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My First Day at School

My First Day at School

For a long time, the oldest working object I knew was my 1979 Nissan 280ZX. When I discovered the plane I was about to fly for my very first time was at least 10 years older I was, to say the least, somewhat shocked.

Driving my 26 year old ZX was always a gamble. I was never sure if I would actually get to where I was going each morning. As I recalled the numerous times I had to call RACV to rescue me from the side of the road, as the metal putty I was using to plug the hole on the side of the engine had once again dislodged itself, my instructor chimed in, “don’t worry, they are very well serviced”. Somehow that wasn’t much comfort.

I sat in the classroom on my first day, enviously watching other students busy at work twirling discs of complicated looking plastic. I wished I was at their level; I wished I could understand the menacing looking charts with hundreds of zig-zagging lines and endless numbers. Observing them at their studies made the road to get there seem endless and unachievable. Not surprisingly when the instructor came into the classroom and asked me if I wanted to ‘give it a go’, I jumped at the chance.

I was given a rental headset that momentarily made me feel like Princess Leia and I excitedly followed my instructor down the flightline, wondering which one would be my plane for the hour. Was it the big one with the two propellers? Or the long one with the low wings? At that point I knew little about aircraft: I was never one of those who stayed up late reading books about differing rivet sizes on the bottom cowlings of Seminole models between the years 1989 through to 1997. I will say one thing though; becoming a pilot was definitely a steep learning curve for me. So steep, in fact, that on more than one occasion I would need a good set of crampons and a fearlessness of heights to inch closer to the almost vertical summit.

We approached a small sad looking thing called a Cessna 152. Not much bigger than a car, it punctured my anticipations of grandeur as I passed by impressive looking aircraft, sporting shiny new paint jobs. The Cessna’s once smart orange speed stripes (painted on many years ago to no doubt ‘make it go faster’), were now faded, making me wonder if now, with the loss of this most vital propulsion feature, it would be able to develop enough momentum to get off the runway.

The door was opened for me with a loud ‘creak’ and I took my first good look around a plane.

First, I noticed the peeling paint around the instruments, then I noticed the cracked, sun-scorched dashboard. I noticed the worn out control column, discoloured from the sweaty palms of a thousand worried teenagers…but, primarily, I noticed the dark space between the aerodynamic trimming and where the wing joined to the side of the plane. This gave the worrying illusion of a relatively large gap between the wing and the fuselage. All of these things did nothing to make me feel any better about a plane more ancient than a car which was almost old enough to be considered vintage. Somehow, the words ‘vintage’ and ‘the only thing that is keeping you up in the air’, didn’t seem to go together as well as you would think. In spite of this, my instructor jumped into the plane like a carefree mountain goat, buckling his two part seat belt with one quick swipe of his hand.

The small plane rat-tat-tattled down the taxiway, the cockpit vibrating and making questionable noises along the way. After I discovered that turning the control column sharply to the left wasn’t going to help me avoid a head on collision with the hangar, it didn’t take me long to adjust to steering the little tin can with my feet.

We lined up on the runway and, with a final check of various instruments and dials as yet incomprehensible to me, my instructor advanced the throttles.

I will never forget my first flight. As soon as the undercarriage disconnected from the ground and I realized that we were now flying through the air, all my previous worries went out the window (which, after several prods, I was now confident was probably attached to the rest of the plane).

I saw the ground whooshing down below me, steadily getting further and further away, the horizon sinking down and blue sky blanketing the window.

The little Cessna flew quite well, not one fitting detaching itself during takeoff and the wings thankfully holding up their end of the bargain. The day was perfect for it – not a cloud in the sky and almost no updraughts due to the early hour. I felt almost voyeuristic as we zoomed above the surrounding houses and backyards, looking into their resident’s private enclosed worlds that they thought were theirs alone. They probably had no idea that I could see their collection of burnt out car shells or, just further up, what looked to be at least twenty years worth of discarded rubbish in the backyard of a unit. Up from that there was a flowerbed shaped like…well, let’s just say if the owner was aware of its shape from an aerial view, they would be immediately pulling out a few daisies.

My instructor seemed to be constantly checking dials, tweaking this, adjusting that. I had no idea how I was ever going to remember it all.

Once in a while he would stop and try to explain something about the mixture and something else about the carby heat which he insisted was important: I was just too busy loving the view and imagining I was a migrating duck.

He flew around the training area for a while before handing over the controls to me. At the time, I couldn’t believe that he could trust me like that when I certainly didn’t trust myself but that was before I learned how stupid you would have to be to crash a perfectly good Cessna in straight and level flight in the perfect conditions we were enjoying. I nervously experimented with handling the aircraft, turning this way and that, and quickly learned what made the trees get bigger and what made them smaller.

After a while I began to regret eating breakfast, which only added to the growing discomfort in my hands by gripping the control column so tightly. Thankfully, at that point, my instructor took over and we made our way back to the airfield.

The first time we landed I remember thinking that my instructor must have been the most skilled pilot in the world for managing to keep absolute control of a heavy chunk of aerodynamically designed metal with oh so many variables and fly so close to the ground until it slowly decelerated and come to a gentle thump on the runway. It would take me months to avoid a prop strike or bounce on every landing. During the first ten or so months, I used to judge when to pull up by the look of panic in my instructor’s eyes. As soon as I saw his hands flinch towards the controls, I knew it was time to flare. Soon I began to correlate that with the size and texture of the runway and surrounding scenery, which I think was a slightly more sensible method.

After those first few flights I quickly learned three fundamental aviation rules that have stuck with me to this day. Never drink a litre of coke before flying; always carry a cushion if you want any chance of being able to see out the front windscreen (perhaps you taller, luckier ones never had that problem) and, most importantly, never try to stick your head out the window in flight if you want to keep your sunglasses attached to your head.

Next time – STALLS! (oh no!)

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