The notion that someday I could fly an airplane was something I ranked behind my chances of mastering trapeze or dancing a good disco. I just wasn’t the type. But three years ago MJ gave me a gift certificate for one pilot lesson, worth forty-nine dollars. I called the number on the card and made an appointment with someone named Nick.
The morning of my first flight, MJ brought down her old aviation textbooks. She had earned a pilot license herself several years ago (actually called a private pilot certificate), but her first husband crashed their plane into a cornfield and she hasn’t flown since. She hopes I will have better luck.
Looking over the books, I could tell there were a lot of new things: charts, graphs and terms like angle of attack, dihedral and longitudinal axis. All of this was foreign to me. I was an excellent math and science student in high school, but that was twenty years ago. By the time I was a senior it was clear I was going to pursue a career in music and I turned my focus to humanities and literature. I remember walking out of the final pre-calculus exam the end of my junior year thinking, “I’ll never have to know this stuff again. Woo-hoo!” Yet now I warily eyed my wife’s E6B flight computer, a slide rule which calculated things like fuel burn, density altitude and wind correction angle. I knew I was back in that hell again.
I drove to the airport, but instead of going to the main terminal I turned right and parked at Northern Air, which services everything from personal airplanes to private jets. I found the suite number, knocked on the door, and met Nick, who surprised me with his youthful appearance. I guess I assumed that—like in other fields—the role of “instructor” would be reserved for older, distinguished people coming from storied careers who were ready to impart their wisdom. Honestly, I thought Nick would look like Chuck Yeager. But I soon learned flight instructors make thirteen dollars an hour with no benefits. It is an entry-level job.
I walked out on the tarmac with Nick, and he showed me our training airplane, a Diamond Star DA-40, which resembles a wasp. After a preliminary explanation of the flight instruments Nick told me to hop in the cockpit. I did. He got in the other seat, closed the Plexiglas bubble around us and started the engine. The propeller noise stunned me. As a professional musician I have developed sensitive ears and the noise was intrusive and constant. We put on some headsets, and that helped things a little. Nick made a few calls on the radio—one to check the weather, one to get clearance, one to ground control—and before I knew it we were taxiing to runway 26 Left.
Nick said the number of the runway told you the direction you were pointed. All you had to do was add a zero and that was your compass heading. Easy. Hence, runway 26 pointed us to 260 degrees on the compass, which was ten degrees shy of west. So far, things made sense. Then Nick said the headings were actually to magnetic north—not true north—so when planning a trip you had to adjust the numbers for "isogonic lines of magnetic variation." I told Nick that was enough information for now.
Once we arrived at the end of the runway, Nick changed radio frequencies and informed the control tower we were ready to go. They told us we were clear for take-off. Nick taxied onto the runway, added full power, and the airplane rolled straight down the centerline, gaining speed. In such a tiny plane, this was a rush. I noticed the airspeed indicator needle quiver and come alive. It steadily climbed past forty, then fifty. Once it hit sixty, Nick said, “And now we pull back just a bit on the stick.” In one gentle motion, the airplane seemed to lose all its weight and the wheels no longer touched the ground.
We were flying.
Up until this day I had been having a tough time dealing with the death of my mother. She was sixty-eight when she began mixing up words and the doctors found an incurable brain tumor. Shortly after that I watched her casket go into the cremation chamber where I personally activated the button that turned the flames on. At that moment all I could think was someday I was going to be in there. Right then I began making a list of the things I had yet to do with my life.
Professionally, I couldn’t complain. I had set out to have a career as an orchestral oboist and I was doing just that, holding a tenured spot in one of the best regional orchestras in the country. I had also set a goal to be a composer that people cared about. I was sort of doing that too. The year before my mother died, she watched me walk to center stage at Carnegie Hall and take a bow after a performance of my composition “Fireworks.” That was a really good moment for me. It’s hard to top that.
My personal life was even better. I was blessed with a fantastic partner in MJ. We also had Noah, the best dog in the world. My first marriage, where I dived in young and stupid, had been a mistake, but I had things right now. And MJ had made a mistake the first time around, too. Her first husband survived the cornfield crash without a scratch but they later divorced. My marriage with MJ feels like two people who have seen the worst and are so grateful to have each other they would simply die before they let anything get between them.
So I was happy at work and happy at home. Yet the finality of turning the flames on your own mother reached deep inside me as nothing had before. When I pressed the red button, I could feel what I was missing in life. And the plain truth was despite all the goodness and security I had around me, I had fallen into a pattern of playing it safe. I had a cozy job with a union to protect me, a marriage with a wife to protect me, and a family with resources to protect me.
But I hadn’t proved myself to a room full of strangers in a long time.
As the Diamond Star lifted off runway 26 Left, I was surprised how quickly my thoughts turned to my mother like that. Even though I think she lived a full life, it still bothered me that she had been cheated out of her golden years, that she would now miss experiences she had earned the right to enjoy. It was like living in part of a television series that had no final episode to tie everything up. One day, the episodes just stopped. This weighed heavily on me, and for the months leading up to this I literally felt the sensation of being pressed into the ground, like a big thumb from the sky was stuffing me into the dirt and I didn’t know how to escape it.
Once we were 500 feet above the ground, Nick retracted the take-off flaps, adjusted the propeller and power settings, and climbed to 3,000 feet. “Your airplane,” he said.
I had known this was coming, and I replied, “My airplane.”
“The controls are yours,” he confirmed.
Flying an airplane is different from driving a car, and the basics of flying straight and level require some getting used to. In a car you steer, and the car goes where you point the wheel. In an airplane, you are balancing three things, not one. Pitch is where you point the nose, either up or down. Roll is the angle the wings are tilted one way or the other. And yaw is the third axis, whether the nose is pointed left or right as you fly straight ahead (controlled via a rudder on the tail). So you have to constantly balance pitch, roll, and yaw just to fly in a straight line, and these also need to be balanced with the power setting. I thought I had things under control until Nick pointed out I had lost 500 feet of altitude. I climbed back up to 3,000 feet only to find myself more than two miles to the left of my desired course. I rolled the wings right to correct this, but I yawed the airplane too far into a skidding turn. And I also didn’t notice that I had continued climbing all the way to 3,500 feet. This was above the altitude the control tower had cleared us, and we were now in danger of colliding with commercial air traffic. This all happened in a few minutes.
After I stabilized, I asked Nick, “You said to keep my speed around 100 miles an hour?”
“100 knots, actually,” Nick corrected me. “In aviation we do things in knots.”
“What’s a knot?” I asked.
He paused, then said, “It’s . . . like a mile.”
By now I have logged over 50 hours of flight time, and I have learned that one knot equals 1.15 miles. But that exchange with Nick was my first clue he was not the best pilot. For example, he would demonstrate a steep turn, where you roll the airplane to 45 degrees of bank and fly in a circle while maintaining a constant altitude. Nick would say, “And then you add a little power here. Wait, no you add it here, oops.” The plane would plummet a quick 300 feet and he would say, “Okay, that was a terrible example. Now you try it.”
Shortly after that Nick got a job with a regional airline and I moved on to my next instructor. (I have had five different ones by now.) Brad, the next in line, was even younger than Nick but was an excellent pilot, very precise with the numbers. He had freckles and was awkward and geeky, but once he got the headset on he was in control. He is the type that will fly private jets someday.
After Brad there was Ryan. He was the oldest instructor I have had, 28, and he had some kind of military background. During my private ground school with him he drilled me on knowledge questions.
“What class of airspace begins at 18,000 feet?” he barked.
“Sir, Class A, SIR!”
“How high does that go?”
“Sir, 60,000 feet, SIR!”
“And above that?”
“Sir, it becomes Class E, SIR!”
He would study me for a moment and coolly say, “Excellent.”
I grew to like Ryan, and over time he softened. We became friends, and on his last day I gave him a bottle of rare olive oil along with one of my CDs. He was heading off for two weeks of training so he could fly for a freight company.
Alex was my most recent instructor, youthful, motivated and full of surprises. Many a lesson with Alex began with one goal, then suddenly he would idle the propeller and shout, “Engine failure! Engine failure!” leaving you scrambling. Once, he popped the circuit breaker for the alternator, which powers the electrical equipment in the cockpit. I consulted the emergency checklist and switched off all non-essential electrical elements, which buys you time with the backup battery. The radio—an important tool for emergency landings—stopped working, though. After the drill was over, Alex flicked the radio with his finger, and said, “Hmm, it’s supposed to work in a real emergency.”
Before Alex, Angie was an instructor I had for only one, memorable lesson. Angie had piercings in her face and she wore black make-up. Up in the air, she asked me to do a stall, where you intentionally force the airplane into a position where it will not fly anymore. You would never do this with passengers, but as a pilot it is important to practice stalling so you can recognize the signs leading up to it.
I slowed the Diamond Star down, pulled back on the stick, and pushed the power all the way in. The nose tipped up, the airspeed needle quivered down, and the plane shook. This is called a buffet, and it happens right before a stall. The controls get mushy and it is hard to keep the tail level.
But the airplane would not stall. I kept pulling back on the stick as we buffeted and the airspeed dropped to zero. At this point the twisting motion of the propeller torqued the airplane violently in the opposite direction so the right wing flipped down and the rest of the airplane went with it like a rag doll.
We stalled with the nose pointing straight at the ground. I had done stalls before, but I had never seen or even heard of a nose-down stall. One false move and we would go into a spin, which is commonly (and incorrectly) called a tailspin. In other words, we were about to be a statistic.
During symphony rehearsals, I get scolded by my colleague Ellen, who thinks I am insane for learning to fly. She is certain I am going to die. She always yells at me, “If you die in that airplane I’m going to kill you!”
I reassure Ellen by emailing her links to news stories about small planes crashing. But I always hide their content, typing the message, “Hey Ellen, check out this article about Tosca at the Met Opera.” When she clicks on the link, a web page opens and a headline reads, “Cessna 182 Crashes in Ozarks, Killing 2,” along with a picture of crumpled metal hanging from a tree. I know these jokes are in horrible taste. But my hope is that by eliciting an outrageous reaction it will force her to laugh, and then she will stop worrying.
But now in a nose-down stall, suddenly all those emails to Ellen don’t seem so funny. Those news items were about real people who died. Now I can see that in sending the emails to Ellen I wasn’t trying to calm her worries. I was calming my own. But it was a little late to realize this.
In this unusual attitude for the first time I panicked and did exactly the wrong thing by pulling the power all the way out. The airplane’s turn coordinator rolled to one side, signifying the beginning of a spin. I froze up. Had Angie not been in the copilot seat, I am certain this would have been the end of me.
“No, no, full power,” Angie said plainly. Her calm tone was lost on me, and as moments go this was terror beyond anything I had ever known. We were making a beeline for the ground. I was truly frozen, unable to think or do anything.
“FULL POWER!” she shouted.
I snapped out of it. I opened the throttle frantically and slammed on the rudder pedal opposite the spin. In an instant the airplane realigned itself, the propeller gave thrust, I leveled the wings, and the plane climbed. The whole episode took no more than a few seconds.
I was soaked in sweat and my face must have lost all its color because Angie asked me, “Are you okay to continue?”
“I’m fine,” I lied. I glanced at her. She looked like the Angel of Death. I had just relied on a stranger with Goth makeup to save my life.
“Okay, let’s do that again,” she said.
And we repeated the whole thing. But this time I was ready for it when the right wing whipped down after the plane refused to stall. I pushed the power in, leveled the wings, stabilized the rudder, and we recovered. What was a terrifying experience the first time became a predictable, almost boring lesson in aerodynamics. Engineers had designed the airplane so stall or spin recovery was just another event, like stepping on the brakes in your car. The airplane was fine. Pilots that panicked were the problem.
I cut the lesson short and asked to land. On the ground, I called MJ, something I do after every flight. I tried to tell her what happened, but no words came out. I cried openly for only the second time since my mother’s death.
After my mother died I cried only once, a few days after her cremation. But since then it had felt like my tear ducts were stopped with beeswax. A terrible pain festered behind my eyes. “I feel like there’s an ocean of tears inside me,” I would tell MJ from time to time. Considering how many tears I have shed so freely since my neurosurgery, I wonder how much my tumor was acting as a stopper, and how much sadness was really trapped inside me the past three years. That is something science or medicine will never be able to quantify.