It’s interesting how we can become so close to aviation that, even though it’s fueled by passion, it takes a “civilian” to point out what a great privilege and joy it is to fly.
A lot of us instructor types spend four or more hours a day in a cockpit, but we really don’t do much flying—mostly we’re riding and talking. And even when we’re actually on the controls, we’re doing it for a very specific reason. We’re trying to pass along some hypersubtle bit of minutia that may be insignificant to a civilian, but is of vital importance to a student. For example, when Aunt Edna is in the airplane, she really doesn’t care whether the ball is centered or not, but students hear about it constantly (or should). The net result is that we get so preoccupied with what we’re doing—teaching—that we forget we’re flying. Enter last Saturday morning’s Christmas ride.
Okay, so Christmas is long past, but it took nearly six months to schedule this gift-certificate ride. I was to take a wife for her first little-airplane ride, which in my case, really is a “little airplane.”
Shannon was the young mother of three very cute kids and the wife of an obviously adoring husband. These factors always make me aware of the responsibility I’m shouldering on these flights, so I’m extra careful. From the beginning, it was easy to tell that she was really into what we were about to do. She wasn’t exactly an adrenaline junkie, but she was eager for a new experience, and an open-cockpit ride in a tiny biplane is, for just about everyone, a very new experience.
Getting her into the airplane proved to be a no-brainer because she followed directions exactly and was athletic enough to make hopping into the front hole look easy. (This is definitely not usually the case.) And as we saddled up, she was asking questions and actually listening to the answers, so I knew I had a live one. As I settled into the back hole and strapped in, I suddenly realized I was starting to enjoy this, which, again, isn’t always the case.
A few minutes later, I was doing my usual going-for-a-ride-with-a-civilian spiel about takeoff: “…then the noise will get really loud, and I’ll pick the tail up and…” Just before I brought the power up, she said, “I was nervous, but I’ve really been looking forward to this.” I could feel her grin over the intercom. I was giving her a new experience and she was loving it, which put an entirely different spin on what I did from that point on.
First, let it be known that a takeoff in my little machine is significantly different from a takeoff in a Spam Can. The runway only is visible in small wedges on both sides of the nose, and the forward rush is very ballistic and, to many, disorienting because it all happens so quickly. One moment you’re awash in the throaty roar of the two straight pipes (no mufflers) under your feet, and the next, you’re clawing upward at what, to most pilots, looks like the nose attitude they see only when practicing stalls. Through it all, I heard myself giving a monologue, which is usually the case, but I noticed that I wasn’t instructing so much as making certain she didn’t miss any of the nuances of the experience. I was in the active role of aviation salesman: I wanted her to see and understand it all, because I sensed that she was a great candidate for a future pilot, and I wanted her to love it as much as I love it.
As we leveled off at altitude, I became aware of her head in front of me pivoting right and left as she tried to look in every direction at once. “It looks so different from the air. It’s so beautiful!” she exclaimed.
What was supposed to be an hour-long ride—a quick out and back and I’d go on with my Saturday—took an unexpected turn and wound up taking nearly an hour and a half as I became both guide and av-salesman. I have a fairly standard route for these rides, but this time, I found myself going out of my way to convey how private the world of an aviator can be. I turned up a small valley so I could fly around a uniquely shaped mini-mountain while saying, “Keep your eye on the butte as we go around it because you and I are the only people who will see the backside. Only pilots see this part of the country.”
We circled Indian ruins that looked undiscovered and intact. I gave her the controls and had her fly up the lake where she and her family would be boating the next day, carefully pointing out the marina and other landmarks she’d be able to recognize from the ground.
Knowing they’d be able to see a lakeside butte from their boat, I directed her behind it, a place I had never been, while saying, “Tomorrow, while you’re boating, you can tell your husband that you know what the other side looks like. You’ll have one up on him because no one but pilots ever sees these sights.”
The most interesting part of the flight was that we never once got outside the small area I routinely fly over, but it was still as though I was seeing much of it for the first time because I was seeing through her eyes. I was enjoying the flight as much as she was, and I hadn’t felt that feeling for a long time.
Enthusiasm is contagious; hers sparked mine. She had asked for a little aerobatics and was practically bubbling over with excitement before we completed the first roll. She thought a loop was the greatest thing since canned beer. She was loving it, so I was loving it too.
In the end, I felt bad charging for the flight because I had gotten as much out of it as she had. And that’s what aviation is supposed to be about. The flight was a nice reminder.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his website at www.airbum.com.