What I love about flying
CLUE: it’s not about the freedom it grants but the limitations it imposes
THE first time I ever flew in a plane was on a 747 to Los Angeles when I was four years old. My dad was working for BAe at the time and had been working off and on in LA on a joint project with Hughes Airborne, and he and my mum took the opportunity to drag the whole family out to LA for an extended period while the project continued.
Back then of course, long before 9/11 and when Captains’ uniforms were woven from fibres of pure George Clooney, pilots tended to have a kind of open-door policy for their cockpits – getting a visit to the flight deck was a doddle. Consequently, I saw the cockpits of 747, 737 and DC-10 before I’d seen my own dad’s office at work. The expanse of the view outwards was only matched by the complexity of the view inwards (the cockpits I’m talking about – my dad’s office didn’t have any switches from what I recall. Or a view for that matter).
I actually think I was hooked on flying even before that first trip. My dad’s fault mostly, because he served on HMS Eagle – Ark Royal’s sister carrier – during one of the busiest periods of aircraft development; among Buccaneers, Phantoms, Hunters and Gannets; Lightnings, Sea Vixens and Harrier. It was also a consequence I am sure of living directly under the flight paths into both Filton and Heathrow. We’d frequently hear Concorde’s ‘Boom-boom’ overhead, and tune in with dad’s magic radio to hear Heathrow controllers deferentially liaise with ‘Speedbird’.
So to become a flyer was always part of my plan. I even dallied with the idea of entering the Forces for a while, but the RAF recruiter advised me that, “being a tall lad, you’d likely lose your knees if you ever needed to eject.” Which rather took the edge off that one. Nonetheless, as soon as I was a proper grown up I sought ways to scratch the itch and get myself aloft. And hopefully in something that could accommodate my entire frame without endangering my lower legs.
By chance (another story for another time), I happened upon microlights and was instantly hooked. The cheapest and quickest route to a flying licence, microlights offered what I needed if not necessarily the sense of speed and glamour – the aircraft I started on was so slow better pilots than me have managed to fly it backwards in a strong headwind. I still fly microlights now, but they are more comfortable and thankfully more capable of going forwards than that hapless little bug.
What I have learned in my flying since is that I don’t really like to fly alone. Like all great experiences – the Grand Canyon, the birth of your children, getting married – it is best enjoyed when someone else is there. The reaction of your passenger is every bit as rewarding as the reaction of your own senses.
But the enjoyment of flying with a passenger is not all about the shared experience. There’s a deeply private, personal feeling that comes with being responsible for a life other than your own. It’s a privilege. When we take a passenger in our car I don’t think we’re consciously aware of being responsible for their safety, but when you’re 4,000 feet above the Cotswolds in a tiny plane covered in what looks for all the world like tin foil, and with wings barely longer than your own arm, you know your passenger needs to feel safe. Most people have flown in a plane, but not typically one so small.
I take that responsibility very seriously indeed. In fact, I revel in it. To be diligent, precise and considerate in my actions. To communicate what I’m doing and why – to share the process of flight, so we can both share the experience of flight.
For example, if I pull on the flap handle the plane will pitch down rather suddenly. Perfectly safe, but it won’t feel like it. So I do it slowly and smoothly, so the passenger isn’t even aware it’s happened. If I am rushing, hesitant, jerky or gripping the stick tightly I communicate stress and lack of confidence. Yet if I’m laconic and lackadaisical, and take my hands off the stick for minutes at a time, I communicate too much confidence or complacency.
As pilot in command you sit on the left, but part of your consciousness must always be sat next to you, as passenger.
There is a freedom to flight – you do escape the surly bonds of earth for sure – but you can’t escape the surlier bonds of reality. It’s not freedom unbound by any means. There are rules of the law and of physics that must be obeyed.
But I realise freedom is not what I look for when I go flying anyway. I fly to experience that pilot part of me. The rush I get is from doing it properly. Doing it well. Doing it professionally – balancing technical proficiency with consideration and empathy to deliver a great shared experience for me and someone else.
If it sounds like I’m saying I become someone else, I think that’s true. Because the other great feeling is when I’m driving home, look up at the beautiful sky and, quite disbelievingly think, “Bloody hell, I was just up there.”
Thanks for reading.