Week 19: Flying a Plane
I sign up the day before, because I know I will psych myself out if my brain is given too much advance notice.
A few minutes late, I arrive at the Van Nuys airport still adrenaline-rushed from falling off Sando, a horse I ride, less than an hour prior. No injuries this time.
Moe, a 30-something-year-old flight instructor with The Flight Academy, greets me in his office, and almost immediately we go out the back entrance and into the hangar area, where his plane is waiting.
To get in this plane, I pull myself up on the right wing and enter the side door. I slide to the left, Moe takes the seat on the right, we buckle up, and he shows me how the headset works. Mine is turquoise. It looks retro, except the speaker doesn't stay in place and whenever I speak I need to pull it towards me.
I've never been in a small plane or helicopter before. He turns on the engine, which is loud, and I understand why we need the headsets. I know in advance the flight itself will take about half an hour, and expect to go over all the controls well before we take off.
No. Moe starts cruising out of the hangar and communicating with the air traffic controller, signaling that he's intending to take off and waiting for their indication. In a way, it's genius: I don't have time to freak out.
While we wait on the runway for our turn, Moe goes over all the controls; nothing really sticks in my mind, except for what he tells me I will be controlling on my own for parts of the flight: the steering and the elevation. I don't have time to assimilate what to do with the wheel, though, before we are given the OK to take off, so without registering takeoff, I'm still asking questions as we ascend towards the heavens.
I'm afraid of heights, and for whatever reason, the idea of flying in a small airplane is much less appealing than the thought of the flight I'm taking out of LAX later that same evening. Maybe it's the realness of the little glider. The inside of a commercial jet bears more resemblance to a bus than it does to a smaller plane, and the heaviness of the craft minimizes the effects of turbulence.
In a 4-seater, there is no room for denial: we are at the mercy of the forces of nature. No turbulence is left unfelt.
We go by Universal Studios and the Hollywood sign, which I hiked up to for the first time last week. That's when Moe first tells me to take control of the craft. Every time he tells me to take control, I tell him that I am in control, and he repeats that I am in control. Every time he tells me he's taking over, I repeat that he is in control, and he reaffirms it back to me. This is so that there is no confusion about who is flying the plane. I will take control several times throughout the flight, amounting to about 10 minutes of the half hour total.
The first few times I assume control, I fly in a straight line and maintain the elevation by keeping a circle on a black dot, which means we are staying at the same elevation and in the same direction.
It's surprisingly difficult to do, because the turbulence keeps bopping the plane around, but it also keeps me distracted from the reality of what I'm doing.
We head past Downtown LA to Venice, Santa Monica, and Malibu. We fly over the ocean, along the coast. I've never seen the water so clear and blue in California.
What strikes me the most, as we take this short flight, is how fast we traverse LA when not confined to the gridlock of roads. It's not the speed, we're not going that fast; it's the freedom of the bird, being able to fly directly without the impediments of street signs and other drivers.
By the time we turn towards the mountains of Malibu to head back to Van Nuys, I am comfortable enough to ascend, descend, and make a few mild turns.
But we've been in flight for 35 minutes, and it's time to touchdown. Soon, Moe's landing, which is the most intimidating part of the experience for me. The asphalt runway looms closer and closer, tarred from all the landings it has withheld.
The propeller looks like it's spinning backwards - I assume slowing us down - but we're still going so fast, and somehow Moe has to land both wheels at the same time, at the proper angle, and keep the plane going straight on this little strip.
The plane's contact with the ground reverberates through my body before my eyes register the landing. As much as Moe's casual nature in the sky influenced me into mild comfort, I still breathe deeper breaths upon feeling the ground beneath the plane.
My most treasured activities are ones that include a direct connection to the earth, and probably always will be. But this is one of the several air- or water-based activities that pique my interest and challenge my mind, and I would do it again or even take lessons.
Flying a plane, as with many first-time activities, broke a mental barrier for me: it no longer carries that heavy, 'inaccessible' sway over my mind. I did it once. It has been relegated out of the Shrine of the Impossible. If I want to do it again, its place is among things I can approach with a sense of reality, and that alone makes it worthwhile.