Most people who know me know that I have a rather long list of life goals that are completely unrelated to veterinary medicine. I consider that list to be more of a checklist of things I want to do or learn — not necessarily before I die, but in the near future. Many of these items are fears of mine that I hope to conquer. Unfortunately this list seems to grow faster than I can manage to check things off.
One of the things on my list is learning how to fly. Although I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I’m pretty terrified of heights and it took me until 7th grade to enjoy roller coasters (before then I was terrified). Given that, it is at least mildly surprising to most people that I would want to stick myself in a tiny little Cessna and learn how to operate the thing.
Nevertheless, I decided that for my birthday this year I would give myself the gift of flight — a demo flight at the Davis Airport with the Cal Aggie Flying Farmers. The call I made to inquire about the flight wasn’t as nerve wracking as the call I made to schedule the actual flight, and that wasn’t as nerve wracking as the feeling in my body as I parked my car next to the airfield and all the tiny little planes. I immediately got my anxiety in check by reminding myself how badly I wanted this experience.
Walking into the office I met my instructor, Tom, who was happy and excited to meet me as I was excited to meet him. The first thing he said to me was, “So, do you like roller coasters?” I hesitantly admitted that I did, in fact, love roller coasters. “Excellent!” he exclaimed, “we’ll have a lot of fun!”
He showed me to a tiny Cessna, which is a lot smaller in person than you’d expect. It’s genuinely tiny! He and I are both decently small people and we barely managed to cram into the cockpit together. If either of us were slightly larger, I am convinced the flight wouldn’t have been possible. (In fact, seeing the size of the cockpit, I recalled the woman on the phone when I was scheduling the flight inquiring about my weight—suddenly I understood why.)
Tom showed me some of the instruments and gave me a brief overview of how to steer in the air as well as on the ground. I figured this was just informative, but then he mentioned something about having me take off. I almost asked him to repeat himself but I was still a bit shocked and trying to convince myself that what he meant was that I would “take off” as in pretend to have control of the plane when he is actually the one doing everything. I soon learned that this demo flight was really about me flying!
He had me maneuver the plane using foot pedals to the end of the runway and then put the engine on full throttle. As we started heading down the runway, I noticed that Tom’s hands were placed in his lap and not on the controls; as I felt the plane get light and I started pulling up the nose and with that I had successful taken off! We were heading off, soaring above the sky; what an amazing feeling!
Tom was great! He pointed out mountains and lakes in the area, taught me how to make gradual and steep banked turns, flew over my house and neighborhood (which is beautiful from the air) and even ameliorated my fears of stalling! Once we were settled in the air at a good altitude, he asked me if I had heard of planes stalling (I had) and what came to mind (nothing good!). He insisted on showing me what it was like and I had to trust him. He cut the engine and the propeller started to slow and sputter, an alarm started to sound indicating we had stalled, but overall, it was quiet – almost too quiet. We were thousands of feet above the ground in a plane that was simply floating, gliding above the earth. It was quite peaceful actually. Of course, I wanted the peace of mind of knowing that it was possible to correct this problem and my trustworthy instructor restored power to the engine and the propeller began to spin once again. This was just one type of stall however, there was another type of stall that Tom wanted to show me. To do so, he had me pull the nose of the plane up fast and hard, so that we were making as near-vertical an ascent as possible. Sure enough, we stalled! At one point during the stalls, my heart did skip a few beats as the nose of the plane suddenly dipped in a fashion that was reminiscent of the first drop on a roller coaster. Despite the uneasy feeling in my stomach as that happened, it was pretty fantastic.
As we neared the end of the flight, Tom told me that we were going to head to the runway for an approach to get an idea of what it will be like, and then we’ll come around again for an actual landing. Landing is definitely not as easy as taking off – probably because with take off you’re going from a steady state on the ground to an unsteady state in the air while with a landing you’re approaching a steady state from an unsteady state (flopping around in the wind, trying desperately to maintain a straight course towards the runway). We landed safely and less roughly than I expected and like that it was official – I had completed my first flight and survived!
That experience was by far the best birthday gift I could have ever given myself. And as I got into my car and headed off, I thought to myself I can’t wait until I can get back in that plane again!