Why I Fly - Cindy F.
When my daughters were tiny, I would take them to a small airport in Auburn, Alabama, where students learned how to fly; pilots of small planes would fly in and out for business or pleasure; and on football game weekends, the airport saw a huge number of planes, of all shapes and sizes, tie down for the weekend. My girls and I sat on the grass pressing our faces against the fence, watching the planes take off, circle, and land. Once we went on to the airfield to watch my nephew do the preflight inspection on a little plane he’d flown up for the weekend. It felt like being on hallowed ground.
I knew that people flew all sorts of planes for work and for play. I couldn’t imagine that I could ever be one of them. They defied gravity with confidence. They seem to speak in code. And they possessed technical knowledge that was impossibly incompatible with everything I had studied my whole life. As a recreational activity, flying seemed completely out of reach. For me, it was a spectator sport.
One day, I took my baby girls inside the airport. There on the counter, was a brochure advertising three introductory lessons in a Cessna. Something compelled me to pick up that brochure and bring it home.
“What if?” it whispered in my ear. The brochure sat on my kitchen counter buried under bills and catalogs and endless masterpieces of crayon scribbles. Every so often – when I attempted to work through the clutter – it would emerge, and I’d sit reading through it again and again over a cup of tea. I’d try to envision myself in one of those tiny planes, but then one of my girls would toddle into the kitchen needing juice or a shoe tied or a book read, and I’d put down the brochure. Mothers of young children don’t learn how to fly, I told myself.
My girls grew up. I grew up. Life moved along; and for whatever reason, I developed an intense fear of flying. I became that woman in the airport bar gulping a glass of wine before boarding. I clutched the armrests during turbulence, and I breathed sighs of relief when the wheels touched down. To me the thought of a heavy aluminum tube careening through the atmosphere seemed like an illogical feat of death-defying physics destined to fail at any moment. Any thought that I’d ever entertained of learning how to fly seemed absurd and terrifying.
Until my sister-in-law married a former pilot.
My brother-in-law would recount stories from his flying days, and I must have let it slip that I had been interested in flying at one point in my life. That was his entrée into a persuasive effort to rekindle my interest. I didn’t take it seriously since I had also told him that I wanted to learn how to sail. That had led to years’ worth of jokes about him buying me a yacht for my birthday. In our spirit of joking, I dismissed his entreaties to take up flying. Then, all of a sudden, years’ worth of entreaties got real when he told me about a flight school located at the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, NH – a little over an hour from my home.
Having grown older still, I’ve come to believe that if you want to grab life by the horns and live fully, you need to embrace some amount of risk – as well as new challenges. Bolstered by my newest philosophy of life, I had to admit that flying was, once again, an intriguing prospect.
“We should do it!” My brother-in-law coaxed. “I really want to go flying. The school looks awesome. They have these neat little planes. C’mon, you’ll love it!”
And so I called that flight school – CHI Aerospace. I scheduled each of us for an introductory flight. I was guardedly excited, but embracing risk doesn’t mean I wasn’t also terrified. I hoped that by flying in a tiny plane, just that once, I might dispel some of the fear of flying I’d developed in my adult years. Besides, what a cool way to do some sightseeing over southern New Hampshire. It was only an hour flight, after all.
On the appointed day, we made the drive to Portsmouth, parked and rang the doorbell of a non-descript industrial building. I felt as though I were ringing the doorbell to Oz. I half expected to enter and be ushered before some talking head encircled with flames asking me why I was there.
“Courage!” I would answer before running back to the car with my tail between my legs. Instead, Tad and John answered the door, and we stood around for a few minutes making small talk. I may have answered some questions, but I really don’t remember, because I was too busy trying to absorb the scale of the building, which was filled with planes large and small. The huge hangar door was open to the outside, and there I spied a tiny green grasshopper of a plane. We made our way out, and I learned that this was the plane to which I would be entrusting my life for the next hour.
John was my instructor that day. He gave me the impression that flying was as mundane as making scrambled eggs. He inspired confidence, which was important because I didn’t wish to become scrambled eggs. We all went outside to take the obligatory photos posing with the plane. I posed by leaning on the left wing, only to have the plane dip precariously toward the pavement under the weight of my arm. If John had inspired confidence, this did little to maintain it. I was flying a toy.
“You’re up first,” he announced. He was looking at me. There was no denying that. I looked helplessly to my brother-in-law and then to my husband. I saw that my husband’s eyebrows were slightly raised, which I knew signaled apprehension. John looked at me again and nodded. It was inescapable that I was first up in the grasshopper.
“Okay,” I said, frantically trying to figure out how to climb into the plane. Where the heck do I put my feet? Do I actually step on the wing? Any attempt at being graceful in my movements was not in the realm of consciousness. Getting into the seat without sliding off the wing became my sole focus. The next great mystery was the seat and shoulder belts. Despite trembling fingers, I managed to fit the ends of the belt through the slot and buckle myself in. I told myself to breathe: In. Out. Oh my! I was really doing this!
We put headsets on, John got the propeller cranking, spoke the code into the headset, and away we went from Oz. There was no Good Witch waving a wand. No Ruby Slippers. It was me and John and decades of human ingenuity encapsulated in the little flying grasshopper.
John relaxed in his seat, hands tending to not much at all, while the plane moved deftly from November Ramp to the run-up area short of Runway 34, as I have come to know these places. While the propeller of the plane was moving us forward, John was steering the plane with his feet.
“Like a go-cart,” I thought to myself. “How hard could that be?” For the briefest of moments, I had a hankering to try this myself, but before I could think on it, John was talking more code through the headset. More code spewed back, which translated roughly into “Okay, you can go.”
John pushed in the throttle. The grasshopper transformed into a dragon, roaring into life as it hurdled over the broad white stripes of the runway, chewing up the air as it went. I was looking far ahead to the spot where I expected to feel the plane lift into the air. To my surprise we were airborne well before we got to that point. In fact, we’d been airborne for a few seconds before I realized it. The edges of the runway were moving away from my line of vision, and the sky became the predominant view. My heart was pounding, my hands were sweaty, but I could not suppress a grin. We banked to the left and headed to the ocean. John had spotted a whale earlier that day. Maybe we could find it.
I nervously chattered away, asking a few questions here and there, but mainly I was trying to take in the experience. I was in the pilot’s seat of a plane. There was no tray table in its upright and locked position. No flight attendant readying the snack cart. No Captain behind the locked door twenty rows ahead. There was only the clear canopy of the plane between the sky and me. I felt somewhat vulnerable. This was unfamiliar. On the other hand, it was rather breathtaking. I was hundreds of feet above the Atlantic Ocean, which spilled into the horizon. People below were enjoying a day at the beach or tending to their errands; and I was flying above it all in search of a whale.
We saw that whale! I looked down its throat from 600 feet. Who gets to do that? Pilots do.
More and more, I was getting intrigued. And I flew the plane. I turned, I aimed toward a destination and made the plane go there. It was so exhilarating that I forgot to be scared. By the time I landed and went to check out, I knew I’d be back in a plane. I knew I had to give this a try – I wanted to continue to shed my fear. I wanted to launch a plane in to the air. I wanted to get it to a destination. And I wanted to safely land. Thanks to a lot of hard work, reading and determination; and thanks to Ed, my CFI, who’s endlessly patient and enthusiastic about sharing his vast knowledge and skill, I’ve started to achieve my goals. And then some – a lot of “some.” I’ve developed a level of confidence that has spilled over into other aspects of my life. I’ve also found an interesting, intelligent, motivated and motivating aviation community – both at CHI and elsewhere. But it’s the welcome challenge of learning new things in so many areas – from physics to weather to navigation - that has been the most rewarding.
I’m still grappling with fear, and I’m still don’t quite visualize myself as a pilot; yet the amount that I’ve learned and continue to learn blows me away. And it’s the learning that keeps me coming back.