1500 feet and 80 knots

For my birthday back in April, my sister and her boyfriend - an airplane fanatic - gave me a voucher for a half-hour introductory flying lesson at the National Flying Centre. In my typical procrastinatory fashion, I left off doing anything with it until it had almost expired. Not because I didn't want to use it, you understand; more because I kept looking at it, thinking, "I must book that," and then going back to whatever it was I was doing. So finally, last week I phoned up the number on the voucher and asked if they could fit me in on a weekend before the end of the month. They gave me a 17:30 spot on Saturday 27/09, told me to phone "before you leave the house" just to verify that the weather was suitable, and that was that.

On Friday I had a throat infection. AIE! Fortunately, it cleared up by Friday evening. I'd also convinced myself that I'd taken down the time wrong, so I got up early on Saturday and phoned to confirm. They said that yes, 17:30 was the correct time, and the weather looked fine for the whole day. Yay!

I arrived at Weston Airport just after 5, having overshot the entrance because it's not signposted in any way... I had no idea what to expect. I thought maybe some basic theory, a ground-based introduction to the controls, and then off we go. So I walked up to the reception desk and gave my name; a guy standing nearby said, "I'll take him up", handed me a headset, filled out the flight sheet and said, "follow me".

Between reception and runaway he chatted to me, asking me if I'd done any flying before - no, only tooling around with a few sims - and what I did for a living and so forth. Smalltalk, I'm sure at least partly intended to distract any nerves I might have had about going up in a plane the size of a small car.

Off out to the airstrip, where he taxied the plane over to the fuel trailer to fill it up, and then off down the grass to the far end of the strip. He had me pull back the yoke as we taxied to the end of the strip to keep the nose up. Then he ran through the preflight check - mostly for his benefit, as I was barely able to keep up with what he was saying - got clearance from the tower and off we went.

The plane was, I think, a Cessna C172 - going on the fact that it was definitely a Cessna, and the callsign was CF-something, and there's only two CF-something callsigns on NFC's rentals page, both of 'em C172's... Taxiing and takeoff was nonsenically short given that prior to this the smallest thing I've flown in was a dozen-or-so-seater with seven on board. The thing practically leapt into the sky as soon as the instructor gave it a chance to do so. Once we were clear of the airfield - there's a fairly narrow flight corridor to negotiate - he took his hands off the controls and said, "ok, you fly". WOAH!

Ok, it wasn't quite that sort of reaction. He gave me a quick run-through of the instruments; the single biggest difficulty I had was that instead of occasionally glancing at a speedometer while driving I had to keep track of what six different dials were doing AND keep an eye on where I was going as well in case someone flew unannounced across my nose. I didn't quite managed the keeping an eye on where I was going bit, but I guess at least subconciously I was relying on the fact that there was someone else in the plane to do that.

The instructor did two dives that were a bit "whoooooooooo there goes my stomach", which I'm sure were completely unnecessary. Beyond that, I was flying for a good 15 minutes or so. He had me do a 2-minute turn in each direction, a couple of random turns to different bearings, and a climb and descent. Nothing with the rudder; all yoke-controlled. I mentioned during the descent that the plane seemed a bit inclined to climb, so he had me adjust the trim myself until I was happy with it. He was really impressed with the fact that I seemed to "get it" so quickly, to the extent that he said he's had guys with hours of flying time who still couldn't manage stuff like the turns and what not as smoothly. So, yay me! We also did a simulated engine failure - basically throttling the engine WAY back and then tooling with the trim until the plane was doing a steady descent at 65 knots or so - at which point he turned to me and said, "ok, you know how to fly. you've done the turns, climbs, descents and engine failure. want a license?"

Eventually it was time to head back, so the instructor took the controls again, tipped the plane into a sharp turn, lined up on the runaway, and talked me through the landing he was doing. He gently dropped the plane onto the runaway, and that was it. For my adventures I got a certificate signed by the instructor.

Impressions: the controls were WAY lighter than I expected. The Cessna's all wire controls, so none of it is power assisted, but your only resistance is the air and whatever wind is around, so there's really nothing to push back in the same way as, say, the road when you're driving. I couldn't quite get the hang of reading the altimeter, at least not as quickly as the instructor who just glanced at it when we were on approach to tell the tower our altitude. I was needlessly amused at hearing the tower say, "expedite" - it seems an odd way of telling someone to do something in a hurry, but it's the chosen lingo of ATC. I couldn't really get the hang of watching all the instruments and looking out the window, so I spent most of my fifteen minutes of flying missing the view. I was kinda surprised at the trim control - it seems like such a haphazard thing; this big knurled wheel down where the gearstick'd be in a car, with apparently a very low gearing so you can fine-tune your trim a lot but which also means you really have to crank the thing if the trim is way out of whack. I had absolutely no fear or nerves about it, which is a bit weird, because I'm normally mildly iffy about take-off and landing when I'm in a commercial jet - as Stephenson (sort of) put it, the interesting things happen around the fringes, the transitions between states. On the whole, I wouldn't mind having the spare cash to indulge in this as a hobby, but I don't, so *shrug*

And, it was HELLA FUN.