04 April 2008

Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth...

A few weeks ago, I slipped the surly bonds of Earth and touched the face of God.
It started as a simple assignment for the newspaper: go over to a local flight school, interview a trainer and a student, and write a little business story for next week’s issue. This original assignment went out the window pretty quickly with five simple and casually dropped words: “Hey, interested in going up?”
Go up? Me?
I’ve been in airplanes plenty of times - but nothing like the small Cessna 172 I shortly found myself strapped into. For all of its capabilities, the interior is much like that of a 1983 Toyota: plastic, plastic and more plastic. The seats moved forward and back, just like in a car, and the seatbelts we used to strap ourselves in were nearly identical to those used for common land-bound travel. Outside of that, everything was different. The dash was full of lights, dials and switches. My vision grew fuzzy at the sight of all of the strange words and phrases arrayed in front of me. The control yoke was simple to find, as was the throttle. After that, everything else was as good as my best guess.
Barry, the instructor, had been flying for nearly six years. As we slapped on our radio headsets, our voices crackled to life on the unreal sounding intercom system. Somehow, everything sounds vaguely Hollywoodish coming over an intercom system. Soon, the engine was started, and I was guiding the airplane down the taxiway. I used my feet to steer, something make difficult by the bouncing excitement in both my kneecaps. Did Barry know I had precisely no experience in this? That the closest I came to flying most days was by picking up a model on my desk and making airplane noises? He must have known – he didn’t even flinch as we wiggled our way down to the end of the field. We stopped and ran through a pre-flight checklist. Once finished, I wiggled the airplane down the main runway. We stopped again, staring down the wide maw of the painted landing strip before me.
I took a deep breath - this was the now-or-never point. The decision I made in the next 15 seconds could be the difference between writing my story or becoming the subject of one with a title like “Mediocre reporter killed in small plane crash.” I briefly thought of calling my wife. I wondered what my editor would think. My inner monologue was disjointed at best: “Is this a conflict of interest? Probably not; they didn’t get you out here with the promise of a free ride. Did I leave the iron on? I wonder how the dog is.” Without much further reflection from my then-useless pulp of a brain, I pushed the throttle all the way in, and we bounded gaily down the runway.
There’s nothing really like taking off in a small plane. All I can compare it to is that first time a motorcyclist drives on the freeway. There are many exhilarating things going on, like realizing how fast you are going. At the same time, there are many terrifying things going on, like realizing how fast you are going, and just how fragile your bones would be in the event of a terrifying crash. “I am going to die,” I clearly remember thinking as we shot down the runway, “and there’s not going to be enough left of me to bury after I fly through that prop.” In those moments, I visualized the Devil chasing me.
And then, as soon as it began, it was over. Our cannonball trajectory was breathlessly, beautifully upwards, onwards in every which way but down. My stomach did slow backflips as we gained meters with each second the nose pointed upwards. It was the most exhilarating feeling I’ve ever felt. It was as if I were made of pure momentum, unstoppable even by the fickle confines of gravity. The sheer terror of 10 second ago was long gone. I leveled the aircraft out, and drank in the view of the city I spend more time in than anyplace else besides home. Lakeville unfolded before me like a tidy and well-drawn map. The snow on the ground made every color jump out in crisp clear relief. Up here, 1,500 feet above City Hall, above the School Board Offices, above the Planning Commission meetings, everything seemed peaceful, making the complaints existing back on terra firma seem petty and useless. It was, to a fractional degree, the same sort of feeling the astronauts get when they look back down on the Earth and realize we’re all on the same planet.
My hands grew sweaty as the plastic yoke got warmer iron grip. Barry and I chitchatted about his upcoming wedding, what made him want to fly, the time I flew upside down, etc. Barring the wings above our head and the occasional blast from a crosswind, it was as if we were sitting in an easy chair. The Cessna was easy to control, and responded to my every touch. If I wanted to turn left, it jumped to do so. If I wanted to turn right, it did the same. In short, it was a tool that allowed to become a modern day Icarus, only with a (hopefully) happy ending.
When the time came to land, we pulled around towards the back end of the runway. Barry cut the throttle, and we lurched to what seemed like a halt. For a few brief seconds, it seemed as though we weren’t moving at all. I expected us to sink like a stone, but we kept going. For some insane reason, Barry decided to let me land the plane (with plenty of instruction). This was where I got worried. I began to remember all of those times playing the “Top Gun” video game at home. Landing was the problem then, too; I remember more times than not seeing my little airplane go right past the aircraft carrier and crash into the digital sea. This Cessna in my hands was real. There would be no digital afterlife if I crashed. The throttle went down again. The ground seemed to rush up at us like it was going out of style, and the visions of the newspaper headlines upon my demise (“Local writer decapitated in small airport horror”) came back into my head. The feet slipped by: 20, 15, 10, 5, 0. Somehow, I managed to land the plane. Barry piped up on the intercom.
“Hey, you want to go around again?”
The nausea in my stomach answered for me: not a chance. I felt lunch begin to bubble and percolate in the depths of my innards, and wisely decided that I’d had enough flying (and landing for one day). We taxied over to the office, and cut the engine. It’s hard to describe the silence that overtook the cockpit after that. Even with ear protection, the small engine had made a heck of a racket. I asked Barry how I did. He said I’d done well, except for flaring for landing 15 feet above the runway. I’m not even sure what he meant, but I was so glad to be alive I didn’t care. I staggered into the doorframe when I entered the office, unsure of where my feet were. I left the office a half hour before a mere mortal, and came back, well, a mere mortal. As interesting as my experience was, I’m not sure how much hot-dogging I’ll be doing on the flight line. When it comes down to it, I think I enjoy the safety of reading about flying possibly more than the actual flying itself.

No comments: