Fresh out of law school, I was happy to find a job, even though the hours were long, my boss was eccentric, the salary was pitiful, and he offered only one fringe benefit: flying lessons. He had just bought a Cessna 150, which was probably why he felt the need to hire an associate. The deal was straightforward: he’d let me use his airplane and pay for the lessons and the fuel. In return, I wouldn’t pester him for a raise anytime soon. While learning to fly hadn’t been on my list of a hundred things to do before I died, it took me only a few seconds to agree.
My instructor was a wiry old fellow named Cap, a crusty World War II veteran who loved to tell stories about the way he’d trained pilots during the war.
“Five lessons. That’s all they got before they had to fly solo or they’d be kicked out of the program,” he told me.
By that time, I’d already had 15 and didn’t feel anywhere close to winging it on my own. Take-offs were simple, and it was fun getting high enough that everything below looked like pieces on a Monopoly board. Landings were a challenge, but where I ran into a thick brick wall was stalling.
An airplane will remain in the sky as long as air is streaming over the wings to create the lift that keeps the airplane aloft. But when you tip the nose of the aircraft upward until the lift completely disappears, the plane turns into a huge brick with nothing to keep it from plummeting. This is a stall, something every pilot needs to learn to control. Whenever Cap demonstrated one, however, I panicked, closed my eyes and fought the urge to scream.
“You’ll have to learn to do this if you’re to pass the final test,” he warned. No law school exam frightened me as much as this one, so at my next lesson, I arrived at the airfield with a plan. As Cap and I secured our shoulder harnesses and seat belts, I turned to him before I started the ignition.
“Cap, this stalling really frightens me. If I can’t do it, I won’t be able to continue.”
He nodded, looked as if he expected my resignation, but I plowed on. “You told me once that even if an airplane stalls completely and starts to fall to the ground, it will pull itself out of the stall, just by how it’s designed.”
His voice was unusually patient as he explained it all again. “Right. An airplane always tries to keep air flowing over its wings. But if it fails, the tail of the airplane will pitch upward as the heavier end of the airplane sinks. That sends the plane into a dive. But that makes air flow over the wings again and create lift. So the nose turns up again, and eventually it stops falling.”
I took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. “Well, I don’t believe you. I want you to show me. If you can prove that to me, I think it will make a big difference. Otherwise…well I’m afraid I’ll never learn to fly.”
He stared out the windshield into the distance for a long time. Finally, he turned back and said, “Okay. We’ll take her up as high as we can. I’ll put the plane into a stall and let it fall into a dive. It’ll feel like a real fast roller coaster. Think you can handle that?”
I nodded, my heart pounding faster than ever. “Then take her up,” he said.
As we climbed, the horizon grew wider, and the deep blue of the sky grew paler. Instead of leveling off at 1500 feet as we’d always done, I took the plane to the highest altitude the aircraft could reach, almost 5000 feet. I looked over and saw he was watching me carefully.
“Still want to do this?”
I nodded, took a deep breath, and braced myself.
With his seasoned confidence, he took control of the airplane, pulled the yoke steadily towards him, and the nose of the plane tipped upward. I felt the familiar unsettling shudder of the aircraft as the airflow over the wings was disturbed. It grew until the airflow disappeared completely. At the same time, the shuddering stopped, the plane dove downward, and I felt like I was toppling forward out of a chair, accelerating rapidly, my chest pressed into the shoulder harness as it kept my body from falling forward.
The unfettered freedom of an airplane in freefall is breathtaking and terrifying. The landscape mushroomed before my eyes until, with excruciating sluggishness, the air began to flow again over the wings, and the plane turned upward, inch by inch, in a wide arc, even as it still plunged to earth. The pressure on my body slowly eased as the plane leveled off. Then it began to shudder again when the nose continued to edge upward, but before it could stall a second time, Cap pushed the yoke in and leveled off. The plane had lost nearly 2000 feet of altitude. I was astonished to realize I hadn’t felt either afraid or sick.
Cap looked over at me and grinned. “Quite a ride,” he said.
“Awesome,” I said, then leaned back and closed my eyes to savor again each thrilling moment of the freefall—the roar of rushing wind, the rapid change of temperature, the houses and trees growing like inflating balloons below me. When I opened my eyes again, I was shocked to see that the clouds were once again close enough to touch, and the houses were tiny blocks on the ground below. We’d regained all the altitude we’d lost.
My head jerked towards Cap. “What’s going on?!”
He gave me a smile both mischievous and demonic. “You believe what I said is true, right?”
I swallowed hard. “Yes, but…”
“Okay, then…now you show me.”
Published in Airplane Reading in 2012