July 25, 2014
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Mr. Adventure: Fly Right

So what’s a little turbulence when you’re at the controls? A (nervous) report from on high.

Illustration by Gary Hovland

An argument can be made that the air-o-plane is the devil’screation and has made the world so small that atrocities such as Pauly Shore performing on both coasts on the same day are truly possible.

Yet, we take it for granted. A few swipes on a smartphone can get you a seat on a vehicle capable of traveling at more than 600 mph at 35,000 feet while you watch The View from the headrest in front of you and purchase a doghouse from SkyMall. Pretty amazing.

But, removing one’s shoes and finding seat 17F isn’t really flying. It’s destinational sitting. Any self-respecting adventurer would rather be in the cockpit, at the controls, performing barrel rolls and doing loop-the-loops.

But you can’t just drive over to Planes-R-Us and fly one off the lot. You need a license. Them’s the rules.

So I went over to Europe-American Aviation at Naples Municipal Airport. It’s where all of the cool kids go to learn how to fly, and they agreed to give me a taste of their private pilot certification program. It turns out it’s very similar to the sailing lessons I took a few months back, except with only a 50 percent chance of drowning. That’s progress. If you have four solid weeks and approximately $12,000-$15,000, you can get your very own private pilot license.

So armed with little more than memories of Airplane! and an irrational fear of in-flight lavatories, I met with instructor Matthew Ensor, an affable 27-year-old Baltimore native who took me under his wing.

Not surprisingly, you need some classroom time before they let you hop into one of their shiny DiamondStar DA-40s. The planes look and feel light years ahead of the old Cessnas most other flight schools offer.

Of course, as great as it is to have the latest technology surrounding you when you take to the sky, it’s also nice to have good weather. And we did when I pulled into the parking lot. I distinctly remember thinking, “Thank God it’s a nice morning.” But Florida in the summertime is a fickle chick, and by the time we walked to the tarmac to do our pre-flight check I was dismayed to eye a darkening sky over what I assume to be Immokalee.

“If we need to reschedule this, we can try again tomorrow,” I said to Ensor.

“I would never take you up if I didn’t feel it was safe,” he replied. The words were surprisingly comforting coming from a man in an Orioles ball cap. But when you hear both Jim Croce and Lynyrd Skynyrd on the way to the airport, it does allow your mind some room for doubt. Especially when you walk out onto the tarmac and realize that the DiamondStar DA-40 appears to be a popcorn popper with composite wings. Hmm. It looked so much larger in the pictures.

Equally disconcerting: When you climb in, you discover its control stick pops up through the seat you’re sitting in. It’s like the plane was designed by a urologist.

Once I settled inside, its all-glass cockpit seemed to feature two lovely iPads mounted in the dashboard, taking the place of the old-style gauges (altimeter, etc.). They’re not iPads, of course, which explains why I was having difficulty playing Angry Birds. And before I could even look for Pandora, Ensor had us speeding down the runway.

Light aircraft require surprisingly little runway to get airborne. Before I had the chance to really think about what I was getting myself into, we were off the ground.

“Don’t worry about those (massive, ominous, dark, foreboding clouds)—we’re heading over that way,” Esnor said, pointing toward a sliver of blue sky leading directly toward Marco Island.

“Ahh,” I replied. It was really a sliver. And those clouds over Immokalee seemed to be growing exponentially. It was equal parts mesmerizing and unsettling. Jesus. Clouds look really big when you meet them on their terms. But it’s not like I was driving, and the ride was smooth as glass. Frankly, aside from the fact that all I could see out my side of the plane was what appeared to be my own personal hurricane, I was feeling pretty good about the experience.

That is until I heard the phrase, “Why don’t you take the controls so you can get a feel for the plane?”

Somehow I had forgotten that was part of the plan. It was, in fact, the entire reason I showed up. But now, faced with a storm front to my left and a dashboard covered in things that only looked like iPads, this was starting to feel like a moment I could have put more thought into back on the ground.

Suddenly it didn’t make sense that someone with only 30 minutes of classroom knowledge would be given control of an aircraft. Of course, what could possibly go wrong? After all, the plane had an airbag built right into the seatbelt. Surely that would save us in the event I did something “silly.” That’s how Ensor describes lapses in judgment by his students. “Silly.”

At 3,500 feet, I might choose different terminology. A gentle pull of the lever one way or another continually translated into what I have seen the Japanese do time and time again on the History channel—dropping in on their kamikaze missions. Holy mother of God, that was more than I bargained for. Every time I did it, I ended up looking at more ground than sky, which feels like a bad thing when you don’t know what you’re doing.

And each time it gave me more opportunity to think about where the rescue vehicles might be dispatched from. For a while, my hopes were pinned on the Coast Guard. But at least there wasn’t any turbulen—OH MY GOD! TURBULENCE!

OK, it was just some minor shuddering, but in the few minutes that I was in control, the sliver of opportunity that we had flying into Marco had completely closed in. It was now gray and raining and, in case you didn’t catch it earlier, turbulent.

It’s funny how rain and wind don’t bother me at all in the Porsche, but felt like harbingers of doom at 3,500

feet. Ensor radioed Naples to see what conditions were there: And while this is not an aeronautical term, “crap” was the basic gist of their meteorological assessment. An executive decision was made to land at the Marco Island airport and wait out the weather.

As the rain continued to pelt the windscreen and we descended toward the now visible Marco airport, I was comforted by the thought that not a single great literary talent had ever died in a plane crash. Of course, by the time I realized that designation fit neither Esnor nor myself, he had landed the plane beautifully and we were taxiing toward the terminal.

Huh.

I guess flying isn’t that hard after all.

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