I hit the road early this day last year with blue skies and a sun that showed the exceptional day well with a temperature of 71 degrees and light winds. Forty-five minutes later, hangar 1005 was difficult to find among the winding, curvy access roads. I didn’t even know I was in terminal 371784. I thought a mere technicality, but later learned these I.D. numbers and acronyms, and there were lots of them, were important.
I was cashing in on a Total Immersion Flight lesson at Chicago Executive Flight School at the Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling, formerly Palwaukee Municpal Airport. I took a pluck from my bucket list and decided my birthday would be an outstanding way to celebrate both events by flying an airplane.
After abbreviated small talk, instructor Michael declared, “Let’s get started,” as he swung a desktop computer screen around, narrating weather reports from local airports. At the conclusion of our weather check, we headed to the hangar.
The shine off the hangar floor, walls and particularly the planes, which were enveloped in painted white space, made my eyes pop. A mechanical pit was spotless. I wondered how the mechanics could work on planes and not get dirt anywhere. We walked out of the hangar into blinding sun reflecting off clean, white cement.
“Wow, kinda like a scene from Top Gun,” I exclaimed.
“Yep, it is,” Michael chuckled. “And this is our plane. The Sundowner.”
The plane was immaculate with its painted blue and yellow stripes from tip to tail, breaking up the continuous white. Michael pulled out a small packet of paper, the preflight checklist, and we started an examination of the exterior, pointing to parts of the plane, wing mechanics, even taking a sample of the fuel in an oversized syringe-like tool to examine its color and density.
“Okay, let’s get in. Step on that small bar, then on the wing.”
Knowing that “Grace” is not my middle name, I executed the acrobatic maneuvers without Michael’s attention and hit the seat with a sunken plop. An unfamiliar black instrument panel in front of me was in close range enough for me to see the small print, what little of it there was. The interior was well-used, not quite as pristine as its exterior. “I can’t see over the nose,” I exclaimed loudly.
“Gotta move the seat up. Here we go. Here’s the lever. Pull up and to the right,” he said as he excused himself for reaching over. I admit his attention and hands-on approach was comforting. With the seat moved up as far as possible, my feet felt the rudders. But I still needed a booster. Michael jumped out and grabbed a cushion from a neighboring plane.
“Try this. Sit on this side. The other is wet.”
“Oh, was this once used as a flotation device?
It worked, but I still needed more boost. My short-legged frame wasn’t able to fill space routinely occupied by tall, robust men. Michael moved on.
Continuing with preflight checklisting, I flipped switches and read gauges. He turned the radio frequency little knobs popping from the black panel in front of him to tune in. I was glad he was doing this because too many knobs, so many frequencies. Headsets were planted with each side of the set covering the entire sides of my head. Conversation would now be absorbed by small microphones.“Starting from left to right,” he said, “find the ignition. Here’s the key, turn us on.” I chuckled because hey, at least I knew where to put a key. The engine ignited in sync with the propeller’s start. Michael pointed out a couple of circles on the panel. Reading the instruments was fast, easy and made sense. I guess my expectations of reading an instrument panel put me back in school where I struggled to read mathematical equations and science jargon. I’m of the side of the brain that is creative, imaginative and colorful. I just don’t do computations well.
“Let’s get clearance from the tower. Press this button toward you and say this,” as he handed me a small sheet of paper with my lines. Michael’s follow-up words spoken into the mike sounded like he was singing a little jingle. We taxied, steering the plane with my feet and before all things registered, he pulled on the throttle for power. “Pull up, pull up, pull up.” Never having a feel for how much “pull” would get us “up,” I remained too conservative with my ascension. I felt assured knowing I took directions well. “Now let’s take it to there,” Michael said as he pointed to the altimeter and we banked left. And we were flying.
“Don’t ya gotta keep your hands on something?” I asked nervously. “Just keep one hand on the wheel, loosely. It’s not a death grip, so you can feel the plane. The plane is pretty much flying itself right now.” How is it possible that I‘m sitting in a 1300 pound machine cruising at 90 miles an hour and doing nothing to alter its movement? It’s counterintuitive to me.
“So what do ya think?” he asked.
“I have no words. For someone who thinks of words constantly, I have none. This is an incredible experience.”
After sight-seeing and picture taking along Chicago’s lakefront, air time skimming the Chicago skyline was too short. “And we’re just about there where we need to turn around.”
I was instructed to turn left as he pointed to the circles on the instrument panel of where I needed to take the plane. Turning away from the city was difficult. I felt secure as the city kept pace with me on my right, standing tall and welcoming, a familiar sight as I sat in the unfamiliar. Back to straight and level, my favorite skill of all, as I matched the plane’s position with the diagram on one of the circles. With the city riding with me on my left, I revisited a place I knew would be out of sight quickly. We shouldered the north suburbs of Chicago, as picturesque as it could ever be, we made our approach. “. . . and there’s the airport right over there,” Michael said as he pointed. I had a visual. Michael took over, banking the plane left and then leveling. The runway was in sight. I felt we floated to meet the white cement. And we were down, gliding as we taxied.
Back to our beginning place, we reversed actions to review post flight check. It was difficult to get out of my seat not only because I needed to concentrate on the reverse actions of how I got there in the first place but also needed to take a few minutes to take in the experience and to also catch my breath.
Just when both feet hit the cement after backing out of my seat, I was put to work. “We gotta debug the wings. Here ya go,” he said, tossing me a wad of paper towel and then spraying the wings with de-bug gut spray. In the time it took me to clean my wing his side was clean and he was ready to roll the plane back. “Now go ahead, put those blocks back.” I could do this well. I was short enough to scoot under the wing and nestle the blocks in front of and behind the wheels.
As we walked back into the building, I felt challenged by my sluggish land legs. I could only succumb to the wavy, bumpy feelings throughout my body as the sensation of flying in the air, in a plane, was still with me. We recapped the morning quickly and then I was handed a Certificate of Completion. “Great Flight!” was written next to his signature. I thanked him, shook his hand and hugged him. “You’re really good at what you do,” I told him. “That was an experience beyond my expectations.”
I felt lucky and grateful for this opportunity. I hoped Instructor Michael didn’t see his position limited to executing a job and focusing on the next opportunity while the value he has to himself and to others goes unrecognized. But I could say that about us, too. We focus intently on getting ahead, planning out our lives, scheduling our months ahead that we don’t realize how a mountain of minutes in the present can be rewarding and make us happy while influencing others.
Flying high in the sky begged gratitude and a perspective on the big picture where the small present moments can have the most value to you.
Keep your rewarding and happy moments of the present in clear view.