A typical flying day
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
-Leonardo da Vinci
I know it’s pretty cliché-you’ve probably already heard of more experienced pilots than me yearning to “go up”. Or seen that look in their eyes, looking up at a covered sky and scowling at the rain after days of inactivity. The way they look so detached from the world when they talk about flying.
The nostalgia of it all makes for such painful longing. Even on the average passer by: they’ve just got to stop and wonder at the sad words coming out of their mouths.
Because of Obama’s little coconut-sipping jaunt here in Laos, flying activity had to be suspended for a month. You can bet that a lot of hair-tugging happened in all that time.
When the reminder on my phone rung off in class, my teacher couldn’t believe his ears. A quick message to my instructor was sent immediately after school, asking if flying was possible that weekend. The reply was instantaneous.
It was short too. Then came another chime.
“Let’s see the weather first.”
I cringed, then wailed and cried. It’s a rule every pilot must abide by. The bloody weather is like a thick finger waving “no, no, no”. When it’s happy, it’s a fat thumb right up on the side of the road.
But hey, no matter how badly you want to fly, there is no sense driving to the airfield to find a nasty cloud parked right on top of your head. Add in hard pouring rain and wind in gusts that could flip 10 tons of a T-Rex on it’s back and you’ve just discovered the meaning of hardcore. If you yield to testosterone and manage to take off by some luck, there’s still all the downdrafts and wind shear to negotiate. You better be quick at praying.
Needless to say, if I were to fly that weekend, the weather god would have to give me a nice, clear sky.
So listen up, dude, and give me a window of opportunity. Not shining blue and devoid of clouds-that would be too much to ask. No thunderstorms either. Anything you want. But give me a nice sky.
Plans were shifted around to comply with the weather’s temper. Afternoon. Morning. Noon. Come early. No wait.
Talk about a sinking feeling when I awoke to a dark sky. I look up-it really does not look good. All I see are low level clouds swiping past at a frightful speed. The sky god just wasn’t happy.
Maybe because I called him dude.
However, after a small delay, I decided that it was a go-my father and I hopped into the truck. Destination? Khoksa Airfield, thirty minutes away.
We got out, shook hands, shared stories, and then changed machines. The smell of home sweet home struck my nostrils. A damn fine smell of mouldy carpet, steel, foam and composites.
My instructor, an old wise man, clambered into the dark cockpit after me. I felt so peaceful-surrounded by the familiar knobs and switches littering the space. We were off into the blue after my two months of flying inactivity.
Like they say. There ain’t a feeling like being back home.
What made it perfect that day was the amount of clouds-because blue skies can get really boring. I absolutely detest flying when you have no clouds-the fun of ducking around them is no longer there. There is no sense of enjoyment. No quick whiteouts. No graceful half-wingovers over the stretching wisps of cotton. There is no sense of speed and precious perception is lost. There is no sense of scale. It’s like a life behind a desk. Just droning on monotonously, every second like the last.
I had taxied in towards the apron after exiting the runway. The growling churn of the gravel under my feet transitioned into smooth cement. A full 180 degrees turn on the apron whipped the stubby nose around. A bit of right rudder to bring her in line with the runway dead ahead. Parking brake on. Oops, that was a bit abrupt. Then he got out after triple checking I didn’t forget anything. I could takeoff. Check. I could fly responsibly. Check. I could land without killing myself or crashing the aircraft. Check.
Okay, so out you go my wise man.
He opened the door, and swung out his legs. The time it took me to blink and he was no longer there. It has always never failed to startle me.
I breathe a sigh of relief. My hand had been shadowing the magnetos-there are many stories of instructors carelessly walking into spinning props. I’ve sprouted gray hair from all those exits. At least I’m careful. I hope he knows I care about him. The prop is replaceable. He isn’t.
It’s one nasty bite.
A glance rearwards to see if he had removed himself from the slipstream. Affirmative. I can see him disappearing in the hangar from the corner of my eye. Fastening his seatbelts so they wouldn’t somehow end up in the stick, a last look round caught the trio of them in the hangar’s shade, looking onwards. My father. Another student. My instructor.
Rock and roll!
A small burst of power to start rolling. An impulse-a quick flick of the throttle- engine oozing full power. Before I had even reached the runway. The Rotax purr rose into a shrill, crispy roar. The indicator was flicking dangerously near red line speed. Then engine was warm, the oil was slick, the blood was pumping.
Acceleration had been instantaneous.
The aircraft was lighter and had a sportier feel-“solo feel”. And I was submerging myself in the moment.
The monotonous churning of the gravel under my wheels.
The airspeed coming alive. Maintain dead center, dammit.
Speed still creeping up.
My senses were working overtime. Adrenaline pulsing in my bloods like old ceiling lights.
I felt alive.
She was airborne in a heartbeat. Only a short hundred meters had flashed by- lasted a few seconds. A jerk on the stick and the transition from rolling to flying was instantaneous, snappy and precise. Hmpf. The aircraft had stayed glued on for too long. But the more speed you’ve got, the safer you are.
I reared the nose up into my favorite place. Nibbling on the stall speed, I inched my way up into the sky.
Hauling in all excess thrust I could get. Rapidly climbing.
At eight hundred feet, I pulled in the flaps. The nose dropped accordingly, leading the way. Stick forwards-the speed crept up higher and higher still. I traded in a hundred feet for acceleration. The slipstream outside was battering my face through the side DV vents. I thrust the stick backwards into my stomach, the rudder pedals flicked over-as the FK9 zoomed into a sweeping climbing turn over the airfield. Stabilize. Radio work. There you go.
I say something to myself. My garbled voice boosts my confidence. I’m alone up here.
Welcome into a three-dimensional world. Airspeed. Altitude. Attitude. Up here, it’s a constant game of balance on a three-armed scale. A constant juggling with the forces that govern flight. Thrust, drag, lift, weight. A slip or a moment of inattention can prove fatal. Flying is a careful management of your life on earth.
Rather, above it.
And it is one aspect that draws me to flying: control. People always talk about being in control of one’s life-but what does that truly mean? Seldom do they compare it to flying, where your life is literally in your hands.
Just picture it.
1500 feet above the ground. That is 460 meters to fall. If you traded one bone per meter, you’ll need more than one body.
42 meters in a single second. Imagine stopping an object with your head at that speed.
It is scary. Not flying itself-but what scares people like you and me-death. For some people, death equals zombies, or giant spiders. Or the monster under your bed. Death is the same-it’s there in different forms-and it’s certainly watching you over your shoulder up here.
Some of my friends lavish in the idea of control through social life. The importance of acting correctly or making smart, immature jokes. How does that look when you compare it to flying?
What do you think?
I don’t know-but one thing I do know is this:
I don’t think of anything when I fly.
My brain is a white sheet of paper, you see. And here is where another aspect comes into play. Being in the flow. A state of concentration so intense. A focused state where the brain simplifies unnecessary things to devote attention to the task at hand.
I don’t need a Delorean. I need an FK9. To me, flying stops time.
Time exists when we have a perception of past and future. But when you reduce it to the only present, it rolls into a circle: your perception of Time changes. It is simplified. And that’s how flying manages to make it stop.
But I’m not here to talk about life. I’m here to talk about flight. And like life having an ending, so does flying.
And it’s landing.
So up comes her cute, stubby nose.
Slowly... You don’t want to provoke her. Then up a bit more. Wait for the aircraft to react. Slowly, the speed decays. If you’ve done it right, you haven’t deviated a foot from your pattern altitude. Just a tad above a hundred kilometers per hour, my right hand slips off from the joystick. My left detaches itself from the throttle and takes up position. My palm rests on the flap lever-the blocky texture rising up to meet my hand. The thumb arcs forwards and pushes a button-at the same time my elbow jerks up-smoothly, surely.
The impulse has to be initiated at the correct moment. Slowly to get the hook out. Accelerate a bit to catch the still falling speed indicator needle then slow down again. Just like a squashed parabola of sorts. The movement is variable-you are no linear machine. Not an electric motor. The flap handle is a dimmer. Not a simple switch. You don’t turn it on or off-you ease it in.
Airspeed. Airfield. Airspeed. Airfield.
So goes the mantra. My eyes flicker between the instrument board and the airstrip down there. It’s 700 meters long, but it doesn’t look like much from here. Concentrate. Dead center. Speed.
What was it they said?
Flying is the second most challenging activity known to man. Landing is the first.
The time it took you to read that and I’m already down at short final now, starting the flare.
My peripheral vision catches the shady outlines of the wings and the body as it rises up to meet me coming back on Earth. As the aircraft comes down even more, I look ahead. Dead center. Speed.
The aircraft floats on top of the gravel-I refuse the ground. I tug back. And back. And back.
Then she settles down.
And it’s all over.
So- why do I fly?
There is a strange serenity one encounters high above the earth. There is a lucid moment during which you appreciate the beauty of the earth from above. The traffic, pollution, and general chaos that exist on the surface all disappear as altitude increases.