West Desert Airpark, June 2010.
I'm a pilot. I don't talk about it too often, even though It's something I'm very passionate about. Are you ever hesitant to talk about the things you're proud of? I've been around aviation all my life. My dad is a pilot. Oshkosh is the aviation Mecca that is (almost) always at the end of my summers. In our family we tell stories about my sister and I walking around in the cabin in a Cessna 170, flying above Indiana when we were hardly old enough to remember. I recall flying in the backseat on the way to Chardon, Ohio, mesmerized (and a bit skeptical) that I could talk with my mom and dad from the backseat without everyone on the radio and in the control towers hearing me.
The first time I ever went to France was in June/July 2003. After a late afternoon drive by an airstrip surrounded by tall grass and radiant sunflowers that only seem to exist in Southern France, I came home and told my dad I wanted to take flying lessons. September through May I drove up to Heber on weekend mornings, frost lining trees along I-40, snow blowing slowly across the road on windier mornings. Come Spring, I would anxiously anticipate the first view of Heber Valley to see if it was socked in with fog on the early mornings. The last months before my checkride I convinced my school advisor and my theatre teacher to let me leave early on Monday afternoons. Playing hooky to go fly up in the sky a while.
Five days after my 18th birthday I earned my private pilot's license. A Sunday morning if I remember correctly, after waiting hours for the checkride instructor to show up. Show up he did, and we went over every possible question for the oral part of my exam. And then we flew, going over every ground reference maneuver, stall, emergency procedure, and landing situation. Only going back to practice my right side steep turns until I perfected them without losing 100 feet of altitude.
Since then I've flown in two other countries. I earned my tailwheel endorsement in a little Jodel outside of Paris, France, accompanied by Claude the retired French Air Force pilot and a little British terrier named Yessie. Well, Yessie followed me on the ground. Airport dog but scared to death of the planes, go figure. And then a new friend let me fly in the left seat of the Piper Arrow as he accompanied us back to Sens and we hitched a ride back into la centre ville. My friend and I were talking about that amazing afternoon for awhile.
And just two weeks ago, I piloted a plane for the first time in over a year at an airport outside of Montreal. A Diamond Katana, the plane I trained in. After the flight as I flipped through my logbook, I saw that the last time I flew a Katana was in July 2006. Five and a half years ago. So much was different back then. So much is different now. Yet as I walked around the plane on the chilly Sunday morning, I was struck by how similar the whole thing was. Two words popped into my head.
My fingers traced the smooth tapering surface of the wing. Eight years later (wiser?) on another continent, but for a moment I believed myself 17 once again, addicted to the first feelings of flight in the left seat.
Right tire. Pressure. Strut. Right wing. Pitot tube. Position light. Strobes.
17 and smiling since the moment my hands directed us into the sky. 45 knots and a gentle pitch up, excited to see what the sky was hiding beyond the mountains.
Fuselage. Fuel drains. Vertical stabilizer. Horizontal stabilizer. Cables. Left tire. Left aileron. Aileron cable. A click to the left and the right.
Though I carried a list with me, my hands took over and my brain was quiet. Remembering the moves to a choreographed dance. It made me smile in a way I hadn't for awhile. Preflight finished my quebecois copilot and I closed the canopy and taxied to the runway. Before long we were soaring above St Hubert airport, and we would land at Saint Matthieu de Beloeil and Saint Hyacinthe before the morning was over.
Any out of practice pilot gets anxious on their first landing back from a break. I always adjust myself in my seat, pull my seatbelt tight, and fidget my feet on the pedals. Landing is the most complicated part of flight, but also in a way the most rewarding. An eloquent dance between friends. A chain of intuitive maneuvers. Yet a challenge.
Eyes on the center line. Hand on the throttle. Pressure on the stick. Throttle in. Speed check. Nose down. Throttle out. Last set of flaps.
A gentle ebb and flow. Front step, back step, creeping slowly to the ground. I knew it had been years since I had been in that plane, but I couldn't believe how normal it felt. How instinctive it was.
Nose up trim. Flare. The persistent stall warning horn. Hold it a bit farther. The screech of the tires. Back pressure to keep the nose up. Flaps up. Steering us to the taxiway at the end of the runway.
I looked at my flight instructor with a smile on my face. Not too bad for the first time in a year! It was excellent, he said. I believe that was the perfect way to describe it.