I hit the road early on July 1, 2013 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, I found hangar 1005. I was cashing in on a Total Immersion Flight lesson at Chicago Executive Flight School. I took a pluck from my bucket list and decided to celebrate my birthday by flying an airplane. It wasn’t until my feet landed on concrete when I realized there was something more to just learning how to fly.
After abbreviated small talk, instructor Michael declared, “Let’s get started.” He swung a desktop computer screen around, narrating weather reports from local airports. We concluded our weather check and headed to the hangar.
The hangar floor, walls and planes covered in white, shiny paint 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 from the cement’s reflection.
“Wow, kind of like a scene from Top Gun,” I said.
“Yep, it is,” Michael chuckled. “And this is our plane. The Sundowner.”
The plane was immaculate with 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. We examined the exterior, pointing to parts of the plane, wing mechanics. We took 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 calling his attention. I hit the seat with a sunken plop. I’m glad an unfamiliar black instrument panel in front of me was close 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.
“Got to move the seat up. Here we go. Here’s the lever. Pull up and to the right,” he said. I admit his attention and hands-on approach was comforting. My feet felt the rudders but failed to make full contact. Michael jumped out and grabbed a cushion for an additional boost from a neighboring plane.
“Try this. Sit on this side. The other is wet.”
“Oh, was this once used as a flotation device?
Still, 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 – 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 to 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.” He handed me my lines on a small sheet of paper. Michael’s words into the mike sounded like he was singing a jingle. We taxied, steering the plane with my feet. After a brief pause, he pulled 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. “Now let’s take it to there.” He pointed to the altimeter; we banked left. And we were flying.
“Don’t you have to 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 you think?” he asked.
“I have no words. For someone who thinks of words constantly, I have none. This is an incredible experience.”
I transitioned from being on the ground, focusing on the next steps and flying through air, a metaphor for how I spent my days. I left the below behind and felt as if time slowed and then stopped. I discovered a mindfulness, a way to live in the present.
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.” Turning away from the city was difficult. I felt secure as the city on my right kept pace with me, tall and welcoming, a familiar sight as I hung in the unfamiliar. Back to straight and level, my favorite skill of all, as I matched the plane’s position to 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, picturesque as ever, we made our approach. “. . . and there’s the airport right over there,” he said. I had a visual. Michael took over, banking the plane left and then leveling. The runway was in sight. 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. Getting out of my seat was difficult not only because I needed to concentrate on the reverse of how I got in but also because I needed to reserve a few minutes to embrace the experience. I needed to catch my breath, too!
I backed out of my seat, hit the cement and was put to work. “We have to debug the wings. Here you go.” He tossed me a wad of paper towel and sprayed the wings with de-bug gut spray. When our wings were shiny clean as we started, we walked back into the building. I was challenged by my sluggish land legs, succumbing to the wavy, bumpy feelings throughout my body as the sensation of flying in the air, in a plane, was still with me. I shook his hand, thanking him. “You’re really good at what you do,” I said. “That was an experience beyond my expectations.”
I hoped Instructor Michael didn’t see his position limited to executing a job and his next opportunity. But I could say that about us, too. We focus intently on getting ahead, planning 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 begged gratitude and a perspective on the big picture where the small present moments can have the most value. Now it is every birthday when I am reminded not only of the swift passing of another year, but also the mindfulness of the present, to remember when I sat low in an airplane seat, hands-free from steering not in any particular direction.