Intimately Acquainted With the Sky

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`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.

``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.

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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.

For some reason, the flight path those first few weeks always came in over the swamp with the tall pines. Planes had crashed in that swamp. The pines came almost to the edge of the runway, and in theory you had to skim the last row if you wanted to put the plane down with enough room to stop. To do this, you applied full flaps and took the plane down a steep descent. The ground seemed to race up at you. Just before you became a pancake on the tarmac, you pulled up sharply and skimmed down the runway five feet above the asphalt on a cushion of air between the ground and your wings. When you ran out of speed, the plane fell gently the remaining few feet to earth. At least that's how it is supposed to work.

While I flew with Pete, the landings were never straight; they were never smooth; and they were never gentle. After seven hours of flight time with three hours of work just on takeoffs and landings, Pete had me taxi over to the main office, the small white building at the end of the runway. The lesson had only lasted 30 minutes, and I wondered why he was ending it so soon. He got out of the plane before I had a chance to ask him and waved to me. I waved back. He frowned and opened the door.

``You can take it up on your own now. It's time for your solo.'' He smiled, turned, and walked toward the office.

I watched him in disbelief. Did he really think I was ready? But then, who was I to argue? He was the professional, wasn't he?

I taxied down the runway and lined the plane up. I pulled the throttle back and began to accelerate. I noticed as I pulled back on the yoke, lifting the plane smoothly off the ground, that for once I was calm. My hands touched the controls lightly. The yoke felt like an old tennis racket in my hands. I banked the plane left a mile past the bridge and pulled back on the throttle until the r.p.m. gauge read 2,400. I had done the rectangular takeoff and landing circuit more than a dozen times, and finally I was comfortable with the routine.

But I also wondered as I looked down at the tiny runway far below me if I wasn't also relieved to not have someone looking over my shoulder. I have a history of performing poorly under pressure, and with no one else in the cockpit, the pressure was far removed -

a couple miles and 1,000 feet vertical to be exact.

On the fourth corner, I pulled the throttle to idle and engaged the flaps. The plane did its usual pitch forward, but I smoothly compensated, keeping an eye on the runway that I was now lined up with and on the airspeed that I had pegged at 60 knots. With few adjustments in the descent and just light touches on the yoke to keep the plane aligned, I put the plane five feet above the runway and kept it there until it lost speed and touched down gently on the asphalt.

PETE was outside the office by now, staring down the runway with the largest grin on his face I'd seen. At first I thought he was as surprised as I was. I pulled the plane onto the grass at the end of the runway, shut off the engine, and hopped out.

``Can I take it up again?'' I asked, beaming like a World War I fighter pilot after his first successful mission.

``Go around a couple more times, if you want,'' Pete said, shaking my hand and smiling, perhaps somewhat relieved that he didn't have to accompany me now on every flight. ``I think you've earned it.''

As I taxied to the end of the runway, I realized that Pete was actually an extremely perceptive instructor. He knew, before any evidence indicated it, that I could fly the plane better alone than I did with somebody else in the cockpit. Perhaps he had seen it before, but he saw in me a student who does poorly under supervision but is quite capable alone. I appreciated this intuitive quality of Pete's and his confidence in his student's innate abilities. He was a far better flight instructor than I'd originally assumed. He was a professional, and I was no longer a nervous neophyte.

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