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The Danger Zone

Learning to Fly

Paul Wellman

Iam not known for my prowess behind the wheel. The state of my car-a certifiable rolling wreck-is the punch line of many a joke. I can admit my weaknesses, or at least this particular weakness; the evidence is hard to deny. I, unlike Rain Man, am not a very good driver. And yet.

A week or so ago, fate landed in my inbox, in the form of an email from ProjectPilot inviting me to take a flight lesson. I immediately replied, typing out what could just as easily be a transcript of Meg Ryan’s phony orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally : . “Yes, yes, yes!!!” I wrote, in what was not the most professional piece of correspondence I’ve ever penned. I was pumped, and told everyone of my upcoming escapade; their reactions, however, were underwhelming. There was no jumping up and down, only a raise of an eyebrow here, a questioning glance there, or silence. Bbbuuuttt, it’s different than driving a car, I’d stammer, fully aware of what they were thinking. In the friendly skies, things like parked cars, fences, curbs, and errant poles wouldn’t be an issue; I wouldn’t need to see over the hood.

My husband, who handles claims for an aviation insurance company for a living and is intimately versed in my vehicular indiscretions, was perhaps the least thrilled of all, mumbling something about my bumper and flight-school losses. Whatever, I thought; you just don’t understand my need for speed. My mom was mad at me, too. “If you really loved me,” she wrote in an email, “you would have waited to tell me until after you landed safely.” My sister and dad were with me, though, as were a handful of friends, the ones who love me because I am a daredevil, not in spite of it. And really, this wasn’t terribly daring: I’d be in the plane with a skilled instructor, who’d have another set of controls at his disposal, able to rescue us should I do anything especially stupid or life-threatening.

The morning of D-Day, the Top Gun anthem played in my mind. I stopped by the office and banged out the bare necessities of my work, anxiously waiting for Indy photographer Paul Wellman to arrive. I fidgeted as the minutes ticked by. My editor popped her head in my office, wondering whether I’d be wearing a helmet.

A helmet? Yeah, a helmet and kneepads ought to keep me safe, should we plummet from the sky in a fiery crash.

Finally Paul arrived. We said our goodbyes to coworkers and hit the road, making our way to the airport. We pulled up in front of the S.B. Flight Academy, where, much to my chagrin, the parking lot was all but empty. With nowhere to hide, I sheepishly parked out in the open, hoping the instructor wouldn’t catch a glimpse of my car’s dents, dings, scrapes, and scratches, and opt to cancel my little adventure.

Inside, we were greeted by Blake Kelly and Guy de Gramont, who were cheerful, relaxed, and surprisingly devoid of release forms. I’d expected an interminable yawn-session of prep; instead, we strode out to where the Cessna Skyhawk 172 I’d be flying was parked, Blake gave it a quick once-over, and before I knew it, we boarded, with me in the driver’s seat. “Just make sure you can see over the front,” he said. I lied, and said that I could. (Technically, I could see over it; doing so just required some minor physical contortions.)

Blake went through the checklist, ticking off things one by one, telling me more often than not, “You don’t need to worry about that.” Fine by me. We donned our headsets as Blake gestured at the dials and gauges that blanketed the dashboard. “You don’t really need to worry about those either,” he said. “I mean, how often do you really look at the speedometer when you’re driving?” Aha! So Blake is aware of my driving record, after all.

And with that, we set off, taxiing around the tarmac using the foot-operated rudder pedals to steer, which was odd. I got the hang of it quickly enough and Blake called the tower to clear us for takeoff, speaking in “What’s my vector, Victor?”-type code, then kindly translating for us civilians. Blake navigated the take-off, pulling back on the yoke and steering us out over the ocean before letting go of the controls, and telling me I was on.

Shannon taking control like a pro.
Paul Wellman

And then, I was flying. I took the wheel, which was quite heavy, and steered as we banked left over land and back out over the ocean, making our way along the coast toward the harbor, doing leisurely donuts and taking in the amazing scenery from around 2,500 feet high. “How low can we go?” I asked, wanting a closer look, and perhaps a touch of danger. “You wanna buzz the beach?” Blake asked, clearly game, instructing me to let out the yoke, which pointed the plane’s nose down, until we reached about 1,000 feet, over East Beach. “You’re a natural,” Blake said, quite possibly a lie.

Looking out my window, I was in awe, and decided that, yes, I’d like a plane of my own, and a license to fly it, too. (According to Blake, you can get your license with as little as 40 hours of flight time, although most people take closer to 75 or 85 hours to shore up their skills. As for the plane, perhaps Angelina Jolie is in the market for a thirtysomething, Irish-Italian adoptee to spoil.)

Somewhere over Carpinteria, and back at around 2,500 feet, we realized our time in the sky was winding down. We decided to mix it up, and take the above-land route back. Blake told me to try to keep the 101 in my sights, out the window to my left. This proved difficult, but I did my best, losing it completely once or twice. Along the way, I asked Blake how many hours one needs to be able to land a plane. “You’re gonna land it now,” he said. Huh? He radioed the tower to get access to the main runway, which was big enough to accommodate a beginner’s clumsy landing, and talked me through it, telling me to aim for the big white line. As the line grew bigger and the land grew nearer, my hands grew wobblier. And while I don’t know if I actually was responsible for landing that plane or not, Blake told me I was. And that’s good enough for me.

On the drive home, I made the requisite phone calls, letting everyone know I’d landed safely. I bragged into my mom’s voicemail about how amazing flying is, and how good I was at it. And then my car hit the curb. It came out of nowhere.

4•1•1

To learn more about the Santa Barbara Flight Academy, visit sbafa.com or call 967-0736. For more about flight training, visit flighttraining.aopa.org. For more about ProjectPilot, visit Projectpilot.org.

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