Think Tank
16th June 2015 | By:

Taking to the skies

Most people who know me, know that I don’t like flying. It’s one of those things that I do because I have to, but no matter how much I try and rationalise the risks and tell myself I’m actually in one of the safest modes of transport available, I can’t help but dislike every second of it. Some people speculate that it’s because I’m not in control (hence why I’d rather get in a car any day, despite it being far more likely to kill me). Others bring up all the more ‘logical’ arguments about how statistically I’m safer in the air than on the ground etc.

For my latest birthday, the office got together and decided to buy me a flying lesson. You may be thinking (given what I just said) that this seems like a truly horrible gift! However, it’s actually something I’ve been meaning to do for a number of years. In fact, I’d actually considered taking a Private Pilot’s License (PPL) for a while… Facing your fears is the best way to get over them, and what better way to fall in love with flying, than to do it for yourself?

So I booked my flight, and last Thursday (11th June) headed to Elstree Aerodrome for what I expected to be a theory and practical flying lesson. The first thing that amused me was the theory lesson… it consisted entirely of sitting on a couch with a half-working wooden model of a plane (somewhat resembling the plane from the cartoon Catch The Pigeon) and being run through the basic controls:

  • Turning left/right moves the ailerons which affects your roll (i.e. how much you’re tilting to one side or another)
  • Pulling up/down moves the elevator which affects your pitch (i.e. how much you’re pointing up or down)
  • Using the lower part of your pedals moves the rudder which affects your yaw (i.e. how much you’re turning sideways without any roll)

It’s probably easier to show these on a diagram as per the one below[1]:

flight dynamics diagram

The theory was now done. And we started heading out to the plane. As we walked outside I was looking around, and there were dozens of planes. All of them fairly small (as expected) but looking quite modern, and definitely cool! I would soon discover these were the ‘4 seaters’… we walked straight by them, onto a small patch of grass and as we casually talk about the weather, we stop right next to the smallest plane I’d ever seen. In fact, it’s safe to say that without the wings it was smaller than any car I’d ever been in. I was taller than the plane, and simply leaning on the body work made the plane move. Now I was terrified. I was about to attempt to board a Cessna 150 Aerobat.

As we get on-board, I further realised just how small this plane was. Getting both feet and legs in proved to be the hardest part of the next 1.5 hours, as I pulled my left leg in with both my arms in a desperate attempt to fit. Once in, I couldn’t even close the door. We had to romantically squeeze together so that the doors could be closed… it was at this point that I actually thought I should probably stop, get out, and never think of doing this again. But having come this far, and with my over-confident Spanish pilot next to me, I couldn’t bring myself to back out.

The plane was so small and so light, you could simply pull it off the grass yourself, and line it up to start the engine. And starting the engine was a fun experience itself… as we were the first flight of the morning in that particular plane, it didn’t start first time. Or the second time. It felt a bit like starting an old car that you wouldn’t really trust to take you much further than the grocery store and back… and we were about to fly around for an hour. As I’m sitting there staring around, I start to realise just how old this plane was. There was cosmetic damage everywhere. The seats were torn, the dash had bits of plastic missing. What appeared to be the wing support outside had cracks in every direction. I decided then and there that should I live this experience, I’d never complain about commercial airlines again. What once involved me looking around trying to determine how recent an Airbus A320 might be had turned into trying to determine how big a crack was and what would happen if that particular piece were to give way…

With the engine running, the plane shaking like a man having an epileptic fit, and the fuel tanks (yes there are 2, one on each wing) filled, we start taxiing to the runway. Which of course meant transversing the entire runway on the grass (as you do). The control tower wouldn’t reply on the radio (apparently because they were on a toilet break) – but that’s ok. In small airstrips you pretty much govern yourself for take off and landing by simply looking out for planes coming in to land. Once on the runway, we move along for what felt like only a few seconds, and suddenly we’re in the air. It actually felt surprisingly stable. For about a second. And then I realised just how lucky we all are to fly on commercial aircraft. Every single little fluctuation in the air or wind was felt by your stomach as you felt as though you were plummeting to the ground.

The next hour was pretty incredible. Once you come to terms with the fact that it won’t be a smooth flight, and you start to actually enjoy the experience, it’s incredible. It was around this point that I learnt about reading a map. Apparently we were in quite a challenging piece of airspace. With City Airport and Heathrow Airport to the South, and Luton to the North, we had to fly quite precisely between a few towns (namely St. Alban’s and Hemel Hempstead) in order to not breach their airspace… apparently that would be quite a bad thing to do. So we flew along at a steady 2,200 or so feet. Whilst I tried to keep the plane stable (surprisingly challenging as the slightest bit of wind sends you rolling to the side) my trusted pilot told me his job was to make sure we didn’t crash into any other planes. I guess I’d never thought about how this would work on a small aircraft before. Surely we had some sort of radar that would show us everything around? Not really. We just had to look out for them, and preferably avoid them when we did see any.

The next hour was uneventful. I was intrigued and must have asked about every single control. The most interesting ones being the trim (which basically sets your pitch to fly level) and perhaps the carb heater which is intended to prevent ice when you’re landing, as that could cut off your engine at an inopportune time. What was pretty cool was being on a plane where you could open your window and stick your hand outside when the cabin got too hot – how cool is that (literally)?

With our time almost up, we made a visual approach to our landing strip (which was conveniently next to a large-ish lake). We circled over once at 2,000 feet to see if any other planes were waiting to land, descended to 1000 feet, and then made a final approach for landing. The wind had picked up quite a bit, and this was the first time my pilot simply went silent, took the controls and we spent a tense 30 seconds watching the plane come down sideways towards the runway. But it was a fantastic landing (despite the pilot claiming he was worried about a few trees), and once on the ground I was so glad I’d gone through with this.

Will I take the PPL? I’m not sure, but I’m more tempted now than ever!

References
[1] Image/diagram from: https://howthingsfly.si.edu/flight-dynamics/roll-pitch-and-yaw

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