I started to learn to fly when I was eighteen. I had seven lessons. Then I stopped.
Over the decades since that time I often pondered why I didn’t continue. It was easy to blame lack of money, or time, but I had a niggling feeling that perhaps there was a serious deficiency in my psychological makeup, a lack of “moral fibre.” Perhaps I was just too chicken.
With this momentous existential question hanging over me for several decades (no doubt impeding my progress towards Nirvana), I decided to try again.
Flying instructors are renowned for their sanguine qualities. “Anyone can learn to fly” was often stated in my early days, a mantra not entirely comforting. Sometimes I felt I regressed with each lesson. Occasionally there was a glimmer of hope. I’ve never been a brilliant dancer and I often equated trying to land an aeroplane with executing (unfortunate choice of words) a fast waltz, whilst simultaneously doing that tummy rubbing-head-patting thing and whistling “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” All this done on ice, backwards, with my eyes shut.
Slow though my progress was, nevertheless, progress it was and as my hours mounted up, I began to realise that the day was approaching. The S word!
Instructors have this little ritual. For hours they sit beside their students, enduring the tedium of a procedure innocuously termed circuits. Here the student coerces the aircraft off the ground, steers a course around the airport and attempts to land correctly. Then, without stopping, the aircraft is again persuaded to take off and the whole manoeuvre is repeated and repeated.
Back to the ritual. Something alerts the instructor that perhaps the student is capable of doing a circuit alone, with a reasonably good probability that the aircraft will be still flyable afterwards. Possibly it happens when the student recites correct landing checks rather than the Lord’s Prayer, or it could be that the latter’s deodorant is ineffectual. Whatever the motivation, the instructor waits until the aircraft has touched down and instead of uttering, “full power,” it’s “stop here and I’ll get out.”
Get out? We’re in the middle of the runway! Arrggh it can’t be!
For me, after an initial feeling that I wasn’t ready, a feeling of detachment came over me and then, as I lined up, a huge sense of euphoria. The control tower operator, who had been let in on the idea that a student was to be let loose in his domain, told me to “hold.”
After a very long hold came the clearance to take off.
Full power. Rolling. Right rudder to stop the aeroplane making a beeline for the passenger terminal and it’s climbing. Funny how the absence of a 90kg instructor with heavy sarcasm frees the aircraft. It’s climbing so quickly. Check forward, ease throttle, trim, turn left, check brakes, undercarriage, mixture, fuel, harnesses and hatches. Hey, there’s nobody beside me. Freedom! Call the tower.
“Foxtrot November Victor, um, downwind grass um 18, full stop.”
Yes! The rich, eastern accent reaches out to me over the ether.
“Foxtrot November Victor. Grass 18. Clear to land.”
“Foxtrot November Victor. Cancel . Continue downwind.”
Continue downwind for more than a few seconds means going away from the safety of the much practised routine. Distances and heights will be unfamiliar. Come on, where’s the landing clearance?
Look left. There’s the end of the runway. Straight ahead is Hamilton, Then Auckland, Then the Pacific,——-Fiji? Better slow down. Throttle back. 1600 revs. Carb heat on. Trim.
Silence. Perhaps the radio has just died. Come on!!!
“Foxtrot November Victor. Grass 18, clear to land.”
“Cleared to land-um grass 18, Foxtrot November Victor.” Or something like that, uttered through a desiccated larynx.
Turn left. Now it doesn’t want to descend. Less power, full flaps. Point at the runway. Funny how long it’s taking. Of course, there’s a strong southerly. 300 feet, carb heat in. (Great, I usually forget that). Trim OK. Yep, still pointing in roughly the right direction. Speed 70, too fast. Nose up. Speed 60. That’s better. Think I’m too high. Throttle off, there’s the threshold. Let it sink. Hold off. Hold. We’re down.
“Foxtrot November Victor, taxi right to club…………..congratulations.”
Bugger radio protocol. “Thanks.”
Ever had an irrepressible smile?
Feelings about being alone in an aircraft for the first time.