Thursday, September 2, 2010

Learning how to fly

When I was nineteen and living in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) with my parents, I worked at the United States Information Service (U.S.I.S.) making an enormous amount of money and having no way of spending it all.  The choice to take flying lessons occurred because I had the money, time, and interest.  The plane was a single engine, dual-open-cockpit, bi-wing, Tiger Moth—the same kind flown by Snoopy — and lessons took place weekly on a remote, unused concrete airstrip outside of Dacca, the capitol city.  It was, by far, one of the most exciting, risky, and adventurous events in my life. 

Why would my lessons in learning how to fly merit an essay?  Because, I feel, the requirements that go into learning how to fly are similar to those that signal when a little bird is ready to leave its nest — or, when a child is ready to leave home.  Not to fill the basic prerequisites is likely to create major problems if not disaster. 

What I was told as I began my lessons was, first, to take a trial flight just to see what it would be like.  It is similar to sticking your big toe into the bathtub to make sure the water isn’t too hot before getting in.  That trial flight whet my appetite like nothing else could.  The wind, noise, and speed charged-up my engines like only adrenaline could, and it took just one circle around and above the runway to know that I was ready to begin. 

Having a skilled (English-speaking) and knowledgeable instructor was important, and after that trial flight we were not back in the air for another week while I read about the instruments, learned the rules, regulations, and laws, and took a very basic medical examination.  Admittedly, the instrumentation in the old Tiger Moth airplanes was simple compared with airplanes today, and the rules, regulations, and laws governing our flights (and any future flying I was to do in East Pakistan) was uncomplicated.  My physical health turned out to be excellent, and not being prone to heart attacks, effects of heights, or weaknesses in either sight or hearing, my clear bill-of-health allowed lessons to begin at once.  My teacher was both patient and understanding, and he relished the opportunity of teaching an American.  I was an eager and willing student. 

Every lesson I took began with a briefing, and the first one was no exception.  The first one included what to do in emergency situations like engine failure or rapidly deteriorating weather, and the first instruction was simulated only.  In other briefings, my instructor explained in detail principles behind the forthcoming flight and what I could expect to make sure that I understood what I was about to learn.  In every case, too, he gave me plenty of time to ask questions.  He knew I couldn’t remember everything, and that much of what he covered would become clear once in the air.  The briefings were simply overviews. 

My instructor obviously had confidence in me for he let me take control of the instruments the first time we were in the air, and after a number of air maneuvers that helped me understand how the plane moved in response to what I would do in the cockpit, we began to do take-offs and landings, which are—by far—the most difficult part of flying.  I found take-offs and landings to be the best part of flying because there were so many variables involved in trying to get them perfect, and, yet, there was such a tremendous sense of satisfaction when everything came together to yield a perfect take-off or landing. 

Usually your first solo comes between 10 and 20 hours of time in the air.  My first one came between 5 and 10 hours because my instructor felt I was ready.  He wanted to know if I thought I was ready, and my reply, as a cocky, confident, and self-assured teenager was, “Definitely.”  It was, to be sure, one of the most exciting moments of my life.  I’m not certain I would have been ready to handle an emergency situation at that early stage in my training; however, the goal of my instructor — on that very calm (no wind at all) and beautiful day — was to instill greater confidence and certainty in my skills and abilities.   

Given the same situation, if I had been the instructor, I don’t think I would have been as willing to turn that Tiger Moth — one of the sources of my income as the instructor — over to a brash and arrogant American 19-year-old! 

I remember it well.  The take-off went smoothly, and there was a wonderful sense of command and control knowing that I was in charge of this airplane.  I rose from the end of the runway out over the lush, uninhabited, green of the forests below, and once I leveled-off at about 500 feet off the ground, I banked into a comfortable left turn, and I could look down on the runway not far below.  I could even see my instructor standing and watching me.  I made a big arc, and I gave myself plenty of room as I made the final left bank to line myself up with the runway out ahead of me.  There was no center line because this was a very old, unused airstrip, so I just centered my plane as best I could and slowly began to push the yoke (or stick) away from me to lose altitude.   Fortunately, I was right on target gauging from the number of practice runs I had taken with the instructor, and as I came closer to the runway, I adjusted my flight altitude by pulling the yoke toward me to bring the nose up, up, and further up until I felt the wheels hit the runway.  It was a perfect landing, and I simply used the rudder to control my path down the runway, ever so slowly beginning to brake my speed until I came to a complete stop.  What a thrill that was. 

There was no computer screen, no auto-pilot, and no bells and whistles.  There was a great deal of control over everything that happened, and my confidence was rewarded. 

There really isn’t a great deal of risk in learning to fly.  It is, instead, depending on what you have learned, practicing the fundamentals, and relying on yourself — your knowledge, your experience, and your skills and abilities.  If you do what you know you will be successful. 

Learning how to fly — becoming independent — is much the same as learning how to fly.  Learn the fundamentals, gain as much experience as possible, then rely on yourself.  Many people say it requires a willingness to let go; however, I would contend that it requires use of all your resources.  Your instructor — just like your knowledge and experience — stay with you and, mentally, continue to provide suggestions and guidance.  You never “let go.”   If you have the commitment and the patience, you, too, can learn to fly. 


At the Silver Express website, in an essay from the 1996 Flight Training magazine, “Twenty life lessons I learned from becoming a pilot,” Susan E. Paul said she learned patience, the need to keep a step ahead, how to communicate effective, clearly, and concisely, conserve and control your energy, be thorough and precise, relax, face your fears, take care of yourself physically and mentally, use all of your senses, know yourself, focus, practice and be proficient at the basics, be light at the controls, accept responsibility, know your priorities, follow through to the end, be courteous, persistent, flexible, and to keep it simple.  In the essay Paul discusses each of these elements.   

At the Lessons From the Cockpit website, Christopher Laney writes an essay, “White-Knuckle Living: How to Succeed by Letting Go,” (really just a post on his blog), where he talks about the lessons he learned from learning how to fly: 1) give yourself permission to make mistakes, 2) recognize that you know more than you think you know, and 3) let go (which is the best entry and includes five separate items that tend to hold people back).  Also, Laney has included 22 reader comments to his post. 


Copyright September, 2010, by And Then Some Publishing, LLC.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you didn't run into the Red Baron. I hear he can be a real pain!


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