Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (Episode 3): To Fly Like a Bird

I stand at the end of a field in the dull morning light, look up from dew-drenched grass to a lead-grey sky overhead, stretch out my arms as far as they will go then turn until I feel the near-nonexistent breeze raise the hair equally on both of my arms.

The wind is from the South; strange for Canada, a part of the world where air usually rushes down from the North in a desperate search for warmth. It’s not much of a wind, but when your legs are your landing gear, you want to get airborne as fast as you can. So I sway from side to side until I’m pointed right into the morning breeze—then prepare for flight.

In my mind, I can see myself running … so I slowly begin to move.

I am heavy at first, the weight of the world holding me down. And as it’s still quite early, the wet grass sticks to my feet while I try to gather speed.

“Should not have worn boots,” my ever-present inner voice criticizes. “Sneakers would have been lighter.”

Lighter perhaps, but also wetter. The bottom of my socks already feel squishy.

Focus.

Starting to feel light. Won’t be long now … if I can run just a little faster.

Faster.

Faster …

Then—my outspread arms press down against the wind, the air grabs hold … and I lift up into the sky.

Wow!

No matter how often I fly, this moment of transition from ground-beast to air-bird has never lost its ability to amaze with its incredible, mindboggling, magic!

I am climbing well today, but that just stands to reason. This early spring air is cool on my face and its thick, dense molecules lift me easily into the sky. I lower my head, look down the length of my body and watch the world slide by beneath my dangling feet.

“Isn’t that strange?” I think. “How unusual that I fly vertically!” Most people tell me they fly like Superman—horizontal—arms stretched out in front—legs flowing gracefully behind. It makes more sense, when you think of it. And I bet I could go faster if I stopped dragging my body through all this air. Funny I’d never thought of that before. But I’ve flown this way for as long as I can remember.

Hmmm …

So, how do I swing my legs up behind me? Perhaps I could use my arms as a pivot, swing my legs forward, then simply let the wind take them back. Sounds like it might work, so I decide to give it a try.

Like a kid on a swing, I propel my legs forward … then let them come back…

And back …

And—

OH MY GOD!

As my legs approach the horizontal, suddenly and abruptly, I stop flying! And in that instant, my arms turn from wings into useless leaden weights, dragging me down in an increasingly rapid descent towards the ground.

“STOP THIS FALL,” my brain cries out. “YOU MUST STOP THIS FALL.

“I AM TRYING,” I scream in answer. Oh, God how I am trying. But I can’t get my legs back where they should be and the field is racing up to meet me with terrifying speed.

“I DON’T THINK THERE’S TIME TO PULL OUT.”

“NO,” I answer the terrified voice in my head.

In that moment, I realize I am going to die.

And there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop it.

As the moment of my end arrives, I strain for one last look at my beloved sky, see the dark grey overcast, and think …

“Gee … I sure wish this had happened on a nicer day.”

And with that thought, I hit the ground …

And the world fades away.

As my eyes opened in the darkened bedroom, two thoughts popped into my head:

First—I had heard that if you fall in your dreams you will never actually hit the ground. “If you die in your sleep, you die in reality,” that’s what I’d been told. But as my racing heart fought to purge the adrenalin from my body, I realized I could safely file that information under “bogus.”

The second thought was even clearer:

“I know I’ve had this dream before.”

As a matter of fact, I had that dream, with unnerving regularity, for as far back as I have memory. But although it gave me a classic case of acrophobia, it also, ironically, filled me with a desire to fly like a real bird.

 

On March 4, 1967, I decided the time had come to do something about it. So, I climbed into my fire-engine-red Triumph Spitfire and headed north to Buttonville Airport. I had finally summoned up enough nerve to book my Introductory Flight, but now I was actually on my way to the airport, I was having second, third, and fourth thoughts about the idea. I mean, who was I kidding? I still couldn’t climb higher than the second rung on a ladder without my acrophobia kicking in. So why the hell did I think I could go up in one of those little Cessna airplanes—let alone fly the thing?

By the time I got to Buttonville, I had myself worked into a state of near-panic. I stood outside the terminal for more than a few minutes before I realized the only way to put this nightmare behind me was to actually go through with it. I was sure that once I’d flown, I would, a) be able to say I’d done it, and b) have terrified myself sufficiently to never go back again. I took a deep breath … then another one … and pulled open the terminal door.

The friendly dispatcher confirmed my reservation, but was less friendly when I handed him the $5 Introductory Flight coupon I’d clipped out of Flying magazine. He checked a large booking sheet in front of him, slid his finger to the bottom, then said, “Okay, I can put you in LUK.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but nodded my thanks.

The dispatcher introduced me to an older instructor by the name of Ken Trone. Ken was a pleasant man and it must have been obvious I was terrified because he quickly tried to put me at ease. As we walked across the tarmac, Ken waxed euphoric on the safety of light aircraft, and I was actually beginning to feel reassured when Ken asked which plane the dispatcher had given us. “Um … LUK,” I answered (still not knowing what that meant). Ken’s demeanour changed immediately.

“Oh …” he said. “You give ‘em a $5 coupon?”

“Yes,” I answered, more than a little nervously.

Ken nodded his head glumly. “They don’t give out new planes for Intro Flights,” he explained, nodding his head towards a ratty-looking machine at the end of the line with the letters, CF-LUK emblazoned on its side. “Ah-ha! So that’s what those letters mean,” I thought, pleased to have solved at least one mystery.

We arrived by the side of the little, two-seat Cessna 150 … and by little, I mean LITTLE! I had expected to look up at the airplane. I was damn near looking down at it. I had known Cessna trainers were small, but I honestly couldn’t see how two of us were going to fit inside that tiny machine.

Ken spent the next 20 minutes teaching me how to do “a walk around.” This consisted of detailed instructions (which I immediately forgot) on how to inspect all the various bits attached to the airplane. As far as I could tell, the chief idea behind this exercise was to insure nothing was about to fall off.

This was MY job?  Didn’t they have mechanics for that sort of thing?

Ken was pleasantly explaining the horrible things that could happen to the plane (and me) if we missed something important, when I suddenly realized we had completed our circle of the plane and the time had come to get in. I reached for the door handle, gave it a tug … and a thin piece of tin swung open.

My heart began to pound. I hadn’t even got in the damn thing, but I could already feel the blood racing around my body because I couldn’t believe this scrap of aluminium & Plexiglas was seriously called “a door.” I had expected a massive piece of steel, locked securely in place with one of those big wheel-lock assemblies you see on airliners. Instead I was holding something that looked as if it had been fashioned out of the tin lunch boxes I used to carry to school.

Ken must have noticed my less-than-confident attitude because he grinned and said, “Don’t worry, the door’s just there to keep the wind out. The seat belt holds you in.” And with that, he climbed in the passenger side … and motioned me into the Pilot’s seat.

If I could have figured a way to run screaming across the tarmac without completely losing my dignity, I would have gone for it. But as every scenario I came up with inevitably ended in my utter humiliation, (and as my pounding heart hadn’t the decency to go that extra inch and give me the unquestionable excuse of a heart attack), I steeled myself and climbed into the little flying machine. “Put it on,” might be a more apt description. For as I fitted my scrawny, 118 lb body into the tiny cabin, I realized I was about to spend the next half hour in closer proximity to Ken than any other person in my entire life. He actually had to put his left arm behind me so we could both fit inside.

“Bad idea,” my inner voice pronounced.

“Oh, really,” I thought back. “What happened to that mantra you’ve been playing in my head for the past three months?”

You know … “This will save your life.”

My inner voice fell silent.

Good. I know that would shut him/it/me up.

Ken was now saying all kinds of fascinating things to which I paid absolutely no attention. He flipped various switches. Lights came on. Whirring noises emanated from beneath the instrument panel. Gauges began to move … then he pointed to a silver T-handle and told me to pull on it.

I pulled.

The engine made a metallic sound and a propeller blade moved.

It scared me, so I immediately let go of the handle and the propeller stopped turning.

“You have to keep pulling till the engine starts,” said Ken.

“Ah, so that’s the idea,” I thought, and pulled again.

The metallic sound recommenced, and this time it continued clanking away until the propeller blades turned into a whirling disc on LUK’s paint-chipped nose.

The sudden loud engine noise startled me—but not as much as the loud grinding noise distressed Ken.

“You can let go of the starter now,” he said (with more than a hint of urgency.)

I obligingly released the T-handle and the grinding noise went away.

Ken began flicking on more knobs and switches, and our cabin was filled with a blast of static. I was shocked to learn this was the voice of a controller in the nearby tower. I had no idea what the man was saying (if, indeed, he was actually speaking words.) But Ken understood, and, after yelling some equally unintelligible words into the microphone, we were cleared to taxi to the active runway.

I nodded grimly, grabbed the seat with both hands and waited for something to happen … but all Ken did was point at two pedals on the floor.

“You steer it with your feet,” he yelled.

My feet?

“Well, what’s this wheel thingy for?” I wanted to ask. But I didn’t. I followed instructions and stretched my toes cautiously against the pedals as Ken pushed a big red knob on a plunger (which turned out to be the throttle).

The engine started making even more noise, then the little plane began to move … straight towards the gas pumps.

“More right rudder,” Ken called out.

“Right rudder?” I thought. “What the hell’s a rudder?”

As the pumps began racing towards us, I took a chance and pressed hard on the right pedal. LUK swerved violently to the right of the gas pumps (which were now so close I could read the price of the last fill-up) and I congratulated myself for figuring out the pedals were attached to something called “a rudder.” I might have even felt good for a moment were it not for Ken rapidly calling out “brakes … Brakes … BRAKES.”

Two thoughts immediately popped into my head:

a) “This thing has brakes?” … and … b)“I wonder where they are?”

In answer, the tops of the pedals fell away (as Ken jumped on the pair beneath his own feet,) and the plane screeched to a stop (remarkably close to a particularly expensive-looking twin-engined airplane.) A somewhat startled Ken re-grouped and said, “The brakes are located on the tops of the pedals. You stop the plane with your toes.”

“So, that’s how they do it,” I thought. “Well isn’t that clever.”

I looked down at the pedals with interest as Ken taxied us towards the runway. (He hadn’t asked me to steer again, and I wasn’t about to offer).

After yet another round of checks (which made me wonder if Ken actually trusted this thing) he said something unintelligible to the tower, they said something unintelligible back, and then—we were taxiing out for takeoff.

Ken lined us up with the centre of the runway, told me I could place my hands and feet lightly on the controls to see what it felt like, then pushed the throttle plunger all the way in. The engine noise, which had been very loud before, now moved to a level best described as “debilitating.” We were enveloped in sound so intense, I felt I was sitting in the heart of a mobile, never-ending, clap of thunder.

The little Cessna began to pick up speed … but it sure didn’t have what one would call “acceleration.” The machine lumbered along, bouncing and boinging on a piece of bent spring-steel Ken had laughingly called “the landing gear,” as it made its way towards the end of the short runway and, what appeared to be, an inevitably bad end.

I clutched the pathetically skinny seat frame till my fingertips started to tingle, then Ken yelled, “Rotate,” and pulled back on the wheel.

The bouncy-boingy routine stopped abruptly and was replaced by a sudden smoothness.

I looked out the window and was rewarded with the disquieting sight of the ground dropping away.

OH … MY … GOD!

This was NOT the magic experience I remembered from my first (and only other) flight in Russ Bannock’s big de Havilland Beaver.

Flight in this tiny Cessna was TERRIFYING!

The sensation was one of instant acrophobia. All I could think to do was get as far away as I could from that joke of a skinny door rubbing against my left elbow. As I crowded against Ken, he said something that was supposed to calm me. And it might have … if I could have understood a word he said. But the engine noise made communication all but impossible. And the situation was only made worse by the sudden bursts of static from that damn fool controller. Not that I cared one jot about the man. All I wanted to do was survive this utterly terrifying experience and get BACK ON THE GROUND.

I had no way of knowing I would have this sensation many times in the decades to come.

Ken seemed oblivious to my terror and happily talked away as we climbed up into the sky. And the higher he climbed, the narrower my seat seemed to get. I desperately wanted to tighten my seat belt, but in order to do that I would have to stop clutching the seat and there was no way I was going to stop clutching the seat with that absurdly skinny door just inches away so I decided to keep on clutching and God—if there is a God—I promise that if you’ll see me through this and GET ME BACK ON THE GROUND, I will take another serious look at the possibility of your existence (as unlikely as it is) and—

My internal blathering was cut off by the realization that Ken was yelling something and pointing to the control wheel.

“What?” I screamed back.

Ken yelled his command again … and again … but when it finally became obvious I couldn’t hear a word he said, the instructor pried my right hand free of the seat, placed it on my control wheel, then let go of his …

“You’re Flying,” said Ken.

Now that I heard.

OH … MY … GOD!

And so, the moment had finally arrived. After all those years of dreaming … there I was … in the air … flying an airplane!

I tried to let that sink in …

Tried to see if it would make a difference …

If I would feel the magic again …

But it didn’t …

I was still, utterly, and completely, TERRIFIED.

I clutched at the wheel for what I hoped was a sufficient period of time, turned to Ken, said “Thanks,” then gave the plane back to him.

“Want to try some turns?” he yelled.

I shook my head, smiled as bravely as I could, and resumed my seat-clutching.

Ken could see it was no use … so, he shrugged, pulled back on the power, and started down towards the airport.

As Ken killed the switches and the engine roar fell away, I realized I was still gripping the seat. I forced myself to let go and glanced surreptitiously at my fingers. The tips were bruised. They would turn black before the day was out.

Ken tried to cover my obviously poor performance with sobriquets like “The first flight is always the hardest,” and, “It’ll come to you eventually” … but, even though I could finally hear the man, none of his words were going in … because, in truth, I was utterly heart-broken.

How could I have fooled myself for so many years? I knew I suffered from severe acrophobia. What the hell was I thinking? There was absolutely no way I could do this. I had to face the fact that I would NEVER be a pilot.

 

Once we were back inside, Ken lied about how nice it was to meet me, shook my hand (eliciting a wince of pain), then made his excuses and disappeared.

I fought back my tears and was about to head for the exit when the dispatcher called out, “So when would you like to book your next lesson?”

“Next weekend should be fine,” a voice answered.

I looked around in confusion and was stunned to discover those shocking words had come from … me!

 

Watch for Episode 4 of “Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear,” “Stalls & Caribbean Dreams,” on Sunday, March 28.

 

About the Author

Glenn Norman  is a Co-Founder and the Editor of Why Fly. Learn more.

2 Comments

  1. Oh my gosh, what a dream and what an introduction to flying!

    Now that I think about it, my flying dreams were always vertical as well. They involved a lot of running and flapping until a magic altitude was achieved where I could then coast around. I do hope you will tell us if that dream of yours ever changed to a happy landing.

  2. Coleen – Actually, it presaged my real-life crash (See “You Only Live Twice” Parts 1 & 2.)
    The weird thing is – after I plunged 600′ in my ultralight (and somehow walked away), I never had that dream again.

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