Pilot’s musings

March 2017

It was the last day of March and I went flying, – again.
My pilot’s license was about to expire as it does every two years. Two things were required. A full medical, called such because amongst many other tests it also involves and ECG taken during a run on a treadmill continued thereafter while lying still on a bed measuring the heart as it returns back to normal. And, a skills re-test, while flying with a suitably qualified instructor.

Flying is a passion I have surrendered to for more than a quarter century.

It was in the later afternoon and despite the seasons change from summer to autumn, here on the southern tip of Africa, the day had been incredibly hot with the temperature touching forty-two Celsius over lunch. I drove the thirty kilometers from home to the airport on the motorbike and en route descended one thousand feet in altitude into the boiling pot of Pietermaritzburg. Heat waves seared and enveloped me on my ride, giving way occasionally to a refreshing coolness, like standing under a waterfall from a mountain stream, as I drove through shaded forest areas down Townhill, skirting the center of town on my way to the airport.

There was an old familiarity sitting in the Cessna 172 again after an abstinence from flying for twenty-four months. I was overcome by a feeling that I had been on this aircraft many times before as sounds, smells, looks, location, even the anticipation of flight awakened again.

This whole ‘going flying again’ experience became a long déjà vu. I relived moments that had been identical before. I had seen and done all this already, – but in the past, – two years ago. Now, it all came back to me after stepping into the aircraft and prepping for this flight.

My reality, in any case on the precipice of surreality, took on a further dimension as another déjà vu within this déjà vu occurred. (Is there a name for that?)

Alas. A few things seemed to have moved in the cockpit! Where was that trimmer again? And, for whatever deeply ingrained reason, I automatically reached out for the circuit breakers on the far right of the dash, but they weren’t there. It was a pre-programmed, subconscious action executed entirely convinced. After my momentary surprise, I immediately retreated from this deeper reality and initiated a mindful ‘real’ scan to find them. Aware that my ‘deep déjà vu’ must have an origin and that at this moment my task was preparing the aircraft and not to immerse into philosophical thought, I commanded control of my reality. The smiling instructress next to me letting me indulge in my moment of absence as I found said circuit breakers right in front of me.

Undoubtedly all the run-up checks took longer than before. Taxiing to the holding point and then to the runway threshold also seemed a real thigh and knee workout feeding back the clear impression that the ground was not the preferred place for this aircraft. (At various stages of the flight too, especially during abnormal situations and their recovery I wished for the option of having power-assisted controls.)

Once all the basic stuff had been taken care of and everybody from the control tower to the instructress and the aircraft was ready for the purpose of assessing the aptitude of the pilot, an altogether different experience awaited.

Just in case my stomach intended to voice displeasure at being ungrounded again after two years I had taken some precautions too. Fresh ginger slices and pieces of a Granny Smith apple were known to quiesce any internal revolt and therefore I sucked on the ginger already an hour before and supplemented it with bits of the apple.

As I left the stability of earth the liquidity of air lunged at me. But, unlike the skipper of a boat in the liquid of water who sees the movement and intentions of his medium, in the air, as much as I wanted to be proactive, I immediately found myself on the reactive leg. Exposed to the invisible rising air of a hot day and being blown by an unseen wind, the workload in the cockpit intensified instantly. Very fleetingly a thought occurred, – I think the occupant of the passenger seat was unaware, – that wearing a pair of x-ray glasses that could decode the invisible medium of air would be a good buy from that Aircraft Spruce shop in the sky.

A perpetual thought reiterated its presence as I questioned my mission: how much do I allow the medium of air to influence me and how much do I impose myself on that medium so that I achieve my objective without violating nature and its laws? I am not an arrow that pierces through the air regardless of its environment. I am much like a winged nutshell with clear intentions and a very few horsepower to aid me along. And that medium is not just a liquid mass but it also has the ability to obscure my vision through glaring sunlight, smoke, cloud, and haze, and distract me by blowing with such voracity that I could easily miss my destination and lose my already stretched confidence. To top it all if I was not able to recall suitable procedures to extricate myself out of some potentially dangerous situations I would not make it back to base. Well, that was not true today because there was someone else in the cockpit who could save the situation, but it would not reflect endearingly on my ability to master powered flight and have my license once more endorsed.

With that awareness flashing on the periphery of my being in the sky, I used what I had available: my vision to the outside, the instruments, the flight controls and power-plant and combined the lot with a few years of experience into a coordinated action of ‘controlled’ flight. And then, because I am not a drone, I added the human pleasure factor of experiencing flight through the sensual feedback, ran it from my senses through my mind, my heart and my soul, savored the moment like a sip of Shiraz with a cigar on a couch and an arm around a loved one, amplified it with inspired imagination, absorbed it into every cell and did all that at a processing speed measured in Mach. Airspeed, altitude, attitude, t’s (temperatures) and p’s (pressures), location and imagination, all in the stream of consciousness of flying in the moment.

A cognitive approach to actions like incipient spins, stalling, forced landings, steep turns, S’s, doglegs, climbing, descending, trim glide, flaps up and flaps down stalls and failure recoveries was called for. Breathing, enjoying, flying, – mindfully aware all the time, – that is what my momentary axis of existence revolved around.

Altitude was gobbled to ground level within minutes of granting gravity the stage. The scenery blurred as steep turns flirted with their fascination of a spin. Stalls reached for the sky only to be abruptly denied their moment in heaven by an instinctual dropping of the nose back towards the ground. The brief was clear: catch the escapee and bring some order into the turmoil. Release, un-stall, pull back, apply power, level out, trim, set heading and altitude, make a radio call, re-focus, catch a glimpse of the beautiful land outside, appreciate the privilege of this experience, deal with the emotions of falling in love with flying all over again, know that this dream is real, listen out, and eventually find the airfield again.

Join on a downwind pattern and prepare for the first landing since forever. Keep that wing aligned with the runway and those butterflies in check. Breathe, focus. More checks, then turn onto base leg. Carb heat, flaps, speed. Prepare even more, look-judge-adjust and then, inevitably, that sacrosanct moment arrives. I turn onto final, the runway clear in front of me, my focus on max, last radio call, cleared to land, full flap, nose down, carb heat off, maintain speed, too low, add power, maintain approach speed, over the threshold, look into the distance, cut the power, pull back, back, back and – squeak, squeak as the tires touch ground, – release the back pressure slowly, use rudder to keep on the center line, gently settle the nose-wheel, drop the flaps, feed in power, check speed, pull back and rotate… and keep on sipping that cocktail of déjà vu and reality.