This blog is all about getting people into that left seat of an aircraft – the pilot’s seat, the Captain’s seat even ! So let me tell you of MY very first flight at the controls of an aircraft, however small it was, after decades of building model kits, flying radio controlled models and studying and using the PC flight simulators.
It all started with me getting involved with the school our daughter was attending. I was elected into the school board and asked to help re-organize the administrative processes of the school, and helping the teaching staff to be more efficient with their time.
One lead to the other and before I knew it I had written a book together with my new friend, the school director, and we started doing other things together too.
One day he approached me with the suggestion I would come along with a ‘young teachers club’ who were going to have a day of ‘bonding’ – at least I think that was what it was. In any case, the bonding was to take place through a meeting at a local airport and each having a trial lesson in an Ultralight.
I wasn’t supposed to bond with anything of course, not being a teacher, but he knew I was a total aviation freak. So I happily accepted his offer and I was even prepared to dress funny so as to fit into the group. Nah, just kidding. This was back in 1987, so more than 20 years ago.
Now bear in mind that I lived (and still do so) in Holland where anything to do with aviation is prohibitively expensive, extremely organized and regulated and very remote from the average Joe – oh, is that Bob the Plummer now ? Anyway, getting a chance to do a trial lesson was something not to be missed.
Is that an aircraft?
When we arrived at the airfield (Lelystad – EHLE) we gathered in a small bar inside a relatively new hangar. Inside the hangar were a bunch of trikes with triangular linen deltawings drooping off to one side. They looked anything but comfortable, let alone safe. I had expected we’d go up in a Cessna 152 or something similar.
It being early in the Spring and outside air temperature being something like 12 C (some 53 F) as I recall it, I could see why they started handing out huge leather coats, scarfs and helmets. The first teachers were dressed up and looked like something in between Wyatt Earp and Biggles! (And if you don’t know who Biggles was, then do some Googling to find one of my alltime boyhood’s heroes!).
Frankly, I was having severe doubts about the whole thing and probably looked like it too, when the owner of the flying school walked up to us and said he also had three brand new 3-axis Ultralights, built in France. Maybe we would care to fly in those?
I was already frantically nodding, unseen, but my friend the school Principal thought it would be more ‘macho’ to hang underneath a bit of cloth dressed like Wyatt Earp. And you know what? Maybe from the ‘pure’ flying perspective he was right, too. But I wanted to ‘pilot an aircraft’, a thing with wings, a cockpit, instrument panel and a stick!
It turned out that the little Mistral’s were just that. Although they looked slightly weird, being bi-planes with the wings swept slightly forward (!), they at least looked like real planes and had a closed cockpit. A tiny one, true, but closed. I found a picture on the Internet of a Mistral to give you an idea. They are no longer made of course. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aviasud_Mistral.
The instructor’s surprise
I was assigned an older instructor. He told me he was 63 and had only started flying at 57, after he retired early. Before that he had never ever thought of flying. So in terms of ‘general knowledge’ about aviation, aircraft, airfields and airports and much more, I was light years ahead of him. After all I had been dreaming and studying this stuff since I was 5 !
But HE was an instructor and would take me up in the pretty unstable air. It was a typical Dutch day…… cumulus clouds here and there, sun shining in between them, nice weather in general.
I got to be in the left seat, the stick in between us (and not in between your legs as would be normal). It was small, really small. We were both tall men and pressed together in the little cockpit, our heads touching the canopy! The instructor explained to me what the controls were and what the very few instruments were for. I knew all this of course, but listened attentively. I remember the ‘radio’ was a sort of a walky-talky, strapped to the dashboard. GPS’s didn’t exist yet in those days.
He had one of the other flying school staff turn the prop and then we taxied over the grass to the grass ‘runway’ just in front of the hangar. It was extremely bumpy and he told me through the headphones that they had lost quite a few undercarriages already when people would drive around at too high speeds.
After some checks of engine and radio, he throttled up and the little aircraft bumped over some more grass and then took off very quickly.
It was just so marvelous, feelings of freedom flowed through my soul…… really !! Totally different from the take-off as a passenger in an airliner!
After two circuits he asked if I wanted to try and keep her level, and do some turns. Dumb question! I took the stick and did what I had done for so many years in front of my monitor…. Keeping the nose on the horizon. The instructor asked me to make a turn left. I did, again, keeping the aircraft level by keeping the horizon steady (easy to do in a flat country like The Netherlands, by the way!).
It was then that the older man concluded I had been flying before. I assured him that this was my very first time at the controls of a real aircraft, but he didn’t believe me. I then explained I’d been ‘flightsimming’ for many years, but since he had never heard of that it didn’t make any impression.
Even when we took our goodbyes late that afternoon, he remarked once again that I was pulling his leg and just pretended to be a newbie so I could take part in that discounted inaugural flying lesson. It was quite funny!
But it also proved to me that whilst a PC can never teach you to fly a real aircraft, it sure as heck can take you a long way towards that goal and afterwards help you hone and maintain certain skills. And THAT was based – at the time – on the 1986 MS Flight Simulator… HUGE improvement have been made there too now, of which I will continue to tell you in subsequent posts here.
Wishing you a breath taking first flight too !