I’m happy. I’m flying. I’m on a plane from Madrid to London, observing the clouds below me and thinking about the place I left a few hours ago, Oviedo, 39000 feet below me. Most people find it crazy – and it’s certainly illogical – that, far from complaining, I’m actually quite happy that instead of flying one short 90 minute non-stop flight, I’m making a connection that involves “going backwards” (i.e. overflying the origin that I left on the second leg) with two flights totalling 3+ hours and a 90 minute transfer in one of Europe’s most user-unfriendly airports.
Every time I’m up here I wish I was flying the plane myself. Well, perhaps not the Madrid-London leg – commercial pilots must feel like they’re not much more than glorified bus drivers. But I’d give an arm and leg to be able to fly myself between Asturias and London – or to go anywhere else I felt like. It Strange in a way, because I’m not a fan of driving – I’ve always had nice cars, but only ever use them for A to B commuting and (when I’m lucky) a trip to an airport. Flying, though…. that’s different.
So, you might ask, why haven’t I learnt to fly and got my own licence? It’s not that difficult. It just entails 45 hours of practice flights, a medical and a fair number of exams. Lots of people do it.
Back when I was in my 20’s, I really did want to learn to be a pilot. What stopped me was money – I was as poor as a church mouse in those days, and it’s an expensive hobby. Then, by the time I might have been able to afford lessons, I’d become a father, and a number of incidents with light aircraft alerted me to the risks, and it felt wiser to leave it for another time. Through my middle life I could never find the time – I was busy with work seven days a week. The desire only surfaced when I was a passenger – which was frequently – but it’s not possible to research taking flying lessons when one is oneself up in the air (well, maybe now that some airlines have wifi…). By the time I landed, there were other priorities.
Finally, two years ago, something (I can’t remember what) triggered the urge to do something about it, before I become a geriatric. I found the nearest flying school and took a test flight in a single engine Piper – such fun! I really then wanted to learn, but I was doubtful that it was realistic to start in my early 60’s. I was reassured by the very enthusiastic and engaging owner of the school, so I decided to start.
l felt there was no time to lose, so I started to book 2 lessons a week. That in itself wasn’t easy – it seemed that the school had a shortage of instructors and a surfeit of pupils, and finding times when both I and an instructor were available was a struggle. Then there was the weather – beginners can’t fly if there is low cloud cover or strong winds, and even though it was summer, it was England after all. Nevertheless, I managed about a dozen lessons over the next three months – rarely with the same instructor, though. The first one I had was great, but never reappeared on the schedule after that. One or two of the instructors were helpful and tolerant of an old fool like me, but most were just “going through the motions”, and one young guy – himself no doubt the best pilot of the lot – scarcely contained his irritation and thoroughly demotivated me.
Nevertheless, I continued – avoiding that particular instructor, of course. After the penultimate lesson, the instructor told me that I’d soon be doing my first solo flight and would have to start planning to take the exams, and sold me a £20 manual on air law – volume 2 of 7. I belatedly realised that I’d been taking these lessons with practically no idea of the course details – obviously my own fault for not asking, but I did feel a bit aggrieved that nobody had explained the course schedule at the start. I knew there were exams, but not when – I even knew there were 7 books (I was still progressively working through the first), but was belatedly realising that I would have to make time for home study of all these texts (as far as I know, the school is solely practical, and doesn’t provide any classroom training other than preflight and postflight chats).
Finally, the next and my last lesson – it wasn’t intended to be – was with an older instructor who I felt I had got on well with. It was a 9am lesson. By now I’d clocked 12 hours and could take off and land under supervision, maybe not very smoothly but at least without crashing. The weather I woke up to on the day was pretty horrible – overcast and vaguely threatening to rain. I checked Aeroweather, the app the same instructor had recommended I get on a previous lesson, and I figured there’d be no lesson. I called the school and they agreed. But 20 minutes later the instructor called, and said that the weather was OK at the airstrip (which is only 7km from my home, so unlikely to be that different) and that I should come for the lesson.
In the plane, and the tower said there was cloud cover at 2000 feet – so good enough to take off. First, though, taxi to refuel – which takes about 10 minutes. Then, taxi to runway. It did seem a bit strange that, at this relatively busy airstrip that usually has a lot of small planes jostling for position, we were the only one moving, but… I managed a smooth takeoff and was feeling relaxed when we hit cloud at 800 feet – and wind, and rain… “This is not weather for you”, said the instructor, he immediately taking over and returning to the field. So I was in the plane for 30 minutes, 25 minutes of which was spent either taxiing or refuelling. “It’s good experience anyway, you see what wind and rain are like”, said the instructor. Yeah, right. An expensive lesson in wind and rain. I had to pay for a 30 minute lesson for that. And a wasted journey – 40 minutes to get to the airfield, 30 minutes back.
I’d not had time to open the book they had sold me (it’s still unopened on my bookshelf) since it had only been a few days since the previous lesson, and I’d been meaning to ask lots of questions and find out about the rest of the curriculum after the practical flying. Sadly, the abortive 30 minutes depressed me too much to even ask one question.
This was early November. Unsurprisingly, the weather got worse, the days got shorter, and it was nearing my end of year long haul holiday. I decided to stop thinking about it and leave deciding on whether to continue until the early Spring – of last year.
I never went back. Although I’d loved flying, I now only thought of the bad experiences with instructors. I thought that the school would call me – after all, I was still a “member” and on their Facebook group – to encourage me to come back, or at least to find out why I wasn’t returning, but the call never came. On Facebook, I saw all the happy and young people who had achieved their first solo flights. Never a more mature face. Definitely a young person’s thing, then.
Further, there had been several high profile light aircraft crashes, most notably the footballer. My wife reminded me of my general lack of coordination and that I was an idiot to learn to fly. I had become a grandfather. Nothing there to encourage going back to having risky fun.
I’m glad I had the lessons, as they taught me the rudiments of aeronautics. I know the difference between flaps and rudders. I understand the criticality of power and attitude. From my window seat (always window – any other seat and one might as well be on a bus or train) I can observe the use of flaps and listen to the change in engine tone and the descent of landing gear. Recently, in Guyana, I was able to sit next to the pilot in the largest sort of single engine plane (a Cessna Grand Caravan taking 12 passengers) and appreciate that it is essentially the same as the little Piper I was learning on. I enjoy commercial flight as a passenger even more than I did before.
Flight is wonderful. It connects people across thousands of miles in a few hours. No improvement in video conferencing – even the somewhat surreal teleportation concept that a fellow passenger was explaining to me a few years ago on a long flight – can replace the value of face to face, hand to hand, body to body contact, whether in personal or business life.
And, as I said at the start, my thesis is that it’s nothing like as bad as it’s painted by environmentalists (of whom I generally approve). I’ll explain why in another article. I admit I’m biased – I love travel and I love flying. The time will come, hopefully not too soon, when I won’t be able to do it any more – meanwhile….
first published as a post on LinkedIn in January 2020