The Reluctant Pilot
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!
The next morning, we were each to go up one-by-one in the Cessna 172s to do some general handling: get a feel for the controls and how the plane actually worked. As I was the late-comer, I agreed to go last, which gave me a few hours to flick through the manuals and wake up. By the time everyone had had a go, I was actually excited about my turn in the cockpit. Somehow, I’d forgotten about the problem we’d discovered the day before.
My feet still didn’t reach the pedals.
We pushed the seat up as far as it would go but it was no use. I needed a booster seat. Oliver, an enthusiastic training instructor who looked about half my age, sent me into the building to ask for a pillow. I walked into the dark bar, where ancient Andalucian men sat drinking café solo and watching the news on a spluttery old television. They didn’t waste a glance on me as I stole a cushion from the sofa pushed against the wall and took it out to the plane.
With it placed behind my back, I pressed the pedals to the floor with my heels, which Oliver said was necessary for steering on the ground and applying rudder, whatever that meant, in the air. I still couldn’t comfortably see over the dashboard but Oliver climbed in after me and buckled himself into the right seat; he seemed to think that wasn’t as important. We rolled along the taxi-way, Oliver waving his hands about as he manipulated the steering with his feet. At one point he twisted completely around to point at a helicopter passing through the valley.
“Shouldn’t you keep your eyes up front and hands on the controls?”
He laughed as if I were being deliberately witty and then straightened out on the runway and revved the engine up.
“You aren’t afraid of planes, are you?”
Not a chance. I couldn’t remember a time when flying wasn’t a part of my life. My first time on a plane was at 6 months old, a Boeing 707 taking me and my parents from the little house in Mannheim, halfway around the world to southern California where we remained for the next 16 years. Flying was as much a part of my childhood tapestry as tea parties with my stuffed animals. Every summer, I watched the morass of houses and bright blue pools surrounding Los Angeles International disappear, signalling hours of boredom until we reached the darker buildings and massive forests surrounding Frankfurt.
I understood that there were people who were afraid of flying – the same as there were people who didn’t speak German, or who had brown eyes. It was clearly possible but I couldn’t imagine what it might be like. Flying was transportation, yes, but also a fresh start, shifting into a different language and culture and respite from the day-to-day issues which I’d just left behind. Flying was freedom.
I summarised this for Oliver with a nervous shake of my head.
“Great. Let’s go,” he said. The engine roared and we were flying.
My heart began to race as soon as the Cessna pulled away from the asphalt runway. I watched an old man strolling through rows of olive trees. A toddler in a bright red dress looked up from her games on the porch and waved. I expected the detail to disappear into the distance as we climbed to unimaginable heights but this was it – we’d levelled out at 1,000 feet above sea level. Oliver followed the path of a dusty river bed to the coast. I could see the cars, the houses, the people sitting on the beach. My nose pressed against the cool plastic of the window. I was mesmerised.
“Are you ready to take the controls?”
We were only 1,000 feet above the ground. I could see the waves crashing on the beach. I stared at him, aghast.
He smiled and wiggled his fingers at me. “You have control.”
I grasped the yoke. We didn’t immediately fall into a nose dive. Oliver twiddled at knobs, the roar of the engine increased.
“Pull it towards you,” he said. White-knuckled, I pulled towards my chest. My head fell back against the seat, all I could see was sky. “Perhaps not quite so much,” said Oliver, pushing the control forward again. The plane pitched down into a gentle climb. My fingers clenched around the black rubbery handholds of the flight controls.
“Now level out,” said Oliver. I was afraid to turn to look at him, afraid to take my eyes off the sky in front of us, as if a small child might rush into our path, endangered by my lack of attention.
We spent an hour over the coast of Torre del Mar as Oliver gently took me through the paces – climb, descend, gentle turns, straight and level, using the horizon as a spirit level. Then he took control again and left me to look at the view below while he flew us back to the airfield. But the white buildings clustered on hilltops and tiny farm plots in the valley no longer thrilled me. I’d discovered fear.
Read the whole story in my ebook: You Fly Like a Woman