This morning, I drove out to the airport to meet a friend and fly his plane for a bit. Tim’s a grey-haired, kind-looking chap, and he was waiting for me by the airport control building as I approached. After quick introductions and some sophisticated chitchat about the latest football results with the airport’s supervisor, Tim and I casually walked over to the small plane that was parked on the tarmac. He offered to take a few photos of me standing in front of his small four-seater, single-engine aircraft and fumbled a little with my camera.
‘I’m not good with this technical stuff’, he said as he took a few snaps. Not exactly words I had expected to hear from someone who flies a plane and was about to let me do likewise.
Tim’s trusty machine is a Cessna 172, and it’s 10 years older than I am. Annual inspections ensure everything functions properly at all times. In the plane, that is, not me. After some slight adjustments in the seating to accommodate my legs, which I’d rather were kept attached, we strapped ourselves in tightly into the small cockpit and got ready to leave. I watched as Tim fiddled with a few dials, adjusted other instruments and generally looked busy.
At this stage, I would have expected a short rundown about the do’s and don’t’s of aviation etiquette, but no. Tim turned the ignition key and the single propeller sprang to life, the engine belching a puff of fumes onto the air. We taxied out onto the main runway, waited for a minute or two before getting clearance from the airport supervisor and then we were off.
At an altitude of about 1,000 feet, it occurred to me was that all that separated me from the ground was a fairly elderly seat belt and a flimsy cockpit door, both of which I could probably force open with my pinky. I was thinking this as we made a sharp right turn and the angle of the plane enabled me to look straight down at someone’s farm. Despite my slight apprehension about being in midair in a machine that was powered by an engine that sounded more like a lawnmower than a finely tuned piece of aviation equipment, Tim’s flying finesse more than made up for it.
‘I first flew when I was forty-nine,’ Tim shouted into the microphone of his headset, ‘and I’ve been hooked ever since. I try to get out most weekends, depending on the weather.’
We ascended to a level of 2,500 feet, and since the airport was at 800, this meant that we were flying roughly 500 metres above the ground. Tim took us out towards Lake Erie, past a few wind parks and then adjusted our heading to match the coastline going in a southerly direction.
‘So, ever been in a plane this size before?’ asked Tim. I had, and told him about the vomit comet over the Nazca lines in Peru.
‘Ever flown one before?’
‘Wanna try it now?’
I grabbed the controls tightly and tried not to move them even a millimetre. Tim probably sensed the tension and told me to chill, and let the plane do most of the work. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I relaxed a little, allowing my hands to rest in a steady position in order to keep the plane the same way. The Cessna reacted instantly to my change in attitude and the horizon lurched at a jaunty angle, quite different to what I am used in my natural habitat, i.e. on the ground. We were also approaching the underside of a large, fluffy cloud, and the plane began to shudder as the turbulence increased. I straightened the plane as best as I could and held on to the controls tightly again.
Once I followed Tim’s initial advice and relaxed my grip, everything became a lot easier. It wasn’t so much that I had to steer the plane, but more that I should react to any wind with subtle course corrections and let the plane do the rest.
After a few more minutes, the whiteness went from my knuckles; I relaxed my grip on the controls a bit and started flying properly. Bliss. I hadn’t felt this exhilarated to be in a new world of sensations since I learnt how to scuba dive in 2009.
‘I love the view of the farms and the coast from up here’, I said.
‘Actually, it’s all a bit of a blur to me. I’m colour-blind. I shouldn’t really be up here, type-two diabetes, but what the hell.’ was Tim’s reply to my observation.
‘I started flying when I turned 49, and have been going ever since then.’ By my calculation, based on Tim’s relaxed demeanour and propensity for golfing, that would have been more than 15 years ago, so I again felt that I was in very experienced hands and had absolutely no need to worry.
In fact, I hadn’t felt this relaxed for a long time; my stomach was unruffled by the unpredictable turbulence, and I was getting the hang of steering the aircraft hither and thither, keeping her steady as I went, whilst keeping an eye on the Cessna’s altimeter.
After 45 minutes of heavenly flight, it was time to come back down to earth, and Tim took over the controls for the last part to ensure that we would do so in one piece.
I left the airport completely in awe of people like Tim. He knows exactly what he loves to do the most, and is happy to share it with others.
A few minutes drive from airport is a gas station called “Flying J”. It’s my new nickname.