Flying a plane is easy – with an instructor at your side, that is.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Flying can’t be this easy. I expected to have to show my driver’s license, sign a waiver or take an eye examination before I even started to study for weeks in preparation to fly a plane. But no. After a brief chat, Monterey Bay Aviation President and CEO John Lotz informs me that I am going to take off.
I don’t think I’m ready.
We walk out of the flight school’s hangar on the north side of Monterey Peninsula Airport, past a row of planes. The ball of anxiety in my gut spins. Sweat starts to soak my undershirt.
Scanning the four-seat plane we’ll be flying, I sagely declare, “This thing is small.” I obviously don’t know a damn thing about planes – Lotz says the plane is a cherry Cessna 172, which he picked up from a factory in Kansas in March. Its a high-end model, pimped out with GPS and auto pilot, and costs $289,000.
Weekly photographer Nic Coury and I slip into the all-glass cockpit. There are two sets of controls, thankfully, so the instructor can save me from a nosedive. Lotz settles in: “I’m not quite sure I know what I’m doing,” he says, “but I’ll give it a shot.”
Lotz, who wears a crisp blue blazer and grey, pressed slacks, is actually a retired Air Force brigadier general who has flown for 46 years. He goes through a meticulous pre-flight checklist, testing the standby battery, fuel, flight controls and a number of other gadgets I can’t comprehend. Now the engine. “Clear!” he yells out the window.
The cockpit vibrates. I put my headset on. I keep my hands on my legs, not wanting to touch anything.
Although I can barely hear Lotz through my headphones, I make out that I’m supposed to use my feet to steer the rudders as we taxi. There is a right and left rudder; the top of the rudders act as brakes. He tells me to follow the yellow line on the taxi lane. I wobble like a drunk walking a slackline instead.
“It’s kind of like kayaking,” I say, recalling a recent paddle through Elkhorn Slough where I also couldn’t follow a straight trajectory.
Lotz takes over as we approach another plane waiting to lift off. He turns important-looking knobs and scans the digital screens, while whispering inaudibly over radio chatter. Now it’s my turn to steer us onto the blacktop runway, he says.
I instinctively grab the wheel as we mosey onto the tarmac, but Lotz tells me to just use the rudders. “Now push in the throttle,” he says. I push it in a little and we pick up some speed. “All the way,” he commands. I push the throttle a bit more and now we’re starting to cook. “Push the throttle all the way in,” he repeats. I do just that.
The propeller whirls and a surge of thrust pulls me back. The plane feels really skittish but we are heading fairly straight – Lotz must be helping me out. Near the end of the runway, I pull the wheel toward me. A rush of weightless ecstasy surges through my body as we rise above ground and elevate above the Monterey pines. The plane is still angled upright as we climb higher… and higher. The feathery clouds spread across the blue sky. The ocean pulsates beneath me. I tightly grip the controls and stiffly increase our altitude.
Since the coast is foggy, Lotz tells me to make a right and head inland. As I slowly turn the plane, the green hills along Highway 68 open up in front of me. The “McMansions” along the ridge line look like toy blocks.
Lotz informs me in his airy pilot voice that my nose is too high and I should try to keep it even with the horizon. With Fremont Peak as my beacon, I carefully level out the aircraft. Past the hills, ag fields bisect the Salinas Valley like checker squares. The sandy bank of the underground Salinas River snakes along the edge of the valley floor.
Lotz recommends that I aim for the jagged twin peaks of Pinnacles National Monument. He then tells me to take a break. I gladly sit back and relax.
Wanting to show off the plane’s GPS system, Lotz plots a course to King City’s airport. The screen shows a pink line we can follow to our destination. I suggest that we could just fly above Highway 101. “You weren’t supposed to pick up on that,” Lotz jokes. “It’s so easy when you have the road.”
Lotz then switches on auto pilot and put his hands at ease. “At this point in time I don’t have to do a thing,” he says. After Lotz redirects the computer telling it that we want to go back to Monterey, the plane even turns around by itself.
We fly over Salinas Valley State Prison, a drab hodgepodge of concrete buildings, and some wine vineyards that look like clothes lines with green socks hanging from them.
I feel serene. Like Lotz later describes, when flying you journey above the problems and stresses on the ground. But there is an exclusive catch. Flying is expensive.
Lotz says it costs $12,000 on average to earn a private license. Monterey Bay Aviation students require roughly 60 hours of supervised training before they can fly on their own. “[Flying is] clearly not something that the masses are ever going to be able to enjoy,” Lotz says. Introductory classes, however, make a hell of a birthday gift, ranging in price from $50 to $100.
We are now flying past Toro Park. Some of the houses have pools and private tennis courts. We approach the airport and a burst of turbulence hits us as we lower past a canyon. Lotz gently pulls out the throttle and expertly hovers over the short runway.
I feel more nervous 15 feet above the ground than a mile above it. Lotz sets her down with some light squirrelly action. It was easy to go up in a plane, but I’m definitely not yet ready to learn my landings.