Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Flying - Comfortable in the Air




My first flight instructor was Ulf, a soft-spoken Swedish guy almost exactly my age. He was a quite young man with a perpetual Scandinavian smile on his face. I never saw him wearing anything but a clean well-pressed white shirt and navy-blue dress pants. The last I heard about him was that he'd been a captain on Scandinavian Air Service SAS for many years. My first solo flight came after 10 hours of dual instruction. Why don't you pull off the runway, Ulf yelped over the engine noise, I need to take a piss. I brought the plane to a complete stop on the taxiway and shut the engine off.

Opelousas, Louisiana had an uncontrolled airport. It had no control tower and accordingly arriving and departing traffic (aircraft) had to communicate by radio and declare their intentions to each other. The system worked pretty well and still does for the vast majority of American airports. Take-offs and landings are on first-come first-serve basis. Airplanes line up in an imaginary predetermined traffic pattern then proceed to land or to take off safely and efficiently. It was late afternoon, however, and on that particular hot summer day the sky was empty and almost as blue as Ulf's eyes. He jumped out of the two-seater Piper Tomahawk, turned his back to me and did actually take a leak in the middle of the airfield. After a manly shake, he obviously zipped up his pants and came to the left side of the plane, my side that is, and spoke in his characteristically diminutive voice. Say Abufares (that was not my name then but I'm using it to keep my identity secret), what do you say if I ask you to fly around the pattern alone, land, taxi back here and shut the engine off. Then you can do it a couple more times if you feel up to it? I couldn't believe my ears. This was not supposed to happen today. The instruction manual recommended the first solo flight after 12 hours of dual training. I knew that if I didn't answer in 10 seconds or less Ulf would climb back in his seat and call it a day. Yes! That was all I said. I shut both doors closed then switched on the ignition. I saw Ulf smiling and waving his hand as I taxied back in position for take-off on the runway. It was sweltering hot and my heart pumping blood and adrenalin at 200 beats a minute didn't make it any cooler.

It's been 30 years since that Saturday on July 11th, 1981 and I still remember it as if it happened 30 minutes ago. I pushed the throttle all the way up like I did many times with my instructor by my side. The plane twitched then accelerated nervously down the runway veering to the left with the torque of the single engine. I compensated with right rudder and at 55 knots an hour broke ground. The tiny cockpit seemed incredibly large and empty without Ulf. The Tomahawk, amazingly light without his weight, climbed steeply, much more steeply than I ever remembered and I subconsciously adjusted the trim wheel to keep her nose down. I raised the flaps and commenced my left turn to join the traffic pattern on the downwind leg. It all went silent as a surge of freedom flooded through my body and mind. I AM FLYING! I AM FLYING ALONE AT LAST!!!

I made a robust first landing, safe and efficient. Although I didn't grease my plane onto the runway I would never forget that moment in time. It was my greatest personal triumph, and save for a thing or two, still is. After I received my Private Pilot License, Ulf left and joined a regional American airline. Krisan arrived on the scene and instructed me almost completely through my Commercial and Instrument training. She was a fine young lady, petite, smart, and very pretty in her leather jacket and tight pants. She too became an airline captain for one of the majors. Before she quit flight instruction, however, she handed me to Rick.

Now if you were God and wanted to create the antithesis of Ulf and Krisan you could only end up with Rick. The man was loud. He came to work on a Harley with a cigarette between his lips. Somehow it stayed lit till the end of the day. And, and... pretending he was grabbing another cup of coffee, he would chase the secretaries from upstairs and the receptionists downstairs with his lewd remarks and stale pickup lines from the 60's. After Ulf and Krisan, I was in for a cultural shock. My best defense against the inevitable I thought was to talk as little as possible. To this day Rick thinks that I didn't speak English then and is still surprised how quickly I picked up the language afterward. I would use lines I memorized from sitcoms on TV for my routine conversation with him. The guy, and I have no doubt about it, must've thought that I was an absolute idiot. Truth of the matter though, I was a graduate teaching assistant in college at the time. But, he didn't need to know that.

Despite his eccentricities, or perhaps because of them, Rick was a top rated instructor and a very proficient pilot. I completed the remaining of my training with him in no time and within a month or so received my commercial certificate and my instrument and multi-engine ratings. Soon thereafter, I was offered my first job as a pilot in the very same General Aviation and Flight School were I earned my wings. Gene, rest his soul, was a boss, a friend and an older brother, who believed in Rick and me. He helped me get my Flight Instructor and Advanced Ground Instructor licenses and I embarked on a trip of adventure and discovery that had changed my life forever.

I had used the I need to take a piss phrase with all of my  students when it was time for them to solo. Perhaps the only greater satisfaction than my own first solo flight was when I gazed at the sky and followed with my eyes and heart a student of mine flying on his own while I stood on the side of the runway. I know some of them have joined the airlines, one or two became air force pilots and several are flying doctors and professionals.

The world has changed for me and for everybody else over the years. I have taken on more jobs than I can remember in different fields, places and industries, from construction to industrial installations to shipping. My hands stayed soft despite the wear and tear of time, or so she tells me. I didn't have a chance to fly for 11 years during which not a single day, not one, had gone by without me remembering that first solo flight when I became a pilot. To be with Rick in the cockpit again, on top of the world and above the clouds, is something I fail to describe by miles and knots. He sure talks a lot but he was, still and always will be my best friend.

To anyone with the slightest inkling to get in the air and fly I dedicate this post. Go for it!
To my friend Rick, happy retirement and until next time.

17 comments:

Chet said...

Even though I have not flown a plane or even have a pilots license, I can see the beauty of being in the air at the controls. I do remember as a kid being taken up by a friend of my fathers. The excitement I felt when he did a few barrel rolls and put the plane in a steep dive.

I am glad my friend to see you in the air again.

Gabriela said...

Well, this one was indeed a whole adventure. Obviously, I've never took flying lessons, not even to fly a toy!
But I was able to feel all the excitement of your first solo flight. Good for you!

Omar said...

Every since I read your post from a few years ago about accepting your first job as a pilot, I have been wondering if you still fly regularly. It must be a tease getting on a commercial plane, seeing the cockpit, and continuing on as a passenger. I feel like that when I get a ride in a car, let along if I could fly a plane!

Happy to see you and Rick living it up!

Neetu said...

Hi
Wow.... I can feel the excitement and the adventure of the first flight... I felt the same way when i drove (in my city in India) all by myself. First scared and afterwards too happy....Keep flyingggggg..

Isobel said...

Well, Abufares, I think that was one of the best posts I've read of yours! Your love of flying translated into ease of writing. It was really an enjoyable story from start to finish.

The thought of flying in a small plane like that absolutely terrifies me and yet I can see how the spirit of someone who loves to fly would absolutely soar in such a machine. I mostly picked up on the high spirits from the smiles on yours and Rick's faces though! :)

Good for you getting out and doing what you love and thank you for sharing it with us!

abufares said...

@Chet
You see, very few memories stick in the mind like our first flight. We even remember our maiden trip on a commercial airliner or a military transport. Taking to the air, I believe, is a genetically ingrained dream. Even those who fear flying cannot but dream about it subconsciously.
Thank you Chet, I'm in my element when I'm soaring in the sky or plunging in the sea. Perhaps I was an albatross in a previous life of mine.

abufares said...

@Gabriela
Given the opportunity, anyone with the slightest desire to fly should take at least ONE flying lesson. Talk about excitement!!!
Why don't you give it a go when and if you can. I'd love to hear all about it.

abufares said...

@Omar
In a way you are right. It's almost painful to sit in the back seat of an airliner when you are a pilot, when you know that you can fly this baby for real. I've been doing it for years and it never gets easy.
However, I have a tremendous advantage over the other passengers. When I'm flying with the airlines I have the deep satisfaction of knowing that the 2 guys upfront in the cockpit are among the best of the best. An airline pilot is the most well trained professional in the world and had I been inclined to sleep in a crowd I would've done so in the blink of an eye.
Luckily for me, I'll be able to fly again (more regularly) from now on although purely for pleasure rather than as a job. Speaking of which, I could never believe that they were actually paying me for flying. I think it's a feeling shared by most pilots all over the world.
Thank you for your comment Omar.

abufares said...

@Neetu
Oh yeah! I stole my dad's car when I was 12 I think and drove around the empty streets of Tartous. I remember that FIRST drive too and I can totally understand your feeling. It's freedom, I guess. Whether on land, sea or in the air, to be finally alone in control of one's road and destiny is beyond anything else we can ever experience.
I still feel this way when I drive alone in my black VW Golf TSI on the highway. To me, it's not the same as flying obviously but it's accessible and I do it as often as I like.
Come again Neetu.

abufares said...

@Isobel
You know, I had to cut myself short with this post. I mean I could've written on and on. Flying to me is the stuff of dreams and the moment never lost its magic. Even when I was flying every day for a living and for long hours I never tired of it. Your fear of flying in a small airplane is understandable but I need to tell you a story.
Once upon a time my late mother came to see me in Louisiana, 1982 I believe. She had a fear of flying that accompanied her for all of her life despite of her twice a year long flights to/from the US. When I took her with me in a Piper Cherokee Warrior (4 seater) for the first time she was so at ease and actually got to hold the controls while up in the air for a good part of the flight. Later on the ground my dad exclaimed over the phone. "How did you find the courage to fly with him?" She simply said: "I'm not more precious to myself than he is and if I can accept him flying alone I have no problem at all being with him. Actually it's a lot easier for me than watching him from the ground disappear behind the horizon. Now that I've flown with him, I'll never worry anymore."
I wish I can take you up some day. I already know your reaction :-)

Anonymous said...

I remember they tore the back of your shirt on that day :( and i can never forget that i was one of the first to fly with you after you got your licence.
Abu Abdo

Hebe said...

I think Lucy and I flew with you on your first Instruments Solo Flight... We went to Jacksonville, and something was little wrong with one of the engines. You were so cool about it that I did not dare say anything, and to tell the truth I trusted you. (Probably very naive of me).

The view of the Horizon over Louisiana was and still is one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen.

cariños
Hebé

abufares said...

@Abu Abdo
You certainly were one of my earliest victims, lol. Perhaps I should've written about the cutting of the shirt. I'll give it another shot soon, hopefully.
Miss you my friend :-)

abufares said...

@Hebé
You probably were naive to trust me with anything in the first place but look at you today! Part of what an accomplished artist you are is probably a result of your early naivety, lol. I'm trying to be sarcastic and nice at the same time and probably doing a lousy job with both.
I remember that you enjoyed taking the controls in your own hands on a couple of occasions and you're right, on a clear afternoon flying over the bayous of Louisiana is incredibly beautiful. Heading West back to Lafayette after a day in New Orleans or Pensacola, the sunsets were breathtaking.

Ziggy said...

I love this post, quite simply. I got the chance to co-pilot a Cessna last year bc the pilot (an acquaintance of mine) knew I was interested in getting my license. It was the most thrilling thing in the world to be up there, so freeing! And then it started to rain, and it was the most beautiful rainfall I ever saw in my life. Those 30 minutes in the air were the best natural high I have ever had. I hope you get to have many more chances of being up there, enjoying the amazingness of it all :)

abufares said...

@Ziggy
Sooooo SORRY I didn't respond to your comment later. Using a mobile phone to check your email eventually makes you skip a whole message.
I'm so happy you got a chance to give it flying a try. It is, I agree, one of the most amazing and wonderful experiences we can ever go through. Please don't give up on your license if you can.
Keep Flying :-)

Ziggy said...

No worries Abu Fares! I have done the same thing many times :)

It was so wonderful... Right now I am pursuing other things but one day, I plan to get my license and have amazing experiences in the sky :)

Hope you are well!