Intimately Acquainted With the Sky
`MORE right rudder, more right rudder,'' Pete said anxiously as I taxied the small plane down the runway. I depressed the large pedal at my foot; the plane veered right.Skip to next paragraph
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``Too much, too much. Left rudder, left rudder!''
The two-seater Cesna 152 wobbled and swayed down the short asphalt runway. Goodspeed Airport, where we were landing, is a typical local airport used by small single-engine planes. The runway, which looks more like a single-lane country road, is lined by grassy fields covered with an assortment of flimsy-looking aircraft.
Three things about Goodspeed make it slightly unnerving to the novice pilot: It hugs the shores of Massachusetts' Connecticut River; a towering expansion bridge blocks the approach from one end; a swamp filled with tall pines lies at the other end.
After taxiing up and down the runway a few times to get the hang of steering with my feet, I positioned the plane at the far end of the runway. From here, I had an unobstructed view of the bridge's two towers rising up above the river a half mile past the end of the asphalt. Guy wires hung from these towers like a net. I wondered if this small plane could climb high enough, soon enough. I had seen other planes do it, but they were not piloted by neophytes. The nervous exclamations from my instructor did not add to my sense of well-being.
I PUSHED the throttle lever forward, revving the engine to 2,700 r.p.m., and released pressure on the brake pedals. The plane shook, and the engine roared as we lurched forward, pulling slowly to the right.
``Left rudder, left rudder.''
Small parked planes began to whiz by. The yellow dashes beneath me became a blurred line, the asphalt a black haze. At 65 knots per hour I pulled back on the yoke, and the plane, halfway down the runway, leaped off the ground. The plane bucked up and down in the early morning turbulence. I gripped the yoke until my knuckles turned white. I couldn't believe my instructor had actually let me take off on my first flight up, after only an hour of ground school.
We passed over the bridge by a couple hundred feet. We were now over the Connecticut River heading upstream. The plane climbed to 3,000 feet, and I leveled it off at Pete's command. I had entered a new dimension.
To fly a small aircraft, no bigger than most cars, is to become intimately acquainted with the sky, that stretch of blue above us that we rarely enter except in the artificial confines of large passenger jets. It is to enter a new world and to see the old world in a different way. From 3,000 feet, cruising at 80 knots, the earth seemed to stand still beneath me. The forests of maple and oak became a carpet of spongy green cotton balls. The houses looked like toys on a nursery floor. People resembled ants, and the vehicles they drove seemed smaller than matchbox cars.
The world is beautiful and deserted from 3,000 feet. It is also unnerving.
``If the plane stalled right now, where would you land?'' Pete asked just as I began to relax. I looked down at the lower Connecticut River Valley, scanning for a road that stayed straight for more than a quarter of a mile. There were few in that hilly, heavily forested terrain. I soon memorized the two highways that cut a swath through the woods and tried not to stray farther than gliding distance from them. The problem with flying was not going up; it was coming down.
I eventually understood why I was allowed to take off on the first lesson, but did not land until my third hour of training. Even those first landings, after I had become comfortable turning the plane and climbing, were some of the most memorable events of my life, and possibly of Pete's. If Pete was nervous during my first takeoff, he was paranoid when I tried to land.
``Too far right. Too far right. More rudder. You're getting too low. Too low,'' he called desperately above the scream of the engine. During those first landings, his hands would hover over the controls in front of him, and when he could no longer take the pressure, he would take over and land the plane himself or hit full power and take us around for another try. Pete's nervousness was infectious, and by the time I put the plane on the ground for the first time with a bump and a hop, he almost had to peel my fingers from the wheel.