Over the last year and a half my mission to try a New Thing every week has led to a lot of exciting adventures. Many of them have involved pushing past my fears and doing things that make me uncomfortable. One of my biggest fears is flying. I hate it. I really really hate it. Logically I know I am perfectly safe, but at the first sign of turbulence I become convinced that the plane will suddenly become aware that it is a 500,000 pound metal death machine, that gravity exists, and then plummet to the Earth.
I’ve been trying to work on my fear. Last year I went skydiving for my birthday. This was counterproductive. There is something about being dragged out of an aircraft the size of my car that seemed to only reinforce my fear. A few months later I tried hang gliding. This yielded better results. This is likely because we were dragged behind a plane and not actually in one.
I don’t like to be held back by my fears. Since knowledge is power, I decided to celebrate my birthday by taking a flying lesson. When I told my friends my plan a surprising number of them replied, “like, in an airplane?” When I asked what else I could be doing, one friend said he thought I’d be more likely to don a flying squirrel wingsuit than willingly get in an aircraft. He had a valid point.
I woke up the morning of my birthday and drove to Nashville International Airport for my lesson with Nashville Flight Training. As I drove past the airport I could see the commercial jets taking off. This immediately led to nausea and elevated blood pressure.
When I arrived at the hanger I met my pilot Erick. I was expecting some “this is how planes stay in the air” training, but we went straight to the flight. We flew a 1974 Cessna 172M Skyhawk II. I don’t know too much about it other than it had 160hp, a propeller, and red velour seats.
Erick let me take the pilot’s seat. When we got to the plane he said that I wouldn’t just fly the plane, but I would do the take off. That was an uncomfortable amount of responsibility. Especially considering the number of flight instruments, buttons, switches, and knobs.
He gave me the basic rundown how the plane worked. There are pedals that control the brakes (when pressed together) and the rudder (when pressed individually). The rudder controlled the direction of the plane on the ground. Steering with my feet was really bizarre and surprisingly hard. The plane has to follow the yellow painted line on the runway and I struggled to keep it straight.
When we were ready for take off, Erick said that he would handle the acceleration, but I would be the one lifting the plane off of the ground. When the airspeed indicator reached 60 knots (69 mph) I was to pull back on the yoke lifting the plane into the air.
As we accelerated down the runway my hands went into a death grip on the yolk and I kept my eyes on the airspeed indicator. When the guage hit 60 I slowly pulled the yoke toward me. The wheels lifted off of the ground and we were on our way.
Having the controls in my hands was a total head trip. I was convinced that I was going to do something horribly wrong. I knew Erick wouldn’t let that happen, but all I could do was imagine accidentally doing something to the controls that would send us spiraling to the ground. This was only intensified when we flew below a cloud which resulted in (very minor) turbulence. But for me, it signaled that the end was inevitably near.
The airport isn’t very far from downtown Nashville, especially when you aren’t stuck in traffic. We headed towards the city to practice some turns. I didn’t enjoy that part. I really just want to get in a plane and go straight. That would be my ideal plane ride.
Erick showed me how to determine whether the plane was level with the horizon. Obviously you can check visually, but if you can’t see the horizon there is a turn coordinator to show whether the plane was parallel to the ground. I don’t think I took my eyes off of it the entire flight. I was really excited that it existed. I think commercial jets should be equipped with them in the seat backs.
After a few turns, Erick showed me how to use the rudder to turn the aircraft. But frankly I was so freaked out by what I was doing already that I told him I wasn’t comfortable adding to it.
Finally, Erick took back control of the aircraft so I could take some pictures. And with it came utter relief. When I let go of the yoke my hands were cramped from my white knuckle death grip.
Erick was a lot calmer than I was. He even took time for a mid-air selfie. He guided us back to the airport and ended with the smoothest landing I’ve ever had in a plane (thank goodness).
I’ve definitely eliminated “not being in control” as a factor for my fear. Even when I was flying the aircraft I was terrified. Once Erick took the controls I felt much better. Well, better. My fear is firmly based on the fact that humans were not intended to take part in the miracle of flight. That said, I will continue to work towards not letting my fear control me, one terrifying flying death machine at a time. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll take another flying lesson.