The surroundings looked oddly familiar. Cliff translated the key facts into English for the others: A Cessna 172 had crashed the previous Friday, four dead, including an 8 year old girl. The reporter was standing with the airfield behind him – the plane I was flying showing in the corner of the shot.
Juan’s bloodshot eyes focused on Cliff. “One of ours,” he said in Spanish.
“One of your planes?”
“One of our pilots.”
No one knew the details yet –the instructor had taken his brother, his brother’s girlfriend and his girlfriend’s eight-year-old daughter for a local area flight. There was a loud sound and then plane plummeted to the ground, landing on private land no more than 50 metres from the airfield. Four fatalities.
We were silent, staring at the television long after the newscaster had moved on to other stories.
“This will not be good for Axarquia,” said Juan. I think it was the longest statement I had ever heard him make.
Meanwhile, Lee and Oliver planned their flights to England. All the other students had flown with the examiner and passed: they were now pilots. I struggled not to feel resentful. Oliver tried to cheer me up by having me trace their route over the map – across Spain for the first day’s flight and an overnight stay at San Sebastian. Then they would follow the coast of the Bay of Biscay until they reached Cherbourg in France. The last leg was the easiest but also included the dangerous water crossing: straight across the English Channel, past the Isle of Wight and then straight inland to Oxford. It sounded like a fascinating journey but it also meant the end of my “free” lessons tagging onto the others’ course. I knew the instructors were needed in England and everyone else had finished, but I was frustrated that I had come so close and yet still not good enough.
“You just need to come to Oxford,” Lee told me. “It’ll be good for you. You’re getting too used to radio silence. The south of England will wake you up for sure.” I stared down at my meteorology book. I was taking the written exam in an hour – at least my ground school would be finished. It didn’t seem much consolation.
And then, there was a phone call. “Change of plans,” Oliver called out as he breezed into the study room. Lee was going over the wind charts with me one more time. “We’re taking Papa Golf home together, Lee. Charlie Oscar is staying here.”
Lee yawned. “It is? Cool, you can fly Papa Golf and I’ll sleep.”
Oliver turned to me. “Yeah, we’re going to leave it here and I’m coming back next week. My sister’s got a place on the coast and she said she’ll put me up. I won’t have a car, you will have to pick me up every morning.”
“I will?” I didn’t follow.
“You will. Bright and early, every morning. We only have a fortnight, then I really have to take the plane back.”
I glanced down at the wind chart in my hand, as if it had answers. It suddenly seemed almost comprehensible compared to the conversation at hand. I looked up into Oliver’s bright smile.
“We’ve got two weeks get you flying.”
I opened my mouth and closed it again.
“I need to go home and sort out the paperwork and deal with some personal stuff. Then I’m coming back and we’ll do nothing but fly. We’ve got two weeks, then Tom wants the plane back. Preferably with you in it – ready to take your checkride. Think we can do it?”
“Two weeks.” After the stress of not being able to fit enough hours in, two weeks sounded like a lifetime – especially as I wouldn’t have to wait for my turn to use the Cessna each day.
“Yeah,” I said, finally answering his smile with one of my own. “Yeah, let’s do it.”
“Cool,” said Oliver. “But you have to finish your meteorology paper first. Focus!”
Read the whole story in my ebook: You Fly Like a Woman