I learned to fly – Part 2

I learned to fly – Part 2 – by P.K. Odendaal – October 2015.
Twelve years later …
I have a Consulting Engineering practice and I work on diverse sites spread all over the province I live in. A simple building foundation inspection takes me thirty minutes, but I have to drive there for five hours and back for five hours. It cannot go on like this for long.
And then I had a dream ...
I dreamed that I went to the local flying club the very next Saturday and talked to the instructor there about learning to fly. I dreamed that he told me that he had an open training slot at 12 noon, if I wished to start immediately.
I wake up and tremble … can it be that I have to go over all this again - the fear, anxiety and stress? I am perplexed and confused. I know this is how God talks to me and I know very well it is God and I know that I cannot do it and that I do not wish to do it.
A week later …
It is Saturday and I take a drive to the local flying club and meet the instructor. When he hears that I might want to learn to fly, he says that he has an open training slot at 12 noon and that I can take the lesson if I so wish. I know that there will be spins, stalls, abnormal attitudes; botched landings and the rest … oh my … will those nightmares never leave me alone? I submit like a lamb that is lead into the slaughter house.
After take-off I feel the air is rough and we are jolted around like on a very bad dirt road. The instructor is doing the flying and it seems to me that he struggles to keep the aircraft right side up in an act that looks more like boxing and sparring to me. I watch this fight for about five minutes and decide boxing is not for me and that in fact it looks like an intricate and dangerous pastime. I decide to tell him that I do not like it and the sooner we stop this fray, the better for me, but somehow I cannot get the words out. He decides that he must introduce me to the spin sooner than later and as we reach a safe height he puts the plane into a spin. We are tumbling and the earth spins and whirls around us – terrifying. When we land he makes a booking, against my wishes, for the next Saturday.
The training drags on and I am stressed like a tendon on its ultimate load. My hands sweat every time I get into the aero-plane, but I make good progress. The landings however turn out to be a real nightmare. I just cannot get myself to land the aircraft properly and the instructor does not know how to teach me to land.
Then, one day, a visiting instructor comes to the flight school and I am told to practice landings with him. He is much younger than my instructor, but he knows exactly how to teach a nerve wrecked novice how to land. From the third landing onwards everything becomes perfect. I can land an aircraft alone! The next ten landings are perfect and it is a joy and I take heart. It is really so simple – why could previous instructors not have taught me how to land?
Today I have more than five thousand landings in my logbook and it is the part of flight that I do best. You can throw any wind, weight or weather at me during landing and I will do it well.
However, there are things that bother me immensely. What if the engine quits in flight? What about my intense feeling of loneliness when I fly alone. What about the fear of heights that I harbour and defend so passionately and valiantly?
I think the first few hundred hours was the time that I felt fear, doubt and ineptitude emotions more intensely than I have ever experienced in my life. I know that these feelings may calm down as I get more experienced, but they linger for much longer than I thought they would.
Let us consider the plight of the private pilot for a moment to understand it more fully.
  • A Private Pilot needs only forty hours of training when he is let loose to practice his survival skills on his family and friends by taking them for a flip or a flight. That is way too little and should not be allowed in the licensing conditions. A hundred hours under supervision would be more appropriate. The forty hours was set because aircraft manufacturers want to sell more aircraft sooner. It is a license to kill.
  • About 80% of all bad weather occurs in the lower 18 000 feet of the atmosphere, and that is the altitude at which we fly. In fact, we fly quite lower than that, as 10 000 feet is the limit we may fly at without oxygen or pressurization in an aircraft. It is also the most polluted layer of air due to fog, smog, dust and smoke, making it at times almost impossible to see the horizon or even the ground. The requirement for flight with a Private Pilot’s License is that you should see five eights or more of the earth underneath you at all times. Night flying and flying into fog, mist and cloud is prohibited.
  • Flying for airlines is boring as sin, but you have support there, like people who can get weather, newspapers and coffee for you, and others who can check the aircraft and refuel it. Others again can do your flight plans and landing fees. As a private pilot you have to do this all for yourself.
  • Commercial and airlines pilots fly as a crew of two. This is very beneficial as it makes the flying, navigation and other duties easier and safer. The private pilot goes this journey alone.Just before you run away, you need to consider the wonderful satisfaction, accomplishment, independence and freedom of flight which you can enjoy if you fly alone. I like the following adage of the private pilot or a person owning his or her own aircraft: ‘Nobody tells me where I fly, when I fly or how I fly’. That feeling is exhilarating, although I must admit that the cost factor is not quite so enjoyable.
And then there is the accomplishment of the first solo. There is nothing like it. The instructor will do circuits and bumps with you, as you are not supposed to call them landings at this stage, and then one day he will get out of the aircraft, without you expecting it, and ask you to do one circuit solo. This might feel like a death sentence at first, but believe me, you will be too busy to think about death and the exhilaration after the flight changes your life.
I had the very heavy responsibility of sending my own son solo when he became seventeen, and although he was very competent at that stage, having flown with me since he was ten years old, a dream came between us. I was instructing over weekends in my own Flying School at that stage. I later closed it due to students wanting me to teach them to read and write, and decided to rather teach myself aerobatics – but that is another story.
Two weeks before his seventeenth birthday and his first solo, I had a dream. I dreamed that he was on his first solo flight and halfway through the circuit the engine quit and he made a forced landing. As I saw the ensuing fire about a mile away, I ran to the wreckage and said: ‘God, it is not fair to let a first time solo student have an engine failure. Could you not have spared that for later?’ When I get to the aircraft I take him out of the wreck and see that he lived, but he had brain damage.
Oh, my … what am I going to do? If I send him solo and it happens, I will never forgive myself. If I bereave him of this opportunity, he will never become a pilot and miss one of the biggest joys in life. I ponder this for the two remaining weeks and ultimately I decided to stand in faith. I start a fight with the devil and the demons who wanted to kill him and those who wanted to let fear rule my life. After that I sent him solo without any incident. Fifteen years later he was a captain on a Boeing 737.
Many people ask me from time to time whether I think that they will be able to fly, and the answer I give them is short and sweet: ‘If learning to fly is at the top of your priority list, then you will fly – no doubt about that. If it is not on top of your list then forget it’. But then … it was never on my list and today, after lots of ‘suffering’, flying is tops.