Stumbling for a Metaphor
There is a reason pilots have a swagger. Their confidence is no tsomething conjured up from an overdeveloped machismo cortex – it’s inevitable. After my first flying lesson, I sauntered up to the counter of a mini-mart. I’m not much for sauntering. But, it happened, right after casually pumping my gas while looking off into the distance, my profile cutting into the afternoon as if I had been branded there.
After paying for my Red Bull with sybaritic bravado, a sense of accomplishment pulsated inside of me. You could see it in the way I walked back to my car. This man had been far above all of this and guided his craft through the ether with just a nudge of his hand. After earning a God’s-eye-view of things, you walk among mortals a changed thing.
Well, sort of. I still drove home and ate spaghetti as many mortals do. But, having the controls of an airplane to myself for half an hour was so electric my whole body missed it after one visit. I closed my eyes that night calculating how to get back into the air.
Let’s back up a bit.
An email arrived in my computer a week or so ago from Gary Frisch, a representative of projectpilot.org, who promised a free lesson if I agreed to write about my experience in the newspaper.
Projectpilot.org is run by The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a non-profit group comprised of two-thirds of all pilots in the United States. The AOPA began in 1939, and the following year helped push the passing of a bill creating the Civilian Pilot Training Program. The AOPA seems to serve as a sort of pilot advocacy group and has fought a number of political battles dealing with aviation over the last 50 years. The organization does a lot of other things including running Project Pilot, a members-only mentoring program.
At the website, visitors are greeted by an elegant but snazzy splash page with a big multimedia movie running just to the right. A male and female tag team voiceover told me how everything I thought I knew about flying was wrong. It was not just for risk-takers and millionaires. They assured me how fun, easy and exhilarating flying could be, noting the practicality of flying to distant vistas over driving. Photos and short videos of happy people standing near or sitting inside a variety of aircraft faded in and out as the voices told of how flight training was impartial, and pilots were among the friendliest and most helpful people in the world.
After explaining the low cost of both training and flying, the male voice asked, “Are you ready to live the dream?”
Well, the truth is, I was. Of course, ethically, this is a gray area. I mean this is something I’m sure plenty of people my age would love to know more about, right? I figured if I did it and wrote about it then I was engaging in journalism. So, I didn’t feel bad taking Gary Frisch and projectpilot.org up on the offer. He set a date and gave me an address.
Saturday, my wife, Mandy, and I drove down to Gulfport where we were to meet Desiree Krepps at Apollo Aviation.
We arrived early at the Gulfport-Biloxi regional airport and parked at an unassuming little hangar on the eastern side of the runways.
Before I could close my car door, Desiree Krepps was already gesturing us inside.
I don’t know what a flight instructor should look like. I wasn’t taken aback by the idea of the instructor being female. I just assumed she might be a seven-foot Amazon or a hardened cigar-smoking butchy lady with sailor tattoos. Instead, Krepps was a tiny, little-sister kind of woman with an eruption of fair curls, an assortment of dainty jewelry and a flat, even voice.
She led us through a warm yellow waiting room with a television and a coffee maker, a place evocative dentistry waiting rooms. A single fake painting hung above a couch flanked by plants and attractive wooden things as a stack of airplane trading guides leaned in the corner by the door. A decorative clock ticked away above Krepps’ head as we moved into the hangar proper.
It was hard to take in this place as Krepps asked me exactly who I was and what I was there for. The sitcom “Wings” knocked at the back door of my brain. A sleek-twin engine sat on the concrete floor, front and center of the room; a burst of sunlight filtered through the translucent hangar doors throwing the plane’s shadows toward us. Curved rectangles of light peppered the body of the aircraft. In the far corner, a small single-engine plane tilted back with one wing awkwardly obstructing the doorway to Krepps’ office. A cheap stereo sat silent on a shelf above the small plane; behind it, a single wing hid behind a million little objects I couldn’t identify. I figured another aircraft would completely fill the space and make it hard to move around.
It smelled much like a mechanic’s shop, oil and fuel, exhaust and grease. Expensive red and black tool bins filled the corners. Cardboard boxes were piled near an air conditioner with plastic coat hangars stacked on top. Wooden stairs led to an upper deck; along the railing were time cards and a clock to punch them with. Behind the stairs a line of pushpins cut a diagonal swath across a huge map of the United States. A child’s red wagon sat idle beside an ice machine.
Krepps explained the particulars of what we would be doing. I started to seriously wonder what, if anything, I would be allowed to do on a first flight. Probably close to nothing. After all, she didn’t know me from Adam.
Her office smelled like Play-Doh, but I could not detect the source. Her bookshelf was overstuffed with training manuals and official documents. Near the bottom, a small metal Texaco sign held down some paperwork. The lone photograph in the room featured two unfamiliar people in one of those fake Old West sepia-toned photos where they dress you up like frontiersmen.
“So, what experience do you have with flying airplanes?” asked Krepps.
Well, I tell her, I’ve been in them several times while they flew. She nods and leaves the room to find another headset for Mandy.
As we leave the office, the back of my head bangs into the wing of the smaller plane. Then, as she calls for us to follow her out onto the tarmac, I trip over an unusually tall doorsill. Thankfully, no one sees these infractions.
We approached our aircraft. The Cessna 172 is a small plane. Four people can fit inside; it has one propeller in the nose, and the wheels can’t retract. You can buy a used Cessna 172 for about the same price as a luxury car.
Outside, she began confusing me. I wanted to be nimble of mind and impress both my wife and the instructor with how much airplane knowledge I could absorb in a short period of time. I wanted to go home and explain to my buddies how, if terrorists were to hijack my airplane and we were to get the better of them, I could grab the controls with minimal preparation time and take us home safely. But, after nodding in false understanding of why the airplane fuel’s blue tint is important as she drew a vial from underneath the wing, I have the impression my bluff has already been called.
We boarded the plane. The interior looked and smelled like my uncle’s old wet van – not unpleasant, just well used. I sat on the left, Mandy in the back with a camera. Krepps started to point at gauges and dials. She walked me through the importance of a variety of switches and knobs. The information piled up, and the early instruments escaped me as she revealed more details about new ones.
“This is the altimeter.”
“This is the airspeed.”
“You need to reset this correctly to the compass heading.”
“You better get the air pressure setting correct from the tower or your altitude indicator will be off by as much as several hundred feet.”
“This is the master switch…the carburetor heat…the throttle…the trim wheel.”
“Be sure your seat is far enough forward to reach the rudders with your feet.”
“The lever is on the left.”
It was like learning how to operate every doohickey under the hood of a car and having a dial set to determine how it was operating. I nodded a lot.
She began to scribble in a notepad. Her keys were attached to a small rubber chicken. This was a good opportunity to put on the seatbelt, which I assumed was at least one thing I could handle. I gallantly snapped my waist strap in place. Then, Krepps looked up, “You need to strap on the shoulder harness.”
I wrenched the shoulder strap around and fumbled with the metal clasp for far too long. Eventually she just took it away from me and did it herself.
The images flashed by – the head bump, the stumble, the dials and the switches, the fumbling. I was certain she would never allow me to touch another device inside of this airplane.
She talked me through a preflight checklist, which she has memorized but still goes through a brochure of sorts just to be sure. When it becomes necessary to flip something on, she let’s me do it. She opened her door and yelled, “Clear prop,” as I cranked the engine, and the propeller came alive. I adjusted my headset volume to max.
She let me hold the plane in place, which involved squishing down on two pedals with my feet. Then, we left the area near the hangar and moved along the runway. She let me drive with my feet by alternating brake pedals. All I had to do was follow a yellow line, which I achieved like a World War I flying ace.
I told myself, “Okay, this is the bunny slope, and this will be all I’ll probably do on a first lesson. Fine.”
Within a few seconds she had taken over the airplane and throttled it up. She asked me to gingerly touch my u-shaped-steering-wheel controls mirroring her own as she took off. Then we were in the air, and she turned to me to say, “Now we are flying.”
The ground plummets away, buildings become tiny and the shape of roads and rivers emerge from the confusion of the landscape. I thought of the old cartographers and marveled at how they got so much right without a bird’s-eye-view. Soon we had climbed to 1,500 feet in the tiny craft, the doors as thin as those on an RV.
Krepps took her hands off the controls and told me to take over.
Inside, I thought, “What do you mean take over? I can’t even work the seatbelts.” But, outside, in front of the flight instructor and my wife, I said, “No problem.”
So, my hands guide the airplane over the Mississippi Gulf Coast, over the smashed houses, naked foundations and empty lots left behind by Katrina. She told me to keep it at 1,500 feet, and I remembered which dial to watch. So, as we descended, I pulled up. As we climbed, I pushed forward – gently.
“Do you see that factory-looking area over there?” Krepps said, pointing across the cockpit to my left. I said I did. “Why don’t you fly over there?”
I delicately twisted the controls counterclockwise, and the left wing dipped in response. Krepps touched only the throttle.
Soaring toward the pipes and machinery belching smoke in the distance, the plane would often be sucked straight down or rumble as if it were a car on a gravel road. When this happened, I would look over to Krepps for some sort of sign. She seemed composed.
As the plane slid around in the air like butter on a frying pan, the overwhelming urge to dig for information through small talk took hold.
“So, I guess you get pretty used to this sort of turbulence, huh?”
“Oh yeah. Students always ask if they are making the plane do that. With the clouds low like they are today, you get a lot of it.”
Mission accomplished. Either this is normal, or she doesn’t want me to freak out. Either way, the sensation of controlling a machine in the sky and making it go places far away overwhelms my ego. You get drunk on something; it’s a new sensation.
She noticed I kept adjusting my altitude and explained in detail how to set the trim wheel, a sort of cruise control for airplanes. Then, she told me to turn around and follow the highway back toward the airport.
My eyes kept flicking between the windows and the gauges I knew – especially the altitude – as the plane made a long slow turn over the edge of the bay. Two glances down, one glance up – this seemed to be a good ratio, and I kept with it.
Flying a plane is not like driving a car with just brake, accelerator and steering wheel. A car sort of moves along two dimensions while flying is truly three-dimensional. The foot pedals twist and turn the plane horizontally, the controls at your fingers turn it like the hands of clock, and pushing forward or back tilts the nose toward the ground or toward the sky. But, you also must adjust the heat to certain parts of the plane, the throttle depending on how you are flying, the trim, the ailerons and a dozen other things while communicating with control towers to avoid collisions and find out about the environment. The most complicated piece of machinery on my car’s dash is the stereo; multiply that by 10 and add several rows in front of you to keep up with while also flying the plane, and you should feel overcome the first time you fly. But, I felt just fine.
The airplane does not fly itself. You struggle with as if trying to bear hug a monster catfish straight out of the water. While in the sky, the plane fights you; you are dealing with pure chaos, and you can tell you should not be hurtling through the air in a man-made contraption. All the forces of nature are attempting to make the plane do what it supposed to do. It wants to descend, bank right, climb away like a hat on a windy day. So, you correct it over and over again. It wants to do what nature wants it to do, and only your will is making it do something else.
I mention this as we near the airport. Krepps tells me, “The plane will do what it wants to do, but you must remember you are in control, and you make it do what you want it to do.”
It was a comforting thought, and I could tell it was probably her philosophy of life as well. She confirms this later when I interview her, telling me how her father was a mechanic in central Pennsylvania, and she used to help him in the shop although she always wanted to be pilot. One day, she went for it. After a year and a half, here she sat teaching someone else. One day she hopes to fly corporate airplanes for businessmen. For now, she’s working as a flight instructor so she can build up her hours and ratings, moving up in the kinds of airplanes she can fly along the way.
After 30 minutes in the sky, as we descended toward the airport, I saw a hawk along the horizon. In seconds, it rushed past us with its wings stretched wide and straight, passing within inches of the plane. I fancied how meaningful such a moment could have been had I been someone else. As it was, I could only register it was one of those things I would probably take with me for a while and later find a good metaphor for. Krepps noted it too, “Yeah, you want to avoid birds. They can cause a lot of damage.”
Back on the ground, in the hangar, I find out the particulars – the figures that should go into a news story. At Apollo Aviation, to get your pilot’s license will run you $6,200. If you fly twice a week, weather permitting, you can have a license in less than six months.
If I were to go again, my next lesson would involve pouring over reading materials and manuals, then I would get to fly for an hour or so doing power climbs and descents.
With a license, you can rent a plane for $90 an hour, but if you need to refuel, Apollo will reimburse you. So, you could take a plane with three people for a weekend, split the cost, and, if there is an airport nearby, go wherever you wished for a reasonable price.
Krepps said she is swamped with students. She usually starts flying at 9 a.m. and flies all day until 6 p.m.
This is where I asked her something that had been bothering me since she first let me crank the plane. How does someone in her position put her life on the line over and over again? I’m not comfortable being in the car with another person driving, even if I have known them for years.
“In my training for my instructor rating they would teach you that,” said Krepps. “They give you scenarios like what if you get a guy who freezes on the controls. You do what it takes. If you have to knock ‘em out, you knock ‘em out.”
Her words circle my brain stem. Surely, she noticed my fumbly nervousness, yet she kept her hands to herself most of the flight.
“It’s trust,” she added. “Building trust – the longer you do it, the more comfortable you get with strangers. I’ve noticed I can get a feel for someone when they first walk in. I know if I’m going to let them take off with me.”
We thank each other, exchange cards, and Mandy and I return to our driving machine. Ebullient, I travel home, the cars around us seem smaller. Krepps had a sixth sense about people, and I passed the test. Thus, I soon sauntered up to a counter at a mini-mart.
Being behind the controls of an airplane had trumped the first time I had driven a car through my grandfather’s field. Which, I promise you, was monumental. The added dimension, the added axis on the grid, allows a lot more room for elation.
This seems like a good place to put in a metaphor about a hawk, the sky and outstretched wings. But, the truth is, I just want to get back up in the sky. Maybe then I can pay closer attention. Maybe then I can spend less time looking at the altimeter and more at snaking rivers, low hanging clouds and dangerous birds who know we shouldn’t be in the air.