Fear of Flying
If I can drive a Volvo, I can fly a Cessna.
Thursday, January 8, 2004
On the morning of Dec. 3, just weeks before the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight, I wake up and listen, hopefully, for the sound of rain.
Chances are good; it’s been raining off and on for weeks. But everything is unnaturally quiet. I get ready slowly, looking out the window a few times. Dry as a bone.
I check my Palm Pilot. “10am. Fun. Remember fun. Del Monte Aviation, Monterey Airport, 130 Olmsted Way.”
Therapists call this technique “reframing” a situation. My note to myself that today is going to be fun is an attempt to change my primal response to the fact that not only am I going to be in a very small plane this morning, but I will be flying it.
I think guiltily of my children. I don’t care about the statistics showing that flying is safer than driving a car. First, an inordinate number of celebrities and politicians have lost their lives in small plane crashes. Second, there is just something unnatural about losing contact with the ground.
I get into my grounded Volvo and head toward the airport. After being buzzed inside a chain-link fence, I enter a small building and am greeted by John Lotz, CEO of Del Monte Aviation and head of the aviation department at Monterey Peninsula College.
“Still nervous?” Lotz asks, referring to my earlier phone calls.
“No,” I reply, and inexplicably, it’s true. I’m ready to stop being a wuss.
Seeing the professional demeanor of the employees, and all the cool equipment—from flight simulators to meteorological charts to model planes—I get the feeling that these people know what they’re doing.
After a brief tour of the building, Ron Phoebus, chief pilot, takes me to a classroom where people doing this for real get their first lesson.
“We try to keep the first lesson as calm as possible,” Phoebus assures me. “I try to explain things in a way so there are no surprises.”
On the wall of the classroom are pinned the cut-off backs of T-shirts with messages written in Magic Marker. “It’s a tradition to cut the back off the shirt after your first solo,” Phoebus explains. “Mine was October 17, 1968.”
Phoebus stands at a dry-erase board and gives me a compressed version of an actual first lesson. He starts by going over all the parts of the airplane, explaining them in relation to my car, which, although considerate of him, is of limited use to me, since I know only slightly more about the parts of my car than I do an airplane. Still, I get the part about the vertical dimension that the plane takes on, and something about the wings and aerodynamic forces generating lift.
“Today will change the way you see the world,” Phoebus says, just as my eyes are starting to glaze over from too much talk of the three axes of the plane’s motion. I perk up when he talks about different maneuvers: straight and level, climbs, descents, and turns.
“It’s the same maneuvers that the Blue Angels do,” he says. “They just do it higher, tighter, and faster than the average pilot, and with greater precision.”
I’ll say. I give Phoebus a look, and he promises me we won’t be doing any tricks today.
Finally it’s time to meet my winged chariot. “If this were a real lesson, I’d ask you right now if there are any reasons why you shouldn’t fly today,” Phoebus says as we walk out to the tarmac. “If you’d been out drinking the night before, were sick, taking medication, stressed, or tired, we’d call off the flight.”
Phoebus performs checks—fuel, tire pressure, and things I don’t understand—as I gawk at the Cessna 172 SP. It seems so tiny.
“These aircraft are inspected every 50 hours,” Phoebus says, while drawing out a sample of aircraft fuel. “The FAA requires only every 100 hours.”
Phoebus unchains the wheels of the plane, and we climb in and put on headsets to communicate over the noise of the propeller. I’m on the left side, in the pilot’s seat, but thank God Phoebus has got twin controls on his side. We’re driving the plane towards the runway, as Phoebus chants air traffic control talk into the mike, talking to the tower.
“Charlie, Bravo…” I’m not following any of it, as we go about 65 miles per hour down the runway (but it feels like 200), while Phoebus tries to get me to understand that the push-pull thing between us (the throttle) controls the power for the plane, while the pedals at my feet control the rudders, and hence the steering.
My mind is going too fast. I’m barely understanding what’s happening when Phoebus calls out, “Okay, you’re going to get this plane in the air!”
I look at him incredulously, not wanting this type of power, not needing this kind of responsibility, while he encourages me to give the plane more and more juice.
I push in the throttle, pull back on the control in front of me (the yoke), and we’re going up, up, as Phoebus shouts, “We’re airborne!”
We are 2000 feet above the ground, and the whole world seems like the inside of a bowl of Jello as I feel the plane buck a little, shake, wiggle, and I’m looking at him, begging, pleading with my eyes, to take the plane back from me, because I’m going to implode if I have to do this for one more second.
He takes over and I melt into my seat, looking over the brown fields of Salinas. After a few minutes Phoebus invites me to make the plane climb. I pull back on the wheel and we head up to about 4000 feet.
I’m not saying much, just taking it all in. Phoebus guides the plane to Seaside, where I can make out the tiny Weekly office below. Next we pass over Lovers Point, the Del Monte Forest, the Pebble Beach golf courses, the beaches of Carmel. I start to understand where all these towns are in relation to one another, and in relation to the landscape.
We fly over my neighborhood on the way home. It’s hard for me to pick out my house from above.
“It’s such a different perspective,” I say, stating the obvious.
Phoebus smiles. “That’s the ‘aha!’ moment I was telling you about. You’re never going to see things the same way from now on.”
When we land, I am grateful to be on solid ground, but also high from the experience. I want to see the world like that again.
Before I leave, Phoebus grabs a Cessna pilot flight logbook, and logs my first hour of flight.
“When you come back, we’ll get a picture of you next to the plane you flew,” he says.
Check with Del Monte Aviation about special rates for introductory flying lessons. 373-3201.