Friday, August 16, 2013

Day 96 - Flying an Airplane

I have never flown an airplane. Quite frankly, I never expected to fly an airplane at any point during my life. When I was growing up my uncle’s and mother’s efforts to obtain a pilot’s license gave me insight into the hours of study and practice that are required to pilot an aircraft. With that in mind, I knew it was highly unlikely I would ever put in the time and resources necessary to fly a plane. That stated, I knew my only opportunity to fly a plane would likely rely on a licensed pilot agreeing to take me up, getting the aircraft off the ground and away from potential danger, and letting me take the stick while we were high in the air. Although I knew it was a long shot, I figured it was worth a try. As a result, I added “flying a plane” to my list of “I have never...” events and started looking into flight opportunities with the very few pilots I knew. Eventually, a little bit of research and some advanced planning paid off when my co-worker Dave agreed to take me up for a flight this evening and let me fly the plane for a brief period while we were in the air. With knowledge such an opportunity was rare, I knew the experience would be one to remember. What I didn’t know is the degree to which the experience would expose me to newfound insight and respect for pilots and the power of flight.

The terminal lobby
Our trip began with a visit to the nearby Madison airport. There Dave had already reserved a Cessna airplane for us to take up this evening, which made the process of getting into the air relatively easy. After checking in, Dave guided me out to the airplane we would be using. The small, white aircraft sat bound to the tarmac between a series of comparable airplanes. As we approached the plane Dave immediately set to work checking over the aircraft, preparing materials for the flight, and looking over flight logs. Knowing I was hoping to gain a full experience, Dave explained each step he was taking to check the status and safety of the plane. After everything checked out fine, Dave requested the plane receive an oil and fuel top off, which prompted nearby staff to tend to his request. Once the ground crew finished, Dave did a quick fuel check before signaling we were ready for flight. In response, we hopped in the plane and prepared for our journey skyward.

The hangar
Over the next few minutes Dave started the airplane’s engine, engaged in some cryptic conversation with the air traffic control tower, and guided the plane into a slow, steady forward movement across the tarmac. As we approached the runway nearest the hangars, Dave gave a final check of the engine’s running condition before making a final call to the tower. In response, the traffic control tower gave Dave instruction for takeoff positioning and provided clearance for our ascent. On cue, Dave forced the plane into drive, rounded a corner onto the runway, and forced the throttle down. The plane responded in a sudden of synchronized mechanics that pushed the aircraft into a constant state of acceleration. Within moments of his actions the movement of air under the small aircraft’s wings gave us a gentle push upward and gently lifted us into the sky. As someone more familiar with the speed of larger aircraft, the slow, drifting pace of our ascent was a welcomed change, particularly given the beautiful scenery of the Madison cityscape that surrounded us.

Ready for takeoff!

After taking off Dave received approval for a scenic flight over the city of Madison, which granted us the ability to fly over the city’s lakes and landmarks. Dave maintained a low altitude and a moderate pace as we passed over the city, giving me the ability to observe the Capitol building, Camp Randall Stadium, and other landmarks from an angle entirely new to me. With the buildings and lakes basking in the golden glow of the evening sun, my eyes remained fixed on the city below us as we traveled through the air. The views of the city alone were enough to make the trip a worthwhile experience, but Dave was quick to remind me of my objective to fly the aircraft. In turn, Dave gave me a background of his intentions to fly the plane to the northwest near Devil’s Lake, which would provide us the space and safety needed to let me fly the plane for a brief period. My focus still on the city below us, I muttered a phrase confirming his plan, which sent Dave into a series of motions that increased our speed, changed our direction, and moved the plane to a higher altitude. In a matter of seconds we were headed northwest and headed toward my first experience flying an airplane.

The city at sunset

On our way to the Baraboo area, Dave made a brief stop at the Sauk City airfield, which gave us time to go through a few flight basics and gave me time to settle on the idea of taking control of an airplane in flight. While Dave assured me he would maintain contact with the control stick on his side of the plane the entire time I was in control of the plane, I started to feel a bit nervous about the forthcoming experience. After all, Dave’s direction and a few hours of playing Microsoft Flight Simulator in eighth grade were about the only knowledge I had on controlling a plane. I knew there was a lot I could do wrong, but I also knew I was in the hands of an experienced pilot. As a result, I did my best as Dave took to the air once more and prepared our flight path for an open area outside the city of Baraboo.

A few minutes later, Dave did a check of the surrounding area and gave me a few final pointers on checking gauges, maintaining altitude, and guiding flight controls. Once finished, he directed me to place my hands on the control stick in front of me and gain a feel for the plane. In response, I carefully gripped the controls and fixed my eyes on the gauges in front of Dave. The power and force of the aircraft were immediately apparent as I wrapped my hands around the stick and did my best to maintain a level position in the air. Despite my best efforts, the planes position moved through a slow and steady wave pattern through the air. We gained and lost altitude with the slightest movements of controls, which sent us traveling through an upward and downward movement spanning some 500 feet of altitude in either direction. As I struggled to find equilibrium in our flight pattern, I felt my grip tighten on the controls. I was baffled by my inability to complete a process Dave made appear simple earlier in our flight. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find balance in the controls, and I was only trying to keep the plane in a straight line.

Doing my best...
After several minutes of flight, Dave directed me to practice a few turns with the aircraft. Given my continued struggles with the vertical position of the plane, I gave him a passing remark about my struggles. Dave assured me the plane would respond well to my efforts before giving me a target for my first attempt at a turn. In response, I slowly turned the stick to the right, which sent the plane into a steady bank toward a dimly lit horizon. My first turn complete, Dave instructed me to guide the plane back the left and head further toward the northwest. He explained that effort would guide us to the Baraboo airport, at which point he take back control of the plane and land for a brief break. Still struggling to maintain a steady altitude, I followed his direction and turned the plane back to the left and toward the fading sun. “I just can’t keep this thing steady!” I said as I brought the plane out of the turn. Dave chuckled in response and gave a remark that put the skill of flying a plane into perspective. “Yeah, during the flight test you have to keep the plane in a range of 100 feet in altitude. If you don’t, you fail.” The comment left me in a state of disbelief as I turned the controls back over to Dave. It was immediately apparent flying an airplane is an incredibly difficult task to master. In that moment, I gained a new degree of respect for pilots. Flying a plane is tough, and people like Dave make it look easy.

As we approached the Baraboo airport, Dave made an announcement for a touch and go landing before checking for nearby traffic and bringing the airplane down to the ground. With night setting in, Dave used the radio to turn on the runway lights, which gave him guidance in his efforts and gave us a beacon for our location. After taking back to the air, Dave rounded the airport once more, explaining the meaning of the lights and their purpose in his landing and takeoff efforts. Then, he brought the plane in for a landing once more, grounding the plane and driving it back to the opposite end of the runway. “Ok, now it’s your turn to take off,” he said with a grin on his face. Stunned by his comment, I began muttering a few statements of hesitation that Dave quickly dismissed. “My hands are going to be on my controls the whole time. You said you wanted the real experience. Here’s the real experience,” he said as we continued toward the runway. “You can do this. I have your back,” he continued as he prepared the plane to take to the air once more.

After takeoff...
 With my nerves setting in, I expressed my need for very specific direction as I reached for the controls in front of me. Moments later, Dave directed me to push the throttle down and maintain focus on the ground speed gauge. “When it reaches 75 you pull back hard, alright?” Dave said as the plane accelerated rapidly. I nodded my head to signal my understanding as I watched the speed gauge climb. Within seconds it reached 75, at which point I pulled back on the stick and felt the airplane slowly lift off of the ground. The terrain beneath us quickly faded as we climbed skyward, which caused Dave to direct me to bank right as we ascended. As directed, I turned my control stick to the right and maintained backward pressure to continue our upward trajectory. Dave pointed out our vertical air speed and direction as we climbed, which helped me steady the airplane as we approached our desired altitude of 2,500 feet. As before, I struggled to keep the plane on a steady path in the air, but did my best to follow Dave’s direction. After several more minutes of my flight efforts, I had the plane lined up for the journey back to Madison and happily turned the controls back over the Dave.

As Dave piloted the airplane back to Madison, I thought about the experience I just gained from our flight. Surrounded by the glimmer of city lights scattered across the darkened ground beneath us, I struggled to wrap my head around the idea that I had just flown a plane from takeoff to altitude. The challenge of the whole experience made it seem even more surreal and only reinforced my earlier realization of the experience and skill necessary to successfully fly an airplane. As Dave showed me a few more sights, demonstrated a controlled sharp turn, and took me back over the city of Madison one last time, I gave him praise for his skill and ease behind the controls of the airplane. He made the whole thing seem no more difficult than driving a car and his expertise made it possible for me to gain an experience I will never forget.

The capitol at night
Today I flew an airplane. That’s an “I have never...” event I just didn’t think would happen. I know the experience is one unlike any other, and the insight I gained from trying to pilot a plane gave me an entirely new perspective on the skill and resolve needed to successfully pilot an aircraft. I thank Dave for the opportunity to experience something so incredible, and I give him a lot of credit for putting up with my nerves during our flight. Even now, hours after our flight, it’s hard for me to believe tonight’s “I have never...” event truly happened. Needless to say, this is an event I will never forget, and I have an amazing pilot and a crazy commitment to new experiences to thank for that.

1 comment:

  1. Oh wow! Your 97th adventure sure looks fun. It made me remember the first time I had to fly a plane. I was scared and nervous as hell, but once I got up into the air and saw the beautiful world below me, the fear melted away into excitement and joy. I hope that ain't the last time you'd fly! Good luck!

    Raymond Curry @ Holstein Aviation