With no pre-flight instruction, I piloted a two-seat Cessna. And, for once in my life, I was sober.
IN HIGH SCHOOL, I HAD AN ORANGE TABBY named Richmond who did not like to ride in cars. When Mom and I had to take Richmond to the vet, I’d hold him in my lap and pet him and whisper soothing words into his ear. But before we could get out of the driveway, he’d go berserk, try to claw out my eyes, then always scamper under the front seat, where he’d shed and yowl for the duration of the trip.
I eventually learned a trick for transporting Richmond in the car. I put him in a pillowcase. Maybe it made him feel like he’d returned to the womb. I don’t know. But once Richmond was in a pillowcase, he would relax, sit back, and enjoy the ride.
Richmond is dead now. My mom found him one day curled up next to the couch, looking for all the world like he was asleep. Except he didn’t budge when she pushed the vacuum right up next to him. Mom called me up at college to give me the news. She told me she’d scooped up Richmond with a plastic Hefty sack and put him out with the trash.
I remember this every time I fly. For one thing, flying gives me the fantods. The slightest turbulence, and I want to hunker under a seat and make cat noises. But I also think of Richmond whenever I fly because I know I’ll be scooped into a plastic bag, too, after a jackscrew malfunctions or an entire carbon-composite tail flies off in midair, sending my plane into a horrific 30,000-foot nosedive straight into the ground. Thankfully, I’ve discovered my own pillowcase. It’s called vodka.
So, the other day, as I barreled down the runway of Arlington Municipal Airport in a tiny two-seater Cessna and, without a single word of pre-flight instruction on how to fly a plane, pulled back on the yoke and lifted off, the voice inside my head was saying, "Bloody Mary, meow-meow! Bloody Mary!" Kind of like Henrietta Pussycat, from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, battling the D.T.s.
There’s an outfit, you see, called Be A Pilot whose purpose is to encourage people to, um, be a pilot. Anyone can go to their web site at www.beapilot.com and print out a certificate good for a $49 introductory flight lesson, about half the normal cost, at participating flight schools across the country. I signed up because I finally decided it was time to face my fears head on, like a man. A man who loves a bargain as much as any man.
And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that my flight instructor, Ryan, gave me no actual flight instructions before takeoff. I mean, he started the plane and pulled out of the parking space, but then he simply told me to put my feet on the pedals and taxi to the end of the runway. He cleared us with the tower. Then he said, "Okay, give it some throttle and keep it down the middle. More throttle. Now pull back. There, you’re flying." I took us up to about 2,700 feet and, following Ryan’s directions, banked left or portward, if that’s the preferred term. All by myself. All completely sober.
Ryan, who looked to be in his late 20s, was rather blasé about handing over the controls to someone who’d never flown a plane and who hears the voices of puppets in his head. After about 10 minutes, I relaxed enough to stop grinding my teeth and ask him about it. Ryan said, "Man, I have students that come up with new ways to kill me every day. You’re actually a pretty good pilot."
You know what? I was. I had no idea where I was flying, mistaking at one point some tall buildings in the distance for downtown Dallas when it was really Fort Worth. And even if I had managed to navigate back to the airport, I couldn’t have landed the plane (Ryan would later do those honors). But cutting big, lazy circles in the sky over southern Arlington, slipping the surly bonds of earth, touching the face of God, and all that hooey, I felt like I was getting the hang of flying. Next time I go up in a commercial jet, I think I’ll be able to forgo my pillowcase.
That’s the good news. The bad news is, I now have one less reason to drink.