My First Flying Lesson

The alarm went off long before dawn, pulling me out of a sound sleep by my eyelashes. As I sat bolt upright in the darkness my mind hurried to catch up with my body. I fumbled for my glasses and looked at the clock. WHY had I set the alarm for 4 a.m.? I didn't need to get up for work until 6 - hey, wait, it was SATURDAY. The day to sleep in until noon. Why --

Oh, yeah. I was going to go flying today. My very first flying lesson.

Well, that was a different matter entirely. Even a night-owl like me could look forward to getting up at 4 a.m. for that.

When I arrived at the field there was already a line of cars and pickup trucks in the small parking lot and a number of people wandering around. There were a couple of brightly colored ultralights tied down outside the community hanger and some activity around the privately owned hangers. There was that faint odor of two-stroke fuel that hangs around ultralights, a mix of premium autogas and motor oil. I was looking forward to another great experience. My intro-flight a couple of weeks ago had been a peak experience, absolutely wonderful, and I was hooked bad.

The air, however, was chilly. Not too unusual at dawn, and even a nightowl like myself knows dawn is cooler than the rest of the day, but summer in Chicago can be 80 or 90 degrees at dawn and 1995 had been a summer of unusual and deadly heat. And, hey, I was just barely over the Wisconsin border - I wasn't THAT far north of Chicago. At that point I knew nothing of flying beyond that it was something I wanted to do very, very badly. So perhaps I can be forgiven for arriving in shirtsleeves. Particularly after that nice, warm intro-ride. My inadequate gear caused some headshaking and a comment or two at the newbie's expense. The guys hanging around the place took pity on me and I soon disappeared under borrowed sweaters, coats, and windbreakers, all of them too big for me, while being lectured on the fact that it's much colder up there than down here, especially with that airstream in your face. Live and learn. It didn't occur to me to wonder why a bunch of guys would get up before dawn and drive out to an airport to go flying then spend their time ribbing the noob instead of getting up in the air. As I said, I was new at this.

Now, I've HEARD that dawn is a nice, calm time and was informed that this was, indeed, the general rule by the pilots standing around the airport. They told me this as they looked at the treetops dancing in the stiff breeze, after which they started muttering what sounded like "hmmmrrrmmmrrmmm wind hmmmrrmmmrrmmm wind gust gust hmmmrmmm"

I began to think that this flight was going to be a little different than the previous one.

It was around this time that I heard engine noise and a bright, florescent pink and black ultralight zipped to a landing on the east- west runway. I was informed by various bystanders that this was called a "Cobra". Well, I guess someone WAS flying. The gent taxis up to the community hanger and gets out, dressed in flourescent pink and black that matched his airplane. Oh, yes, the airplane - it looked like a folding lawnchair slung under a black and pink wing with scalloped edges on the rear end of the wing and tail. He rubbed his hands together and shivered, and started talking about the glories of sunrise from the air and how quick he reached Bong but gosh, that was a nasty headwind coming back. He said all this through chattering teeth. It was beginning to sink in that shirt-sleeve weather aloft was the exception and not the rule.

The other guys are still looking at the treetops waving back and forth, the windsocks whipping around, and muttering "hmmmrrrmmmrrmmm wind hmmmrrmmmrrmmm wind gust gust hmmmrmmm"

However, the instructor said HE was comfortable going up, so I said OK. Obviously I didn't know Nick well at this point. I assumed that this guy wanted to live as badly as I did and that he knew what he was doing. I figured that if it got really bad I'd just wimp out and cry and beg to be taken back down.

This flight started pretty much as the other one had. Nick and I did the walk-around then sat down and strapped into our seats.

Uh-oh. Another problem.

Now, I've heard lots of folks complain about ultralights being too small with cramped cockpits and so forth. This was not my problem - and not just because a Quicksilver doesn't really have a cockpit. I'm not very big, you see, in fact quite a bit smaller than a lot of other pilots. I had my feet stretched way out and could just BARELY touch those rudder pedals with my toes. Even as a new student sitting on the ground I could see this was going to be a problem. In fact, during the intro-flight I had kind of noticed this problem (hard to ignore that your feet are dangling free 1,500 feet in the air) and had been assured that rudder pedal blocks were available for the short student.

The rest of the guys standing around watching the show began muttering about rudder pedal extensions, duct tape, and so forth. A couple of them disappeared into the hanger with Steve (the guy who actually owned the Quicksilver 2-seater and ran the airport) leading the way. There was the sound of stuff being moved around, dropped on the floor, various bangs, assorted clanks, and other sound effects to the point where I began to think they were making the darn things on the spot. Eventually, they came out with a collection of wooden blocks and Steve crouched down by the pedals and sized them and me up like some sort of bleary-eyed (he's another night-owl) unshaven shoe-salesman. He found the pair that fit and started mummifying them in duct tape. I thought half roll for each was overkill, but hey, I was new. I had not yet developed the intense fear, even paranoia, that everything not welded, super-glued, or otherwise riveted to the airframe will fall out of the plane.

So there I was, watching Steve fix the rudder pedals, and I said "You know Steve, you're making a liar out of me."

Steve looked up, puzzled, as if he wasn't quite sure if he was being insulted or not. "What do you mean?"

"I told my mother that NOTHING on this plane is held together with duct tape."

That got a few smiles, and Ed, the Cobra pilot, suggested telling my mother it was "goose tape" as opposed to "duck tape". Then began a number of stories about stuff falling off ultralights, going through pusher props, leaving craters in cornfields, and so on and so forth. It still hadn't occurred to me to wonder why a bunch of guys who got up before dawn to get out to the airport were standing around kidding with each other and teasing the newest student instead of up in the air flying. As I said, I was too new to know better.

 This is the airplane - a Quicksilver II Sport. It is not the day this story took place, as we are wearing t-shirts in this picture. It is, however, from later that summer. I'm the one on the right in this picture (the left if you're sitting in the airplane). Specifically, I'm the one without the beard. Note the rudder pedals, held on with an abundance of duct tape.

Learning how to fly started with that first taxi out to the runway - right from the first I was told to take the stick, the stick being, well, a large stick or pole mounted between the two side-by-side seats. Nick also had hold of it but even so I found it hard to believe that I actually held the controls of an airplane in my hands. Wow! I was actually going to FLY an AIRPLANE!

So there I was, for the second time looking down a grassy runway from the full-front view of the cockpit rather than peering out a tiny, scratched little peephole in the side of a commercial jet. Oh, boy! The stomach butterflies are starting now! Nick pushed the throttle full-forward. The engine roared behind us and we staredt to roll. We bumped along the grass for a few hundred feet before the magic took hold and up we went.

Well, as we went up I noticed that while the wings were level that stick was all over the place. And Nick mutters something about it being a little rough. Uh-huh. I'm sort of wondering if that stick is actually CONNECTED to anything if he can jerk it around like that without the plane wobbling all over the sky. Hmmm, LAST time I was in the plane the stick seemed to have something to do with what was going on in the air, but this time...

So I say "But I thought it was supposed to be calm at dawn."

"Usually it is." says Nick, lunging to the left. "But don't worry (lunge right) this isn't (lunge left) - (excuse me) - (LURCH) real bad (lunge right)."

OK, I think, I'm real new to this, I don't know what's normal. Nevermind all that I've heard about flying on calm, windless days... I'm just glad I'm not prone to motion sickness, as there is certainly a lot of motion going on up here between the turbulence and the instructor.

Once we got up to 500+ feet the turbulence went away. To be replaced by an icy (well, it FELT icy after a Chicago July) wind going along at... well, let's see, the log book is somewhere around here... 15 to 24 miles an hour. Gusty. I had never thought of a 15 mile an hour breeze as being a definite, strong wind before. Fast and gusty enough that I later learned that Ed, one of the more die hard regulars had put his Cobra away after deciding he didn't REALLY want to fly that bad after all. Actually, I don't think any of the airport regulars were up in the air that morning.

So much for those calm, windless days I had been told about.

Well, Nick told me to take hold of the stick just below his hand so I could get a feel for what he was doing. It seemed simple enough. If the wind raises your right wing your hand goes this way. If the wind raises your left wing your hand goes that way. Not too much, of course, because then you'd bank too far the opposite way. Get your tail scooched one way or the other use the rudder pedals. Hey, this time I can actually REACH the rudder pedals. OK, got that. Sort of like a video game - they both use joysticks, right?

Then Nick said "You've got it" and let go of the stick.

All of a sudden, what seemed so very simple just a minute before wasn't so simple anymore. I tried very hard to keep those wings level and obviously did not succeed. My video game just turned into a bumper car ride. And there was this interesting up-and-down forward-and-back component to the motion that I hadn't noticed before, probably because Nick was only moving the stick from side-to-side and not forward and back like I was starting to do as some desperate and unconsidered way to somehow brace myself against something, anything (there is very little stuff to grab in a Quicksilver) because I was definitely starting to "lose it" along with all sense of anything but that snake of fear that was now slithering up my spine. I was starting to understand what all those stories about open-cockpit flying were talking about when some author mentioned "sweating and freezing at the same time".

What this actually reminded me of was my one and only ride on a bucking horse. Not one of those mechanical things you find in country-and-western bars but a genuine, pissed off, bucking horse with stiff legs and humped back and a completely unpredictable way of changing direction while rapidly bouncing up and down. I recalled that I was not able to STAY on that horse, which made me just a bit nervous because while it is scary (and dangerous) enough to fall off a horse, horses generally do not buck you off from 500 to 1,000 feet above the ground. That seat belt just didn't seem as big and secure as it did ten minutes ago.

Nick took back the stick. "That's pretty good for a first time under these conditions." He gave me a big smile, like he's actually enjoying all this "How're you doing?"

I figured that since we were still upright in the air and I wasn't yet screaming to be taken back down to sweet Mother Earth I wasn't doing too bad. "Oh, I'm fine." I squeaked "This is a blast. Can I do that again?"

"Sure, you bet. Here you go, it's all yours again."

This was where I learned that Nick is missing a sarcasm detector. He let go of the stick....

Hmm... I thought, clutching the stick in a white-knuckle grip, the bucking horse comparison is just about right. Bounce! Bounce! Bounce! This was NOT a flight on the Friendly Skies. Maybe I should have waited for a calmer day after all...

After a few more minutes Nick took pity on me and took the plane back. We spent some time passing control of the stick back and forth between us. We progressed to turns. This was getting more and more interesting.

Nick says, "That was a really nice turn."

I say, "I thought you were doing that."

Nick says, "No, you had the plane."

I say, "I did?"

At that point I didn't know if I was actually learning to fly or not, but I was learning that yes, I probably was as crazy as people have accused me of being. Despite the chill and the bumpy ride I was, in fact, having a good time. I was actually learning to fly an airplane and hey, you CAN'T beat that view, can you?

Then we did a little work with maintaining airspeed. Hey! Something I could actually do at last! I could hold a nice, steady 40 mph on the airspeed indicator. That was a nice, steady 40 mph of forward motion, of course. It did not take into account up, down, and sideways.

Then Nick decided it was time to start heading back to the airfield. He explained about tailwinds and headwinds, airspeed versus groundspeed, and so forth. Keep in mind, he was doing this with the air howling past us at freeway speeds and a motor roaring behind us. There was a lot of shouting involved.

"Look how fast we're moving." said Nick, pointing downward. Yep, the ground was definitely going by us at a nice clip. "Now, let's turn a bit..."

"We're going sideways." I said. I was amazed at how calm I sounded. We were flying sideways. How charming. I didn't know airplanes could do that. How curious. Since we were not immediately falling out of the sky I guessed we were allowed to do that. How interesting...

"Yes, we're going sideways. That's relative to the ground. We are still going forward relative to the air mass we're in..."

Not only did Nick not have a sarcasm detector, he didn't seem to understand that a lecture on relative speeds and meteorology was not made more interesting by conducting the lecture in the open air at 1,000 feet while sitting beneath a screaming Rotax engine while flying SIDEWAYS.

AGH! My brain said, that part concerned with self-preservation. HOW could you talk the body into this? We are going to DIE!

"...and that part of the windspeed assisting us in going where we want to go is the tailwind component..."

Lips! says the self-preservation part of the brain Move! Say something! Tell this guy to put us down NOW!

"...take into account headwinds because they increase the time you need to get to where you want to go..."

AGH! says the self-preservation part of the brain We are going to DIE and you just SIT there paralyzed with FEAR you COWARD.

"In fact," continued Nick, completely oblivious to the fact his co-pilot had just frozen up, "If you have a strong enough headwind you can actually hover an ultralight. Yep, you could even take off vertically and land that way, too. Of course, that's really dangerous. You wouldn't want to really try that..."

I looked down. Heights did not bother me. I figured that if the plane had held me up this long it would probably continue to do so. What was bothering me was Highway Q, visible directly below, between my knees. Not that there was anything WRONG with Highway Q - it was actually a pretty decent road, no potholes, hardly any traffic - no, what was bothering me was that, relative to us, Highway Q wasn't moving. Wait, of course the ROAD doesn't move - WE weren't moving. We weren't moving. I looked up. Yep, standard fixed wing, no rotors going round and round. We weren't a helicopter. We weren't moving --

"Uh, Nick...." I squeaked.


I pointed downward. "How long have we been parked over the road?"

Nick laughed nervously, also looked down. "Ha-ha. Yes. Well. We're not EXACTLY hovering. Ha-ha. We're making a LITTLE progress."

"Uh, huh." I said, looking over at the airspeed. It said 35 mph. I was told 20 to 25 was the max wind for flying these things but if we're hovering the wind has to be equal to our airspeed. "Uh, Nick, was the wind this strong when we went up?"

"Nope, it's picked up a bit. Don't worry."

Yep, I said to myself while looking down again, it was a bit of a drop to get out and walk home. There was no parachute. I can't fly WITH a plane much less without one. This was why he charged $5 less an hour than the other guy - he scared the crap out of you until you were ready to pay him to get you back down on the ground.

A few minutes went by in thoughtful silence as we hung in the gale, still not making progress crossing a two-lane road. Then I said "Are we going to have to land in that field back there and drag this thing back on foot?"

"Well...." said Nick "I've never had to do that YET. But if this wind picks up any more we may have to get out and push."

Ha-ha thinks the self-preservation part of my brain. Very funny - from a man oblivious to sarcasm.

We did, slowly, make our way back to the airport and we did manage to land in a conventional rather than vertical manner. Best of all, we didn't have to get out and push, or drag the plane home through a cornfield. We taxied back up to the community hanger where all the guys who had gotten up before dawn to go flying were STILL standing around hanger-flying.

I pried myself out of the cockpit, stripped off all the borrowed clothes, and thanked the guys who had lent them to me. This is when they all started mentioning about how the day was too windy for them to fly and wasn't I brave (crazy)? Ignorant, actually. I just didn't know any better.

Well, what did I learn during my first lesson? I learned about straight and level flight - even if I didn't experience it much during that first lesson what I learned about control made the NEXT time much easier. I learned about turbulence (as if I had had a choice!). I learned to never assume the guy sitting next to you is sane even if he does know how to fly. I mean, a flight instructor is someone who knows how to fly airplanes who gets into planes with people who DON'T know how to fly and lets them take the controls. That is hardly the action of a sensible human being. Of course, most people I talk to think I'm nuts for wanting to fly, much less fly ultralights, so who am I to talk? Perhaps most importantly, I learned that if no one else wants to fly on a particular day maybe I should stay on the ground, too.

I kept taking lessons from Nick. I did, however, learn that Nick seemed to actually ENJOY bumpy plane rides, something no one warned me about. What was scary was that I started to enjoy them, too (though not as much as Nick seemed to). And given the way the rest of the summer turned out, I MISSED that chill morning air sometimes

© 1996

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