A private pilot. That’s what they call it. A license to venture out to your local airport, plunk down your rental fee and bore holes through the sky for an hour or two. License to fly.

Got my license to fly over thirty years ago. My wife gave the okay. No kids, no mortgage, no responsibilities to speak of. Kids came along long before the mortgage and she very nicely said, “You’re done with this flying thing!”  But flying was fun while it lasted.

Took lessons in a Cessna 150. It’s a two-seater airplane with the wing above you so you have a really good view of the ground while you’re flying. I like that. Spent most of my life on the ground and it’s a good frame of reference while floating in that three-dimensional world above the city.

Dave, my flight instructor, was a young fellow trying to log enough hours to get a real flying job. On the first lesson, he walked me around the plane showing me what to look for to make sure the plane was safe to fly. I asked, “Isn’t that taken care of by the people we’re renting the plane from?” He told me that they maintained the plane but it was always the pilot’s responsibility to be sure the plane was safe to fly. So we checked the movement of the controls, the engine oil, the front edge of the wing for damage, and the tires. We even drained a little of the gas from the wing into a little cup to be sure there wasn’t any collection of water in the fuel. Apparently the engine will stop if it tries to run on water usually creating a rather tense situation in the cockpit that all good pilots try to avoid.

Next thing I know we’re barreling down the runway 30, 40, 60, 65 miles an hour. And suddenly, we’re flying. The earth falls away below us and I experience that magical, just-short-of-weightlessness feeling. Instantly all my perspective has changed. The world gets smaller and weaves together in a pattern of streets, blocks, and patches of green. We climb to altitude and begin to make some gentle turns. So far, so good. We make a few more basic maneuvers as I learn to coordinate the ailerons and the rudder in the turns. We return to the field, the instructor lands the plane.

The next couple of lessons go about the same. The magic is still there the moment we leave the ground. Since takeoffs are easier than landings, I’m flying the plane at that magical moment. Then, in our preflight discussion prior to the fourth lesson, Dave tells me that we’ll be doing stalls and spins today. I knew these were coming. Wasn’t looking forward to them. As he explains the procedure I hear, “And then the airplane will be momentarily out of control.” Out of control. No, not a good thing.

I usually like to control every aspect of my life. I don’t like to leave things to chance, I don’t like to guess, and I was certain that I was not going to like my airplane being out of control… even momentarily.

Contrary to popular belief, stalling an airplane has nothing to do with the engine. The engine keeps running while you slow the plane enough so that there’s not enough air flowing over the wing to continue to lift the plane. It stops flying and falls.  That’s a stall.

The stalls weren’t as bad as I’d anticipated. Decrease the power, slow the plane, pull up the nose, keep it level, keep slowing until the stall warning horn sounds. Pull the stick all the way back and you stall. The nose falls and points to the ground. You’ve stalled the airplane. Recovery was simply to push the stick forward then immediately pull it back and apply the power to pull the plane back up. Sinchy!

Spins are very much like stalls except at the moment you stall you insanely jam one of the rudder peddles to the floor. Instead of a nice, gentle straightforward falling of the nose toward the ground, your plane is violently twisted to one side and spins with the nose pointing straight down. You know your life is over.

Recovery is more complex. You need to jam the other rudder peddle almost to the floor until the rotation stops and then simultaneously even out the rudder peddles while you briskly push the stick forward and then re-apply the power as you ease the nose back into a climb.

As I write this out for you, it seems quite simple and it is. But you need to perform all of this while visions of your funeral parade through you head, your heart rate exceeds the manufacturers recommended limits, and all of the blood that used to be in your head has traveled to your stomach and your stomach is in your chest. Or something like that.

Dave does a couple. I do one. He does another. I do a couple. Then, Dave tells me to take a break and watch him do another one. He tells me to watch very closely and do not, under any circumstances, touch the controls. I’m nervous already.

Spins were another story.

He puts the plane into a spin. We do two full rotations, I think. Then he calmly pulls his feet in under the seat and folds his hands into his lap. I give this all of three seconds and I’m thinking, “Great, I’m in an airplane with a psycho who has a death wish.” Just as I’m reaching for the controls as he had clearly told me not to do, the plane stops spinning. I stop and check the altimeter. Thiry-two hundred feet. Plenty of room between us and the ground. As I’m thinking this, the nose magically pulls up from near-vertical descent to almost level. Dave, still not touching the flight controls, brings the power back to normal cruise speed. The plane comes to near perfect, level flight.

Dave tells me, the plane is designed to correct itself from nearly any abnormal flight configuration to normal, level flight without the assistance of the pilot.  He explains that if I EVER get into a situation where I’m completely out of control in the airplane to pull back on the power and simply let go of all the controls.  He says, “You can make it worse by continuing to wrestle with the controls.”

Sometimes our greatest anxiety is created when we’re out of control of our life situation. We fight and wrestle the controls until we are frustrated and exhausted.

For all of the control we think we possess, we possess very little.  Seems that the sooner we learn that, the easier life’s journey becomes.

Sometimes the best approach is to simply take your hands (or your mind or your comments or your involvement) off of the controls and just let the situation continue it’s natural course and usually it will somehow right itself to normal, stable level flight.  Or… sometimes it won’t.   And we have to learn to be okay with that.

Whenever I get anxious about things that are running off in the wrong direction, I think of Dave, my flight instructor, calmly sitting next to me with a smile on his face, his feet comfortably tucked up under the seat and his hands gently folded in his lap while our airplane spun madly out of control.

What a good flight and life lesson that was.


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            It's a Good Life! . . . .