Such Great Heights

The whole idea behind Project Pilot is that, gosh, anybody can learn to fly a plane. The new recruiting arm of the nonprofit Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is trying painfully hard to remake the face of flying. Its glossy Website shouts “you can fly” and “you can learn to fly” (a subtle distinction, I think) while intoning over pictures of Eurotrash and limousines that “some people think that flying is reserved for the elite, the wealthy, risk takers and classic over-achievers.” Not so, they say. A few simple lessons and you’ll be the jet-setting envy of all your peers, winging to remote campsites on the weekends, soaring above the gridlock.

Anybody can do it? Right.

But then I met the Spokane Airways pilot who was going to take me up in the school’s four-seater Cessna. He didn’t look any older than me. Just this plain-spoken 20-something dude in a baseball cap. I’d expected maybe that demented crop duster from the Capital One commercial, a grizzled old vet. But no: Pat Brennan, a student at Eastern. If this guy could fly — let alone teach someone to fly — then maybe I could, too.

That notion was underscored by my less-than-rigorous screening and training processes. I had planned on at least a criminal history check when I arrived at the office behind Spokane International. Maybe a collateral deposit, a vision test. Surely a vigorous pat-down. But nothing.

Instead, Pat and I sat down in one corner of the little office building, the air redolent of Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip cookies, some guy sprawled on a nearby couch watching golf on TV. My lesson consisted of a 15-minute explanation of what it takes to get your private pilot certificate. Usually about 55 hours of flight time and around $9,000, when you count the instruction, the flight time, books, etc. You can get a recreational certificate for less money and time, but it limits what, how, when and how far you can fly. A private certificate, on the other hand, offers the full range of pilot privileges.

That was my pre-flight training. No yaw, no pitch, no roll. No exciting flight simulators. We simply walked out onto the tarmac and checked up on the plane. Which was a lesson in itself. We inspected the flaps, the ailerons, the rudder, the pitot, the wheels, the propeller, the rivets on the wings. At one point, Pat stopped and asked me, as if by way of assuring himself that I was getting all this, “So, you write for some kind of aviation publication?” Uh, no. I write about condos and pollution and politics. I crack jokes about solid waste disposal.

Still, he let me crawl up on top of the plane and pour a little gas into the tank. And he seemed — somehow — to feel comfortable enough to let me take the pilot’s seat inside the cockpit. We checked gauges, flipped switches, messed with the throttle, turned and pulled and twisted a lot of levers and dials that I didn’t understand. It wasn’t for wont of trying. There were just so many of them. All the while, Pat’s cracking jokes like, “Don’t worry, I’ll close my door just before we take off; otherwise I’ll die.” Or, “If you don’t shut off the fuel line before cutting the engine … and if God hates you and all the stars align, it could just blow up the whole plane.” He made me yell “clear propeller” out the window to nobody in particular, so as to head off a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style execution.

Not everybody can fly a plane — just those who can take Pat’s wry humor.

Fortunately, I had nerves of steel from years of obsessing over Top Gun as a kid. Because of a childhood predilection for pushing buttons and turning dials, and because of the several times I’d flown over the handlebars of my bicycle, I believed (around age 7) that I’d been born to be a fighter pilot.

Of course, the one thing Tom Cruise never taught me was how to taxi down the runway in a Cessna Skyhawk. Maverick never mentioned how you steer with your feet; he neglected to note how badly you want to grab the yoke in front of you and steer with your hands. This proved to be the most difficult part of the entire flight process. You simply push the left pedal to veer left and the right pedal to veer right, but each is attached to a spring, which gives quite a bit before it begins to respond. And then once it responds, it yanks the plane in one direction or another. Combine this with the fact that the upper parts of the same pedals act as brakes and you have the formula for me zig-zagging across the concourse like Harry Nilsson and John Lennon after a night at the Troubadour.

The radio control tower was kind enough not to note this when it instructed us to wait for a Horizon flight to pass by before we took off. Pat was kind enough to take over the steering once we hit the runway. He told me to ease the throttle forward, then — when he gave the signal — pull back lightly on the yoke and try to line the edge of the dashboard up with the distant horizon. I did all that. What it meant — I realized about 30 seconds later — was that I was flying.

It would have been a magical moment but for the terror in my heart. I was so focused on hitting that damn horizon that I missed that awe-inspiring feeling I always get when taking off on a commercial flight — the feeling of peeling off the ground, the sudden whoosh of perspective.

At the same time, I was flying! And it was almost effortless. Certainly no more difficult than driving a car. We flew southwest toward the South Hill, where we sailed over my house, over the rose gardens at Manito and the ball fields at Ferris. Pat had me bank to the right, do a full 180 toward Steptoe Butte. Then another and another. The heat rising off the earth below shook the plane in mid-bank, giving me mild heart attacks. I think I tasted my spleen when he told me to dip down and feel the plane descending. Still, the little plane handled like a champ.

“That’s about it,” Pat told me after my last U-turn. Most people get the hang of flying in just a few sessions. There’s a lot more knowledge to acquire before they become good pilots, but the feel of flight and the control of the aircraft are easy to learn. Landing is a little more difficult (and here Pat retook the controls after I got us back toward the airport), but he noted he had one student pilot who was able to land the plane on his first flight. He just got it.

I wouldn’t have gotten it. Or I might have gotten it. It’s just that once we kissed the ground, I would’ve zig-zagged us into a fireball. It doesn’t take an ace to do that.

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