By Petra Perkins.
“You ready to go up?” I examined my reflection in the aviator shades of an Air Force captain who was to take me for a ‘discovery ride’ in a small airplane. He looked official and solid, like Captain America — wings on his epaulets, a clipboard for a shield. I would go up with him.
“So, you ready?” he asked, again.
I shook my head. “Yes.”
I had fear of flying… “Aviophobia,” he said.
An airplane accident had cruelly changed my life. I was a nervous passenger before it happened, but afterwards it was painful for me to fly. Long distance business travel was required in my job. I didn’t tell Captain America that my husband and son had been killed in a plane crash.
Here I was at the very airport where they took off together for the last time. This was the last place on earth I’d ever imagine finding myself. Rod, 17, was almost a high school graduate. Terry, my high-school sweetheart, had been my husband for 20 years. They’d built an aerobatic airplane in our garage over eight years and tested it months before they left on a trip — their tragic, final takeoff. The propeller had sheared off on a landing approach. I’d always wondered if Terry could have somehow recovered, though pilots told me no one could have. The question continued to haunt me.
Flying was an ongoing dread. I would shake violently on takeoffs; my heart pounding, my neck drenched in sweat. Landings were worse. I might let out a little scream if we hit a bump. My poor fellow passengers! One time on landing, I grabbed the hand of the man next to me who happened to be a pilot, and didn’t realize I was squeezing it hard. He patiently talked me through every step of what was happening, and said, “You should try a free Discovery Ride in a small airplane.”
So here I was, your ordinary aviophobe, out for a Sunday ride… on familiar tarmac, walking past small planes, past my past, toward a Cessna 172 trainer. Captain America belted me in and demonstrated use of the headset. “We’ll go slow, like the big boys,” he said softly before speaking clipped words to the ATC (Air Traffic Controller). A crackling voice responded. “Three Niner Whiskey, cleared for takeoff.” Oh, whiskey… I’d love one. I gripped the door handle.
“Here, sip some water,” he said, handing me a bottle. The warm drink was soothing.
“Now relax.” He smiled. “I’ve never had an accident.” Yeah, I said that once, and five minutes later I rammed a Corvette bumper.
Terry was a good pilot. The propeller breaking off caused the plane’s center-of-gravity (CG) to shift, plunging it into an unrecoverable spin. That’s what the NTSB report said. With half my family gone, my life went into a spin and I couldn’t seem to lift up after that, or escape gravity, the gravity of my life. I was lost even though I rarely ventured into the unknown. It was time for me to recover my own CG, to get my old risk-taking spirit back, but why was I doing this?
We flew around the city. He asked over the radio if I wanted to “have the yoke”. I thought he said, “Do you have a joke?” Well, sure … a pilot and a brain surgeon walk into a bar in heaven…
“No,” I said, drawing back from the yoke, the steering wheel, as far as possible. Then Captain America landed the plane smoothly, laughing at a student pilot who zigzagged like a drunk on the parallel runway. “He’ll be fine in a few days,” he said.
I thought, I know I can do better than that, perhaps prompting me to say, “I want to take flying lessons.” He seemed surprised but said sure, that could be arranged.
The next week I showed up, shocking myself. The first lesson was with Randy, a cowboy. He wore a cowboy’s hat, shirt, and boots. First thing Randy did was shoot us up through a hole in the clouds like a rocket. “Woo-hah!” he whooped. I didn’t tell him I was afraid of flying. I beamed bravado. (This is not the brave part of this story.) I guess I was willing myself, hard, to feel something, to take off again and fly, to find a safe landing spot.
My first lesson was all about turning: 180s, 360s, tight turns, reverse turns. “Try the rudder,” Randy said, showing me a pedal. I pushed the right one and we veered right. I pushed the left rudder and we moved left. I pulled back on the throttle, we slowed.
“That’s easy,” I said.
“Jes’ like ridin’ a horse.”
The first lesson was over too fast. I really liked ‘pulling Gs’.
The second lesson we practiced Slow Flight. I thought we’d drop out of the sky. “Whoo- hoo!” I said. I was swaggering the next day and bought a leather jacket. Who would have thought? Me, facing my worst fear. Maybe that was brave, but what was really brave came later.
Problem: I could fly the plane but I couldn’t land it. Even though I enjoyed takeoffs and flight maneuvers, it all felt safe with Randy in command. When it came time to guide us down a thousand feet I’d do that, but I couldn’t put the plane on the runway. I’d chicken out, deferring to him.
Time and again we’d enter the landing pattern (a rectangle around the control tower) and then set up to descend to the runway. I’d say, “You take it.”
My instructor, always kind, finally said kindly, “Ya know what, schweet-haht” — Randy liked channeling Bogart — “ ya gotta land this plane sometime if ya wanna be a pilot.” I went home and thought about that. Did I want to be a pilot? Did I have ‘the right stuff’? What was I trying to prove, anyway?
The first landing was rough, like a bucking bronco. I had all fingers crossed that I wouldn’t crack the struts. Subsequent attempts didn’t go so well either. But after gaining practice, one day I zoomed up to the pattern and, right out of the blue, so to speak, I made a perfect aircraft-carrier landing.
Next: simulating engine failure and emergency landings. Every week I would 1) cut the engine; 2) quickly scout the best possible landing site; 3) start a slow descent; 4) radio my position to ATC.
The worst lesson was when I had to stall the plane – make it stop flying and recover.
Was this my showstopper?
My mouth was parched and I wanted to quit. But Randy insisted it would be okay. I raised the nose slowly, slowly, until air stopped passing under the wing, causing the plane to buffet. Buffeting frightened me as did the blasting stall horn. Can’t-do this! Can’t do this! it warned. I handed the controls back to Randy. He handed them back. I had to make up my mind. Right then. I knew it would be scary but I had to do it. I stalled the plane… I used all my skills and tools – throttle, rudders, yoke, guts – to recover. Randy clapped. “Go, kid! Do it again!” I did. Somebody, give me a cold beer!
I realized then that Terry could never have recovered from his stall, from the incipient spin he went into.
It took me forever to “solo” and Randy didn’t push. It seemed I would never feel brave enough to go up alone. Finally, after more lessons than almost anyone has ever taken, he said I was “ready for the rodeo”. I jumped into the pilot seat of 39W, ticked off my checklist, and taxied to the runway. He climbed stairs to the control tower to watch and talk to me, if necessary, over the radio. “Cleared for takeoff ,” said ATC. “Good luck.”
I took a deep breath and let ‘er roll. Because there was only one person, we shot up like a bird. Randy’s voice chirped in my head.
I gazed down. The airfield looked like a band-aid. I pushed the nose, pulled back the power and felt the tug of earth’s gravity. It was a good G. All three wheels touched smoothly — I rolled, braked, cut across the taxiway, and there at the end was Randy, waving his cowboy hat. I stopped on a dime, jumped out and gave him a big hug. He cut off the bottom half of my shirt, a tradition, to show I was half a pilot!
Weeks later, after three journeys and a test, I earned my F.A.A. private pilot’s license and that was an even bigger day.
I’d learned to pilot an airplane but I also learned that bravery doesn’t always materialize in one fell swoop. Mine appeared in steps:
1) dare the ‘discovery ride.’
2) dare to take off.
3) accelerate to escape gravity.
4) dare to land.