In which I make the most of a birthday present, perturb my family and get my feet off of the ground.
My whole life I have had something of a reputation for clumsiness and having less than fond memories from school of repeatedly failed cycling proficiency tests I knew full well my hand-eye coordination left something to be desired.
So what on earth made me think I could learn to pilot an aeroplane? It seemed like hubris of the most brazen sort.
It was therefore rather sheepishly I confessed while staying at my mum’s house on a holiday from work, that I planned to spend my ‘birthday money’ on a trial flight. Credit must go to my mum for not actually responding with “You are not serious?” Instead she agreed to run me to the local airport at Haverfordwest, thankfully before common sense got the better of me.
The grandly named ‘Terminal Building’ was a long blocky construction between the carpark and the hangar. The watercolours of Spitfires and Tornados rather outmatched the eclectic but obviously well-loved collection of light aircraft packed in the hangars and scattered across the apron.
Inside the office-cum-radio control tower were about half a dozen people. A friendly chap took my name and booked me down for a slot the following morning. A woman sat in a corner commented on my name and I admitted I do spend half my life spelling it out.
The following morning in mortal terror of being late I got up early, ate breakfast (cold pizza) but no coffee (I was plenty jumpy enough already and frankly the thought of me caffinated in control of an aircraft was just too horrible to contemplate) and headed out to the airfield. The weather was calm and slightly overcast but cloudbase was high and visibility was good.
On arrival we had a good half hour to wait so headed for the ‘Propellers’ café where I discovered I was related to the chef (some variety of cousin).
My instructor pilot turned out to be a friendly young man named Justin, with a light Scottish accent which proved very reassuring as he talked me through the flight.
He grabbed a map and a spare headset for me and we headed out the small parking area in fron to the hangar where he pointed out G-BSSB the Cessna 150 we were taking out. “That’s the one we’re taking–‘SB”
It had struck me before how small and fragile aircraft tend to look on the ground and this little plane, though having a sweet and lively appearance, was no exception. The fear that that little cockpit would feel either terribly claustrophobic or terribly exposed (or possibly both) gave me a moment’s pause. Then the instructor pointed in the direction of the left side door–the pilot’s seat–and I grinned, patted the wing and climbed in.
While I adjusted my seat (I’m short and had to run it all the way forward to comfortably reach the pedals), fastened my seatbelt and figured out how to close the door properly, Justin ran through the preflight checks, primed the engine and started the prop. He plugged in the headsets and I settled mine on my ears. It was amazing what a difference that made. I felt suddenly very cut off from the outside world and a trace of doubt crept in again until the instructor’s voice came clearly through the intercom asking if I could hear him okay. I could.
“Nervous?” he asked.
I had to think about that for a moment. I decided I wasn’t nervous of flying–not of something going wrong and us falling out of the sky anyway. If anything I was worried that it somehow wouldn’t be what I expected. That I’d be disappointed with the whole experience of flight.
“Na,” I said as we taxyed out.
Out on the runway we headed down to the far end of the side to get our nose into wind. The instructor explained how to steer the plane on the ground using the rudder pedals and differential brakes and we swerved our way along until I got us more or less straight. Once we were airborne I was to learn the value of this exercise as it was a foretaste of just how light a touch on the controls was needed and of the slight delay in the response of the plane.
At the far end of the field, he took the controls, got our permission to take off from the radio and accelerated down the runway. It seemed like no time at all before we were off the ground and climbing, I don’t think we used up a third of the runway.
By now I had a big grin on my face and any worries about the flight had been left back on the ground. The small cockpit felt secure and comfortable, not cramped, and in such a small plane the closeness to the sky was exhilarating not frightening. We continued to climb and while he was flying I took the opportunity to look over the instruments, tallying what I recognised and what I could guess at.
At the top of our climb (I was far too absorbed with everything else going on to look at the altimeter so can’t for the life of me remember how high we went) we levelled off and my stomach did that strange going-over-a-hump flip at the change. The grin on my face would have been more appropriate to a child on a swing.
More or less as soon as we were straight and level the instructor checked I knew what the controls did and handed it over to me with instruction to just keep her going in a straight line at this height.
Interesting. I knew by now that only a light touch was required but wasn’t quite prepared for the near constant tiny adjustments needed. Left to itself, the nose wandered all over the place. I had a tendency to let it get too low and the instructor gave me a tip to keep an eye on the airspeed which would give an extra clue if we were climbing or descending. We wanted to cruise at around 100mph.
It was quite difficult to see straight ahead. You certainly couldn’t see the ground ahead most of the time, so navigation was interesting. It took some getting used to and I think my tendency to drop the nose was from a desire to get it out of the way so I could see where I was going! I was attempting to use an outcrop of the coast as my reference point as we flew towards the ferry port at Fishguard but definitely wandered about quite a lot on the way there.
Reaching the port we flew over the harbour and saw the ferry below. Here we practised a turn or two. Great fun. Those banking turns were what had my six-year-old self shrieking for more in my dad’s friend’s Cessna way back when. We followed the coast along for a while and, caught up in the flying itself, I had by now lost all track of where we were, a fact I somewhat sheepishly admitted when asked whether I recognised the offshore island ahead (which I didn’t). When Justin pointed out a little grass airstrip below, I found myself hugely impressed that anyone could find the place. I suppose learning to interpret the landscape from above must come with practice, to me it looked utterly foreign from this angle.
We followed the coast around, flying over the old RAF base at Brawdy and Newgale beach (both of which I did recognise) before turning left to follow the Haven. When we reached Milford I was quite impressed that I managed to successfully locate and fly to my house. I spotted the docks and the railway line and from there managed to find the leisure centre (after some confusion because the hill it sits on looks deceptively flat from the air) and from there I could see the estate. I found the house and the instructor took the controls to do some steep turns above it, while I peered out the window and just laughed in absolute glee doing the tourist thing–“Oooh I can see my brother’s car!”
After a few minutes of this he handed the controls back and we levelled off and headed east along the coast (which makes a wonderful navigational aid). Eventually we turned back towards the airfield, flying over Oakwood park on the way. All those tall rollercoasters looked far less impressive from where we were!
By now I’d got the hang of things enough to relax and enjoy the scenery and in fact did rather better at keeping things stable when I wasn’t worrying over every little adjustment. The ground seemed oddly remote, a thing apart from us. I knew intellectually of course that if we collided with it, it would get very immediate very quickly, but there was no sense of fear. The air seemed almost solid, fluid, buoyant. I think it would be very easy to just drift off and lose your concentration if you stopped paying attention to what you were doing. Keeping an eye on everything and the actual process of flying was quite mentally taxing, in the kind of enjoyable way that some people find sports physically taxying but emotionally satisfying I suppose.
Back at the airfield the instructor took the controls to bring us into the circuit and down to a gentle landing. We taxyed back to the hangar area and that was that.
I had a grin on my face for the rest of the day and the slightest thing made it grow wider still–the slightest hint of a prop overhead, walking into my garden and knowing what it looked like from up in the sky, seeing a map of the county and being able to trace the route we’d taken.
I walked down the garden path with the light wind on my face, resisting the urge to spread out my arms and run like a child playing at flying.