Learn How To Fly Without Killing Yourself Or Your Money Back

                                                           by

                                                    Tom Justin
(From the forthcoming book, “Lessons From Life Learned Late, But Just In Time”)

    The small yellow airplane looked almost white with its cover of early morning frost. The fog was beginning to lift with the dawn, giving the little, grass-covered airfield the
look of a surrealistic movie scene. A ragged, faded wind sock hung limp, proving the stillness of the air.

    The squeaky brakes on my aged Volkswagen Beetle broke the silence as it crunched over the tightly packed gravel. I rolled to a stop next to an ancient tin and aluminum hangar. The old German engine, with its chug dada chug dada chug, breached the peaceful surroundings even more, until I turned off the ignition. Cold stillness.

    I stepped out of the “bug” and gently closed the car door. I needed quiet for just awhile longer. I was sixteen years old. Short puffs of breath were exhaling from my mouth. Nervous, excited breaths. I consciously breathed deeper, watching the puffs grow longer, in and out. The elongated breaths soothed me. This was as close as I would get to meditation for at least another ten years. I leaned against the car for a few moments, surveying the scene.

    Six airplanes were neatly lined up in two rows. My eyes were fixed on the middle one in the front row – a small, yellow, Piper J-3 Cub. I was about to experience something I had been waiting and dreaming about for years. My first flying lesson.

    Here I was again, all bundled up against not only the fall chill, but the fall chill at 5,000 feet. My dad’s Army Air Corps, thick, fur-lined flying pants came up just below my rib cage, and were held loosely in place by his regulation leather suspenders. His heavy Army field coat hung down to about mid-thigh, and was buttoned to my neck. Thick double-layered mittens covered my hands. My head was topped with a stocking cap covered with Dad’s Army winter fur hat, the kind with ear flaps that tie on top and when untied, make the wearer look like a Bloodhound. All dressed in olive green, I looked like the Jolly Green Giant’s kid – with weird ears.

    Ever since I can remember, I wanted to learn to fly. When I was six, I built my own personal “airplane” out of a wooden crate with boards nailed across the top for wings. Mother stopped me as I was hauling it to the roof of the garage for its maiden flight. Grounded. But it fueled a dream and helped to keep it real, as I sat on top of the winged box, imagining myself busting through the clouds, turning and diving like some huge noisy bird.

    I had worked summers on my uncle’s Montana ranch and winters, after school, at the Great Northern Hotel as a bellhop to save enough money for this day. To fly. To be a pilot, to be free, turning and banking, swooping and diving through midair . . .

    “Hey! Mornin’.” Startled, I turned toward the voice. So fixed was my attention on the airplane and thoughts of flight, I hadn’t heard him come out the hangar.

    “Oh, hi, good morning.” I replied. The lesson was about to begin. Short puffs now.

    The instructor was an old pro. World War II, Korea, spray pilot and local legend. He was not the Central Casting pilot or hero image type. He was a short, rumpled-looking gray-haired-man. He had a perpetual squint, from his years in the sun that made him look like an eccentric grandfather who had misplaced his reading glasses. A sweat-stained baseball cap was cocked slightly askew to the right, over his shaggy white hair. His grease-stained leather flight jacket fit snugly about his compact frame. And though the jacket was frayed and tattered, it held a sense of dignity that came from being worn by this seemingly nondescript man. He had a reputation for his quiet strength and easy smiles. No one around the field could recall him ever acting excited or even angry.

    He stood in front of me, his squinted eyes inspecting me up and down. He flashed about a quarter smile and said; “Well, ya look ready.” He turned and sauntered toward the line.

    I followed him around the plane, paying close attention as he showed me how to conduct a pre-flight check. He nonchalantly explained to me every meticulous procedure. He handed me a brush and told me to take every bit of frost off the plane. I repeated everything he did, from checking the oil to vigorously pushing and pulling the wings up and down. “If something goes wrong at 5,000 feet you can’t pull over and raise the hood,” he said, “so it’s a good idea to check things out before you go. If the wings are gonna come off, better if we find out now.” He gave them another good tug.

    He pointed out that the little “Cub” had no electrical system. The gas gauge was a long metal rod, plumbed through a small hole at the center of the gas cap, with a cork attached at the bottom for floatation. The cork would bob on top of the gasoline, descending as the gasoline was burned. You could see approximately how much gas was left by the distance between the tip of the rod and the top of the cap. After he showed me the cork and explained the workings of the simple device he remarked, “If the tip of that thing ever rests on top of the cap, then you better  land.” A fleeting fear raced across my mind, but I quashed it.

    The airplane was the same age as me, and as the instructor casually observed, not nearly as sturdy. One look at the airplane or the instructor might not have been very reassuring to most people, but for me, this was a dream about to come true. Come to think of it, one look at me probably wouldn’t have been too reassuring either.

    In his matter-of-fact delivery, the instructor explained that since the airplane was fabric-covered and coated with a varnish-like substance, should there be a fire, we would be okay, as long as we could get out of the aircraft within seven to ten seconds. If the instructor was trying to frighten me, it wouldn’t work. I was more than ready, I was fearless. Bundled, and fearless.

    The instructor lifted the back of the airplane with one hand and pulled it around until it pointed toward the runway, and then he told me to get in the front seat. Surprised at my placement in the front, I settled into the cramped cockpit without questioning. I pulled my stocking cap down over my ears, earflaps down over that, and my coat collar up around my neck. It was even colder inside the cockpit than the chilly October morning outside the plane. My shivering was probably due more to anticipation and excitement than to the weather.

    The smell of the small plane was strong and special. The heavy scent of the gasoline, oil, canvas and leather mixed together, giving the ship its own unique identity. I sat back for a moment, taking it all in.

    He leaned in the door and said, “This is a tail dragger,” pointing to the rear. “It’s the most difficult plane to learn how to fly. But, when you can land one of these successfully, everything else will seem easier.”

    The instructor leaned in to help fasten my seat belt. He pointed toward my feet. He explained that the brakes were controlled by my heels, one small bare metal brake pedal for each wheel, located just below the rudder pedals. He said that he would have to stand in front of the plane and hand-crank the propeller while I firmly held the brakes. If I was to lift a heel and release either brake, it would mean the end of the lesson for the day and of the instructor for eternity, or for as long his religious beliefs dictated.

    “First rule of flying,” he said mischievously, “is don’t kill the instructor.”
    As he approached the propeller, I held the pedals down so hard I could almost feel the cold metal through my boots and socks, right onto my bare heels.

    All I could see were his hands gripping the prop. “Contact” he yelled. He pulled the prop several times before the frosty, sleepy engine began to pop pop pop pop then prrprrprrprrprrprrprrprrprr. It sounded like every piece of metal was hitting another piece of metal as the plane rattled and jangled awake.

    He strolled around to the flimsy door that seemed as though it was about to take off without the plane, and yelled in my ear, “Since this is your first lesson you can take it up, but I’d better land it!” 
    I was sure I’d misunderstood. Surely he didn’t expect me to fly the plane on the first lesson? My back was arched against the seat as I continued holding fast on the brakes, too intimidated to say anything. Shorter puffs now, but lots more of them.

    The instructor wedged himself into the back of the little two seater and pointed toward the end of the dirt runway: “Release the brakes, give her a little throttle and taxi down there, check your mags and when I tap you on the shoulder give her full throttle, but keep it straight and watch for other aircraft.” How did he expect me how to do all that, I wondered?

    Logic, of course, dictated that the instructor had as much to lose as his student, but at that moment I wasn’t feeling logical. In fact, I was beginning to doubt the sanity of this laid-back teacher, and for that matter, my own sanity for continuing this madness.

    I thought back over the two winters I’d spent as a bellhop and the hot dirty summers working twelve- to-fifteen-hour back-breaking days on my uncle’s ranch. Was it all so that I could save enough money to get killed in this matchbook of an airplane? The fear streaked down my spine. It was yellow. God, I was scared.

    The flimsy little craft bumped and rolled toward the end of the unpaved, pock-marked runway. The control stick flopped back and forth against my legs, hitting first one thigh and then the other, but I was too busy trying to keep track of everything that was happening to feel any pain. The morning air inside the cabin was still cold, but I could feel the sweat pouring off my body in anticipation of the unknown.

    Even though I was propped up on two large cushions, the airplane’s nose was so high the only way to see what was in front was to zigzag toward the end of the runway, thus helping to assure that we wouldn’t run into another airplane, building or human.

    As we reached the end of the runway the instructor hollered over the engine and told me to give it some throttle, push the right rudder all the way, and turn the plane around. I gave it too much throttle, and the plane started heading toward a plowed field. Momentarily out of control, the airplane recovered quickly as the instructor immediately took command. Leaning forward in my ear, and pointing to the narrow country-road-of-a-runway he said, without a hint of sarcasm, “Let’s take off in that direction today.”

    Lined up on the runway, the Piper Cub shuddered for a moment as I cautiously advanced the throttle. I could feel every muscle in my body tense, as the airplane creeped sluggishly forward.

    Here was the moment I’d dreamed about all these years, and yet I was totally unprepared for the fear and uncertainty I was feeling. I had assumed that I might take it off after two or three lessons, but now? No, this was not the way it was supposed to be, was it? This is nuts, I thought.

    Just as I decided this was insane and was about to throttle back and tell my shell-shocked instructor that flying wasn’t for me after all, I felt the throttle surge forward as he pushed on the dual-control device, hollering over the engine again, “Let’s go!”

    As it began moving faster and faster, as I over-controlled the rudder, the airplane careened and bounced from side to side. The engine seemed to be sitting on my lap as it strained and roared at maximum power with the propeller blowing engine fumes and cold air through the gaps in the windows and framework.

    “Keep her straight, you’re doin’ fine,” the instructor calmly yelled over the engine and the rattles. As the airplane picked up speed on the runway I heard him say, “Take your hand off the stick now.”

    Relieved of control, I began to relax back in my seat, saying a silent prayer of thanks, until I felt his hands, one on each of my shoulders. The instructor leaned forward, yelling almost joyously in my ear, “This thing will almost fly itself if you let it. Watch.”

    I was wide-eyed and terrified, believing I was witnessing the end of my life. The small aircraft, uncontrolled by human hands, bounced, jostled and bumped over the rugged ground until, much to my astonishment, it seemed to literally jump into the sky. My skin must have taken on the color of my olive-green ensemble. I felt ill.

    Then, as the airplane gently climbed higher, it seemed to heal itself. The rattling softened, and the small yellow craft soared gracefully upward through the morning mist. “Okay,” he said, “take the stick. You’re doin’ great!” My sweat felt as if it were turning to icicles, but I didn’t care. I was alive – and flying! Wow!

    My first turns were sloppy and over-controlling as I mushed through the air. For the next hour the instructor patiently showed his young novice how to turn and bank, coordinating the rudder and ailerons until the turns became a little smoother and cleaner. Every subtle touch of the stick or rudder caused the airplane to bank, slide, raise or lower according the amount of pressure applied.

    As I became more proficient, I was elated at the freedom I felt. Never before had I felt so liberated. The lesson came to a close as the instructor took over and effortlessly sideslipped the Piper Cub to a perfect three-point landing.

    After all those years of dreaming, I was a pilot! In only an hour I felt like a pro. I belonged in the sky. Once the airplane was safely tied down, my instructor invited me to sit down under the wing. I shed my furry Army gear and plopped down. He pulled out a long blade of grass from the ground, and began chewing on it. He didn’t say anything for a few moments, and then he looked up and asked softly, “How’d it feel?”

    “Unbelievable!” I gushed. “Wow!  That was the greatest!” I could barely contain my enthusiasm as the instructor gave a slight knowing smile and continued chewing on his blade.
    “How’d you feel when we took off?” he asked.

    “Well, kinda scared.” I honestly replied.
    “How about the landing?”

    “I was sorry to see it end, I almost felt like . . .”

    “Like you could have landed it yourself?” he asked.
    “Yeah, it seemed so easy.”

    Slowly he began  drawing circles on the ground with his finger as if deep in thought. “Yup, I think you could’ve brought her down today,” he said casually. “Of course neither one of us probably would have survived.”

    Startled, I looked at him to see if he was serious. He continued: “Remember when you first learned to ride a bike?”I nodded.

    “Once you got your balance you were a little wobbly, then as you went a little farther you started feeling pretty confident. But because it was so new to you, all you had to do was hit a pebble or get off balance just a bit and you’d fall over. Right?”

    I agreed that was probably true, but what did this have to do with flying an airplane?  I wondered.

    He moved his old cap forward to shield his eyes from the mid-morning sun. “Flying is the same way, son. Just when you begin to feel like you’re in command, some little pebble of a problem hits, and you lose all control.” 

    He pulled the blade of grass from his lips and looked at me with an intensity that seemed out of character for this easygoing man. “You see, it’s kinda like life; you have no control over anything but yourself. If you put yourself in an airplane, that’s all you can control; you can’t control the other airplanes. If they want to fly in your airspace, the only thing you can control is your reaction. If you’ve only been flying a short time, you’re probably looking at your altimeter, or the scenery or your compass and then: bang!  Everybody gets a new set of wings.”

    I nodded earnestly like a good student should, but all I could think about was flying.

    My instructor went on to tell me that while I couldn’t control the weather, other pilots or mechanical problems, I could anticipate them and after enough experience react quickly enough to overcome them, should they occur. He said: “Anyone can fly; it’s consistency that counts.”

    I spent as much money as I could earn, for flying. Each lesson from him was a lesson in life. As with so many good lessons, I listened, but it took years before I learned.

 

Tom is the creator of www.YourInnerwizard.com where it’s all about your power.
He is also the author of “How To Take No For An Answer And Still Succeed,” a book hailed by Larry King, Jack Canfield and readers around the world.

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