Passengers and Pilots
Sorry I've been a bit quiet recently - it's been a bit mad in both my personal and my work life, which leaves me with not very much time to formulate coherent thoughts. We're going away this weekend for a wedding and I'm really looking forward to the break, even if it is for only one night. A change of scenery should do me a world of good.
Not to worry though, I dug through my laptop to find a little something to entertain and amuse. (Or at least help you kill 10 minutes or so.) I wrote this with the hopes of getting it published in the "My Turn" column in Newsweek. Their loss is your gain...
I’m not a pilot. In fact, I don’t think I could even play one on the T.V.
I finally made the realization in a helicopter at about 400 feet, skimming through the air above a small forest. The trees looked like broccoli stalks and were close enough that I could make out the individual leaves. Ken, the instructor, was gently asking me to use the collective to keep the helicopter at a constant altitude while following through with him on the other controls. My eyes darted from the altimeter to the trees and back again. My head played a loop of all the dumb things I could accidentally do to drop us out of the sky.
After several minutes of pure terror, about halfway through a 20-minute intro ride, I told Ken “OK, I’m ready to be a passenger. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a pilot.” He laughed and made sure I wasn’t going to freak out in his helicopter. The second my hands were off the controls and my feet were firmly planted on the floor behind the pedals, I felt absolutely fine. Like I could relax and enjoy the ride.
I know a lot of pilots feel better when they are in control of the aircraft. A small aircraft pilot can be just as jittery as a “civilian” on a 747 but then command his Cessna-172 with the precision and confidence of a fighter pilot. I turn into a gibbering wreck anytime someone tries to give me control of an aircraft.
I know my limitations. I can drive a car and ride a horse, but I do not have what it takes to fly a plane.
The helicopter intro ride was not the first time I tried to get over my fear of piloting. I had two lessons in a Cessna-152. My husband, Peter, had his pilot’s license and we felt that I should at least learn the basics in case anything happened to him during a flight. In my first lesson, the instructor allowed me to follow through on straight and level flight and on a few turns. But my hands stayed clenched in my lap during take-off and landing.
When I told Peter the tale of my lesson, he said that the instructor should have let me follow through on everything, including the take-off and landing. He felt it was the mark of a less-than-confident instructor…until I confessed that I’d been unable to keep my eyes open for the take-off. Yes, in addition to being afraid of piloting, I have some fear of small airplanes, especially take-offs. I love landings though - one way or the other, you’re going to be on the ground soon.
To me, flying is like sausage – easier to enjoy when you don’t know what’s involved. The last time I was on a commercial jet, we’d been sitting on the taxiway for about 15 minutes when the pilot announced, “As you can all probably tell, we’re having a bit of trouble getting the engines started. We’re going to go back to the gate and get an air unit in here and then we’ll be on our way.” Engine and trouble are two words I do not want to hear together when I am on an airplane. If I can’t even hear about it, I don't think I'd be able to diagnose and deal with it. When I am at 30,000 feet, ignorance really is bliss.
I’ve spoken to pilots for whom flying was always a deeply sought goal, people who looked at birds with jealousy. A woman I met at a small airport once told me that all she ever wanted to do was fly. As a kid, she flew a ridiculously large kite with the hope of sailing off the ground. She got her private pilot’s license at a time when women just didn’t do that sort of thing. I admire that singleness of purpose and dedication to a dream.
I take comfort in the thought that I’m not the only one with my feet rooted on the ground. Plenty of married couples have a flying spouse and a non-flying spouse. I suppose it’s sort of like the weird Murphy’s Law that unites morning people with night owls. These marriages work just fine as long as the non-flier respects the pilot’s need to fly and the pilot respects to non-flier’s need to stay on the ground. Cajoling, bribing, and pouting are all ways to get the non-flier into the cockpit, but after a bit of turbulence, the pilot is going to wish she’d left the landlubber back at the airport.
There used to be a Volkswagen commercial that said “On the road of life, there are passengers and there are drivers.” The implication is clear, being a passenger is for lazy babies – all the cool kids are drivers. When it comes to flying, I am completely comfortable with being a passenger. I can look at the scenery instead of the gauges. I can take pictures instead of manipulating the controls. Peter can be The Pilot – I am The Passenger.