FLYING IN THE FACE OF FEAR
I have had a life-long fascination with flight. When I was six, my most fervent dream was to be able to fly. I had no thought of being a pilot, I wanted to levitate off my bed and sail through the air by force of will alone. I held on to that dream into my teens. I was neither the loudest nor the cutest, being a middle kid in a large family, so I was often invisible. Granted, that was fine with me most of the time, but it did leave a vague sense of being overlooked.
In my mind, spontaneous flight was the obvious solution. My prayers each night for years was to wake up and discover that I could fly, now that would get me some attention! I would nonchalantly float down the stairs one morning to the surprise and astonishment, and dare I say it, admiration of all, not to mention the host of baffled doctors and scientists at the door.
My first actual airplane flight happened when I was about nine. I had a window seat and spent the entire flight with my forehead glued to the window. It was one of those glorious days when the aircraft curved lazily through a towering forest of high cumulous clouds that created spectacular cities of immense sky-castles. I remember thinking that if the plane suddenly fell out of the sky and killed us all; I would be all right with that. I would die happy, and I wouldn’t mind being afraid.
When I was in my twenties, I would occasionally be gifted with a flying dream, a dream wherein you find yourself flying through the air not unlike my childhood wish. As a result I began practicing techniques for acquiring a waking dream state, and became pretty good at it for a while. A waking dream state is a state where you are consciously aware that you are dreaming, and you can in some cases control or direct your actions within the dream. It’s a pretty cool experience when you get it.
Once I would become “awake” in my dream, I would walk forward then jump up a little on each step, lengthening my “hang-time” on each bounce. Soon I would be doing moon-landing size leaps, and then finally stay airborne. It takes a great deal of concentration, but I would often be able to stay aloft and fly around at will! As cool as this was, it was just a dream; it wasn’t really flying. Yet, it was not without its own sort of peril.
Some times I would lose myself in it and fly too high. Looking down from a great height while floating in the air calls to mind falling. This is distracting and can break your concentration, which is the only thing keeping you in the air! Fearful thoughts of, “I could fall”, and “ holly shit, what am I doing!” creep into your consciousness. Suddenly you are Icarus with wings melting and it is really terrifying!
Dream or not, your subconscious does not know the difference, and the fear is real! A huge effort of concentration is then required to quell the terror and will your body to sink, sometimes agonizingly slow, back to the safety of the ground.
One time I was riding straddled atop a balloon no bigger than a beer keg high over a beautiful white city when it occurred to me that the balloon could pop, sending me to my death. It took me “hours” of fear and suffering to get that damn balloon down again, and I awoke drenched in sweat. Fear does not need a real circumstance in order to be potent, ask anyone with nightmares.
Years later I found myself between marriages, with no life, but reasonably funded in a bachelor pad in Orlando. One day while contemplating the cul-de-sac that was my life, I thought to myself, “Holly crap! I could learn to fly!” Two miles down the road was Orlando Executive Airport, which had a very nice little FBO and flight school, so I literally got off the couch, drove down and signed up to get my pilot’s license.
They told me I could choose my own instructor and ushered me into an open workspace filled with a dozen young men doing their time as flight instructors, building their hours on their waypoint to a job with a major airline. Stricken with the romance of it all, I decided I wanted an instructor with a personality, a rebel and a free thinker who would make this a fun and adventurous experience. It didn’t take me long to spot him, sitting on the edge of a table, foot up, smirking at his shoe, clearly in the midst of an extracurricular story to the guy beside him working.
After chatting up the guys, I suggested that this fellow would be my instructor. I noticed an exchange of glances between the flyboys, and one of them pulled me aside.
“Are you sure you want to pick him, there are a lot of guys here with more experience teaching.”
“Yeah, I’m good, thanks.” (Jealous? Come on boys there’s only one of me!)
It turns out I got everything I was asking for. My flight instructor, let’s call him Dale, because it is possible you may have once been on a flight he piloted, was an alcoholic and a terrible teacher. I’m not saying that he was ever drunk when we were flying, at least not that I could tell, but he was often hungover while we were out. I never gave up on him though, and true to form, he was a hell of a lot of fun.
A few months later, Dale said, “Izzo, let’s do your first solo flight.” I wasn’t sure if his request involved some secret knowing in the heart of a flight instructor, or if he was just bored; I think it was the latter. The first thought in my head was, “No way! He’s trying to kill you, the bastard is actually trying to kill you!” So I approached a gaggle of jaunty, desk-leaning instructors and asked them how you know you are ready for your first solo. They passed a glance around as if deciding which of them would give the unanimous answer.
“You’re never ready, “ one said with a rueful smile.
I wasn’t ready.
The minimum requirement for a first solo flight is for the pilot to taxi out, take off, do one full circuit of the pattern, and land on the second one. You get a hand held radio to your instructor on the ground and that’s it.
We flew out to a nearby airstrip where we once practiced dead-stick landings. It was small, remote, and had no tower or traffic to contend with, ostensibly it was chosen because it was easier on the pilot, but I think it was also because you would kill fewer people when you crashed. I have taken a lot of tests in my time, but never one where if you failed you died!
I taxied out to the end of the runway. My legs were rubber, and my fingers were numb. Checklist complete. Staring at the open runway, there were a seemingly infinite number of reasons NOT to do this, and only one to go forward. Embrace your fear, I heard. So I kissed it squarely on the lips, “Fuck it!” Set flaps, power up, takeoff roll, V2 reached (take off speed), rotate (lift the nose) airborne!
“Wait! I changed my mind! I wanna go home! Oooh, shit!”
I focused on my rate of climb and compensated for wind to stay in line with the runway falling away beneath me. I had done this many times, but with no instructor it was completely different. I had never been so frightened, so alone, so beyond aid or assistance, so utterly reliant on myself, so completely in control of my destiny, so awake, so alive…!
“Whoo hoooo!! Ha Haaa!!” Heart soaring, I flew the first circuit perfectly, and then lined up my downwind leg.
Flying has a lot of cliché sayings that are never so true as when you live them. Among them, “Flying is easy, it’s landing that’s hard.” The Downwind Leg is where you are flying parallel to the runway before a turning decent to your Base Leg, and then turn onto Final Approach to land. This is where you begin a series of tasks that must be done accurately and in sequence; radio calls, airspeed, rate of decent, flaps, gear, etc. all while doing the actual flying to put you in position to get your plane on the ground. As I looked out my left window and saw the runway stretched out below me, I forgot everything.
I began to panic. Flaming squirrels were running up and down the inside of my spine, and I could not remember anything about landing an airplane. I have had stage fright before, but my life never depended on it. Another flying cliché popped into my head, “Panic equals death.” Imagine that you are taking your SATs, you have two minutes left and your looking at the last question, one of those ridiculously complex math essay questions, and someone has the barrel of a loaded gun to your temple ready to fire at the bell if you don’t finish it in time. I had to control this panic.
I’ve heard it said that you must “fight your fears”, those people in my situation end up a smoking heap in the asphalt. There’s no fighting that kind of fear! That is not the way to conquer fear. Embrace your fear.
Fear, in all its various forms, stops action. When we encounter fear, our instinct is to run from it, to run to safety. But we are not animals, and we rise above our base instincts. How many of you, I wonder, spend your lives chasing your dreams while running from your fears? You wouldn’t be alone. Have you ever stopped to wonder why those dreams never materialize before you? It’s because they are behind you, on the other side of those fears you are running from, and they are chasing you! Yup, you are actually running from your dreams. Sorry, tough luck my friend, no one said this was easy.
Do you really want to reach your dreams? Turn around. Open your arms, and let that fear wash right though you. Embrace your fear, accept that you are afraid, no fighting, no denial. Forgive yourself for it, befriend your fear, acknowledge that it is a part of you, breathe, and watch as it dissolves before your eyes. Fear cannot exist without your compliance. Your acceptance of it denies it of its power over you.
Scan, call Left Base, airspeed, rate of decent, scan, quarter flaps, scan… me and my pal terror began to land the airplane. Final approach. Fly to the numbers.
Most people think landing a plane is like a bird landing, where they just gently glide to the ground, but airplanes tend to want to stay in the air (thank goodness), so you actually have to point the nose down and fly it to the ground. It’s a little unnerving, at least to me. You aim straight to those great big numbers painted at the very end of the runway.
By now I am showered in sweat. The runway looms toward me with its odd perspective and I am suddenly reminded of an old Star Trek episode, the original series, the one where Captain Kirk is fighting a giant ship-eating space thing that looks like a giant traffic cone, its open end glittering with a planet devouring plasma. Kirk was heading straight into the mouth of it, his only way to destroy it.
“Steady Mr. Sulu…”
If you know the episode, you’ll remember the corny music theme, the one they used whenever something dreaded was approaching. It sounded like this:
Da..nah Da..nah DA..NAH Da..nah… Diddley DEEE…!
Desperate to remain focused and away from the panic still lurking in my scull, I invoked Captain Kirk, and began singing the little anthem.
“Da..nah Da..nah DA..NAH Da..nah… Diddley DEEE…!”
It helped. I felt just stupid enough to regain control of myself. Full flaps, Vso (landing speed) reached, fly to the numbers.
“Steady Mr. Sulu… steadyyy…”
“Da..nah Da..nah DA..NAH Da..nah… Diddley DEEE…!”
Since that day, I sing that little tune in my head every time I line up on final. Thanks Star Trek.
Once you are over the runway and within Ground Effect (about as high off the tarmac as your wingspan is long) your plane will encounter a cushion of air that makes it kind of float a bit. The trick of landing well is to flare at just the right moment. Flare is lifting the nose so that your rear landing gear touches first. Flare to soon and your plane stalls and then comes crashing onto your landing gear making a truly awful sound that makes little dollar signs fly out of your head. Flare too late and you land flat or on your nose gear, possibly collapsing it, and ruining your day (year).
Just my luck, as I entered ground effect a cross wind came up. A cross wind will blow your plane off the centerline of the runway or even off it entirely, unless you correct for it by adding rudder and yawing the plane into the wind. This lines up your flight path, but your nose is cocked into the wind, which will make your wheels land sideways-ish, and they don’t like to do that. So, you must straighten out the plane just before you land. While you’re doing that, if you should let your upwind wing tip catch air underneath it, the opposite wing tip may touch the ground, and that’s very, very bad, i.e. cartwheel in a fiery ball of death bad – probably. A mild crosswind landing is a very easy maneuver once you get it, but for a terrified and under rehearsed first solo pilot, it’s a chore.
The panic returned, and at a point in the landing where there was really nothing to do other than do it right. Fear spoke.
“Oh fuck, I’m gonna land sideways, I’m gonna hit a wing tip I know it, I am screwed!! I will die here!”
As fear made its case, I countered out loud with a line corny enough to be worthy of Captain Kirk himself, but it didn’t seem that way to me then.
“Not today, pal, not today!”
The landing wasn’t what I would call perfect, nor was it worthy of a cinematic ending, but this is real life. The first two kinda hurt, but the third bounce was okay! (No, you’re not supposed to bounce.) Dale’s voice crackled in the hand held as I completed my landing roll.
“Congratulations Izzooo, you just completed your first solo!”
“Yeah, sorry about that landing, it wasn’t so good,” I said, as relief and pride swept out the last of the panic.
Dale responded with the best and truest flying cliché of all, “Any landing you walk away from is a good landing.”
I got a whole lot better at flying after that. After a total of seven month’s of training, I finally got my license. I eventually bought a plane and leased it back to the FBO, one way to own a plane if you’re not rich, which I’m not. I owned a sweet little low wing four-seater, a Piper Warrior II.
On calm days when it was partly cloudy I would leave my bachelors couch, gas up my plane and go flying. I loved it, hard. Flying alone on these days was best. I would soar through cloud canyons and sky-castles remembered from my very first airline flight. I would fly parabolic arcs, climbing steeply then pushing sharply on the yoke, diving down until loose items floated through the cabin and I was lifted weightless in my seat. I had finally achieved my childhood dream of flying through the air at will, and I was not afraid.
I used to open the tiny forward window and stick my fingers out into the wind, remembering the words of John Gillespie Magee, Jr. “…I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings… … and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds… … put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
A dear friend of mine, now gone, used to say that there are only two choices to make in life, Love and Fear. I say that if you want to live an extraordinary life, do something that frightens you every day, and don’t mind being afraid.
Remember too that those who say No are rewarded with safety, and those who say Yes are rewarded with adventures!