Plane & Pilot
Saturday, September 1, 2007

Back In The Saddle

Returning to the cockpit can be exhilarating and difficult, but worth every frustrating minute

Back In The SaddleThe first thing I did was introduce myself to her. I did it quietly as I touched her spinner and as my flight instructor ambled off to untie the right wing. The last thing I needed was my instructor thinking I was crazy for talking to a machine. This was, after all, a machine—a complex assembly of aluminum, cables, spars and wires. There could be no life in this 2,000-pound craft of the air, but I knew better.

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Back in the cockpit, my instructor went through everything, my mind working to catch up. I set the throttle, turned the key and that old familiar engine sound enveloped my senses like a warm blanket. I let go a little laugh and felt like I was at Disneyland holding one of those giant lollipops that your parents never let you have. My drunk taxiing got us to the edge of the runway, and David asked me what I was going to say to the tower.

Tower? Oh yeah, the tower. We reviewed what I’d say, I clicked the little button taunting my sweaty left index finger and…froze. I said the plane’s number wrong. I said something stupid about “VFR-something-or-other” and just stopped. It sounded like a fast food drive-through order. My hands shook like a teenager reaching for his first girlfriend’s bra.

The high overcast morning was quiet and the tower understood the failings of a new student. I suddenly felt very unworthy of the little plastic card in my wallet that said I was a pilot. We finally made it through the calls and checklists, lined up on the runway and pushed the throttle. We were going flying.

In that instant, I was reborn; it was like a pillow was lifted off my head and I could breathe again. The ground fell away as the sun’s rays flickered like strobes on the shiny surfaces of this grand machine. I wanted to shout, to scream and tell the world what they were missing. I smiled through each bank and climb, watching the horizon in its angled beauty.

My patterns were awful. I had no feet. What is this? What? No, I don’t see the traffic ahead of us, I’m just trying to keep this friggin’ airspeed right. What flaps? No, I didn’t hear the tower. The airplane was ahead of me. I was like the guy in the back of the car who goes along for the ride but nobody talks to. I felt hopeless. My instructor rattled off instructions and I didn’t retain one bit of them. “RIGHT RUDDER!” My armpits were pools and my lower back was sticking to the seat. My legs ached from pushing who-knows-what rudders. I was a mess.

My instructor suggested we call it a day, and I looked at my watch. More than two hours had gone by! I was drained as we made our final approach. My landing was decent only because we survived it. I bounced and swerved and generally flew like my grandmother. But I flew.

I taxied the Cessna back to the FBO, pulled the throttle and mixture and sat as the prop clicked to a stop. It was like I had been untied from the tail of a tiger. My instructor climbed out, asked me to do the paperwork and said, “Good job. See ya inside.” I took a deep, intoxicating breath as he walked away, and both cockpit doors wallowed in the slight breeze like a saloon in an abandoned ghost town. The gyros whirred down.

I had done it. Seven Sierra Papa had treated me well, but had made it clear that this was no game. I was rusty, and there would be many more flights before I could earn that magic logbook endorsement.


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