“You are going to be the pilot today.” Mike deadpanned.
After ascertaining when and where I took the ground school (where one learns all the theoretical knowledge of flying without taking to the sky), Mike was apparently not reassured. It had been so many years that the answer caused me more pain and consternation because it dated me as that much older than him than because the course material must have been outdated by now, or that I might have forgotten most of it already. I volunteered that my then girlfriend, now wife, forbade me from going any further than that. And I regretted it immediately. By this time he must have formed a pretty determinedly negative opinion of me, having no balls in addition to no sense of humor. Fortunately I was not on a charm mission to please him.
I was at Island Aviation because of a gift certificate for my birthday from my sisters, and because after this many years my wife had decided she could stomach the idea of my taking a small-airplane flight now. And she was there to see me do it. Among her questions was “how high are you going to fly?” “A couple of thousand feet.” Mike, my instructor of the day, answered her directly. But I knew her better. “Actually height is our friend. It’s the ground that’s dangerous.” She seemed to understand, so I gave no explanation.
Mike had gone through the preflight check already, he told me. But he went around the airplane with me and asked me about the different control surfaces. I did all right with ailerons and flaps, and even elevators, but not so well with the rudder. Those damned years! Or maybe I should blame the failing memory due to my age.
Inside the cockpit I was given a brief overview of the instruments. No tests this time. Some instruments look more familiar than others, but the most important ones are all directly recognizable. After all, other than the flight school, I had much experience on the Microsoft Flight Simulator, which I didn’t mention to Mike. It might count negatively. It’s interesting to notice that the instruments were easy to calibrate, but also easy to get out of whack. During his short demonstration, Mike had to repeatedly calibrate the attitude and altitude gauges, as they seemed to be jiggled by mischievous cherubs behind the instrument panel. That I didn’t mind. The less fancifulness, the less likely things could go inexplicably wrong.
Mike pointed out the throttle to me; and I correctly identified the trim wheel. But when I asked him about the radios, he was alarmed. “I’ll take care of the radios,” he said. That was totally cool with me. I didn’t have a clue how to communicate with Air Traffic Control (ATC) any way; nor ground control, for that matter. But I did have my own headset, which brought me an incessant stream of chatter, much more than I imagined possible for a small airport like the Islip/McArthur.
One other thing I didn’t get to learn in the flight school or practice on the MS Simulator is the pedals. They control the wheels and brakes while on the ground, and the rudder in the air. Mike let me try to taxi the airplane, which turned out to be very difficult to do—I just couldn’t get it to go along a straight line as I wished, or turn around at will. Fortunately we weren’t on the ground that long.
Taking off was surprisingly easy. Mike pushed the throttle to full, and I waited for the plane to hit 110 knots before pulling up its nose, all the while letting Mike work the pedals to align our Cessna with the runway. Within a couple of seconds, and before I could get used to this new attitude (of the plane), we were lifted off the ground, seemingly swept up by a puff by the big bad wolf. The sensation was definitely not the same as a passenger jet plane, but probably more like a raptor taking flight. With wind pockets hitting our wings at random, we soared upwards along a jittery slope, with my innards going up or down, left or right for no apparent reason. Now I assure you that I can drive a car very straight on the ground; and unlike the pedals, the control yoke didn’t feel hard to handle, so this did not reflect my abilities. I looked to my right. Mike was a model of nonchalant and unconcern; which could only mean one thing—I just had to get used to this sensation. In a few minutes we reached our cruising altitude, 2000 feet, for this part of the flight. Mike helped me to set the trim, and the plane could practically fly itself—only I was more comfortable clutching the yoke tightly in my hands.
Once we got over the coast, right about Heckscher State Park, we were out of ATC zone. Mike told me to turn to the east. I execute a mild bank, and he asked me to put a little “back pressure” on the yoke, to maintain altitude—strictly speaking, it’s probably more like we executed the turn, as I was working the yoke only, and didn’t even think about the pedals. (Having no pedals for the MS Simulator, I always left it in its “auto-rudder” mode. And coordinating the rudder with the yoke to make a turn is akin to driving a manual shift car.) Coming out of the turn, I tried to reach my camera on the back seat, and found it nearly impossible. The cabin being that much smaller than the inside of a Geo Metro, (and the plane probably lighter than the Metro too) I had to lean my upper body way forward so that my right arm can swing around without hitting Mike’s face with my elbow.
Along the coast we went, looking over Long Island and Fire Island below us. Some of the signature places I was able to recognize, but far fewer than what Mike could. Most importantly, he pointed out the various airports. In an emergency, we’d have to pick the nearest airport to land, I secretly tell myself. We went as far as Riverhead before turning up north and then back west along the north coast of Long Island, carefully flying around the airspace of Calverton airport, where sky divers might be dropping down from above our altitude. I executed smooth and wide turns, a smooth ascend to 3000 feet, and a smooth descend to 1000. I’m just not a dare devil. Not only I didn’t have the desire for steep banks or dives, my guts wouldn’t have taken it nicely either.
Before heading back to the Islip airport, Mike wanted me to fly over our house. But when I got to within about 5 miles, he realized that we were about to enter the ATC zone. He took over the controls, wheeled us around in tight loops, while talking with Islip control tower on the radio. I felt uncomfortable, and Mike saw it. I told him I was a little air sick. The air traffic controller sent us in via a flight path that was to the east of our house, but eventually passed over my work place.
When we were coming down to land, I again wasn’t aggressive enough on pushing the yoke forward, and had to be reminded where we’d like to hit the runway. Mike took over the controls when we got closer to the ground, as the wind tugged more strongly on our airplane. Flaps down, nose up, we let the plane kiss the runway where it wanted. It felt so good to be on the ground at last.
In the end, although I didn’t enjoy the experience completely, I was glad that I had the opportunity. Maybe flying was never in me, but I wouldn’t have known it beforehand. It’s very different from driving. Also prone to car-sickness, I almost never felt sick driving a car. When I am in the driver’s seat, I try to be gentle on the gas and brake pedals, and road is predictable, exactly in the way the air is not. I don’t know whether I could have overcome air-sickness if I persisted. But at this stage of my life, there are many other things that call for my time and energy. There is no regret giving up flying.
I am grateful to my sisters and my wife for giving me this opportunity. And I am grateful for this country—not only there was no concept of general aviation at the time when I left China, I don’t think it is an option even today. You learn to fly if and only if that is your job. But here, I fly because I want to. And that is priceless.