First Flight

The first time at the controls of an airplane: is truly a time to fall in love. For most people, it's still a pretty tame experience: takeoff, a few gentle turns, see the neighbourhood. I had something else in mind entirely!

Next: First Solo

This stuff all comes from someplace. My dad always wanted to fly fighter planes, but his life took a different turn. Nonetheless, flying always captivated my father. He had recordings of Arthur Godfrey narrating the sound of the jet age...followed the space program with passion...and later visited Cape Canaveral with the press corps to photograph several shuttle launches.

He would take our family (four kids, two adults, beginning with the oldest maybe nine years old) to the Air Show at the Canadian National Exhibition every year. I used to hate the airshow. I wanted to be on the rides, and of course we weren't old enough to be wandering around by ourselves. The choices were: either sit and watch the airshow with Dad, or go over to see indoor exhibitions, which were at least air-conditioned, with Mom. The airshow was marginally more interesting. It was hot. The planes were screaming loud for small ears. Whatever drinks had been brought along in the thermos were either gone or too warm to bother with by 1:30. Most years, we weren't even within earshot of the commentary, so I rarely knew what I was seeing...but Dad thought it was wonderful, so it had to be good.

I used to hate the airshow.

Ten years after that, I'd go anyway, "just because". That was where I fell in love with the Vulcan. I appreciated the important job the CL-215 did, and the same with the SAR helicopters, but whirly-birds never really did it for me. I liked the fighters. And I eventually figured out why the Snowbirds were on at the beginning of the program and the Birds or Blues were on at the end. The best year, there were the Birds AND the Frecce Tricolore!  In 1987, the last summer before I left Canada for Washington I went to all four days of the Airshow. Wouldn't miss it for anything!

But I digress.

In 1987, I found myself with the time, money, and courage to explore things that I had never tried before. One of those things was to fly aerobatics, like the airshow pilots.

Aerobatics...I looked up flying schools in the Yellow Pages, and found that the only one offering aerobatics was so far out I had to get my Dad to drive me (I had no car). I called up and said "I want to fly aerobatics." They said, "Yeah, ever flown a plane before?" I said, "No, why, does that matter?" "It's kind of unusual, but okay," was the reply.

When I met my instructor, Rick, he seemed a bit skeptical. He must have figured, "this little dolly ain't goin' nowhere". On the way out to the plane, he asks casually, "How do you feel about the rides at the Exhibition?" I reply that I can't find enough people to go with me on the rides that make everybody else sick. He doesn't buy this. I can tell. I ask how long we'll be up. He says he doubts that we'll be up for a whole hour, but that depends on how I feel. (I can tell he's expecting overtime for the cleaning crew.) If I'm enjoying it though, we can stay up, right? It's up to me? "Uh, yes," he smiles, a smile that give away nothing. He really wants to get this over with. They were running late, and he had to switch me for one of his regulars.

(I don't tell him that I skipped breakfast as a precaution, and went out to see Top Gun for the first time just to get in the mood.) His walk-around was very quick, and exactly what he was doing was not at all explained, but I followed him anyway. I am introduced to the instrument panel. Not that I have a very good idea of what most of this stuff is for.

He give me the safety briefing. I put on the belts. Finally, Rick explains how the door opens, and that if I should need to detach the door altogether, you open this and pull that, and the door will fall off. I ask why I would need to know this, but cannot recall the answer.

I turn the key and the engine roars to life. He shows me how the rudder pedals control the nosewheel, and I try them out. Slowly we get into the lineup to taxi. (If we did a runup, I don't think I had any idea what it was, and didn't notice.) Dad is standing by the ramp, and salutes as we go by. I try very hard not to notice. I am twenty-seven, and dying of embarassment. I hope my instructor doesn't see him.

Suddenly we're next for takeoff. We get into position, and he looks at me and asks, "Well, do you want to do the takeoff?" I am surprised. I look over at him and ask, "Are you sure that's not a tremendously bad idea?"

He looked right back, just a little bored, and explained, "Lady, you can't do anything to this aircraft that I can't recover from."

"Well, that really cheers me up! What do I do?"

"You just push this black knob all the way in, and ... wait... pull back on the column... " ... nose in the air and *pop* Good gracious! I'm flying! "Oh S***!" I exclaim. I had hoped to say something a bit more elegant, but there it was.

Lesson one: "Relax," says Rick. "You're all tense." (Hm. Had he been talking to all my future instructors?) You only need one hand on the column; the other rests right here on the throttle." I scan my body mentally, take a deep breath, and exhale to release the tension all at once. Goodness, such a light touch is all that's needed!

The wonderful part is that it feels incredibly natural. I have always known how to do this. It is like coming back to an art I have been away from for a long time, but slip into like warm bathwater. We climb some more, and I try a turn, and begin to understand (or perhaps recall) how to cruise at a given altitude. In this plane, that's done with the horizon about 1/3 up the windshield from the cowling.

We get to the practice area, about five miles distant. There's a bit of high cirrus, and some small scudding clouds at about 2000 feet, but unlimited ceiling. It's cold (very cold; late November in Canada), but a bright blue day with friendly haze out over yonder and not much turbulence at all once we get above 1500'.

Rick explains just a bit about clearing turns, and then we begin with a Chandelle. He does it twice, and then hands it over to me. I do one right, one left. Well. *That* was easy. "How are you doing?" he asks.

"Great! What's next?" I beam. He explains the wing-over. "...and you bring her 'round like this, and you just let the airplane fly itself...see, it pops right back up. Now, bring the nose up and the horizon back to cruise attitude. Want to try it?"

Silly question. Off we go.

"What about an aileron roll?" I ask, not wanting to miss out on anything I was promised.

"Check the listing for the minimum speed you need for the manoeuvre: 115 knots. Drop the nose to pick up speed...I've got it, this time...then full right rudder and full twist of the column to the right, with one hand on the top right and one on the bottom of the left side." And around we go! I hardly feel a thing, and am not disoriented in the least. The previous two moves involved more G-force than this one does. This move quickly becomes a favourite. I do one to the right, level off, and... "What are you doing now," he asks. "I'm doing one to the left!" I reply triumphantly. RIck is a bit amused that I like this so much. I'm having the time of my life.

"OKay, how about a loop?" I press on.

"All right: we pick a road to centre on down there. Pick up some speed. Now, bring the nose up to 45 degrees; I'll work the throttle. Watch the G's; you want to keep pulling back on the column so that the G's rise evenly until you hit 3 G's. Look through the skylight; that's Highway 7. Now, bring her around, and level off. That's it."

I like that a lot. We do that a couple more times. Rick explains that there are other manoeuvres that pull 4 G's, but he is pretty firmly reluctant to do them on a first time out. I'm not going to fight with him; I'm not exactly bored yet. I ask to do another couple of aileron rolls. We do loop-and-roll. And more loops. And it's time to fly home.

Somewhere along the way, I remember the camera I was invited to tuck beneath the seat. I laugh at myself a little. The only picture I would have wanted is one from outside the plane anyway.

I get to fly home, too, checking the heading and remembering to stay high enough up so as not to annoy the people who live in the area or to bang into the escarpment. I can well understand how one can wax eloquent about the fusion of man and aircraft. I can't say I've reached that point (of fusion) but I feel *so* comfortable flying. It's like something I've always known how to do.

I have no fear (neither do newborns) and have utter trust in my instructor. He takes over as we come in to land.

I've forgotten to ask about doing more than one roll in a row, or about flying a lazy eight, or doing an outside loop, or flying upside down for an extended period of time...but I have a feeling there may be other days.

"How did she do?" my dad asks. (Dads.)

"She seems to like being upside down more than right-side up," Rick smiled.

I thought a good deal about that flight afterwards, to see whether that flight had lit a deep interest; to see if this was a thing I really wanted to do again. Not until much later did I realize that for me, that flight was not so much a beginning as a return to a part of my soul and my spirit that had been lost. Two months later, the tumblers all clicked into place, and the doorway swung open. I began to fly in earnest, and learn why all the things I did that day were possible (and what all could have gone wrong)!

Epilogue:

The part of the story I didn't hear for many months was that, as I took off, Dad wondered why he'd been waiting all these years. The next week, he signed up for ground school in Oshawa. He didn't tell me until after he'd flown over fifteen hours, and I had spent many evenings trying to explain to him what I was learning about aviation and wondering why ol' Dad wasn't more interested. He said one reason he finally gave in was because he couldn't play dumb anymore with a straight face.

Parents. Gotta watch 'em.

 
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