Flight had been a dream from my earliest memories. Not only flight, but actively
flying, being in control. Being the pilot. I had been a passenger, on the way to
grandparents or Disney world. How bland and boring my first flight was. I was too short
to see out the window, too young at six years to understand the in-flight movie and
always unaware of why my ears hurt so much. What started off as a grand adventure
ended with my ears popping painfully.
Flying in a large jet may have been underwhelming, but I was convinced there
was more to flight. I vaguely understood that the adventure and excitement I saw in
flying was the same thing that struck fear into my brother. That I was so fascinated with
something that everyone seemed petrified of only increased my enthusiasm. I couldn’t
articulate what it was about airplanes that I wanted to know, so I learned as much as
possible. I became as well versed in aircraft identification as many young boys are in
naming dinosaurs. A dinosaur may be powerful and intimidating, but even the smallest
bird had a freedom T-rex could never know.
Christmas came when I was 9, and with it a promise of a flight lesson. Lesson is a
strong word to describe what was to take place, as the goal was simply to sit me in a
small airplane and scare me out of my obsession. Certainty my parents didn’t like the
idea of me being in an airplane, but they liked the idea of me inevitably trying to make
my own wings and jumping off the roof less. A ride in a ‘real’ airplane was the lesser of
I’ve since had many lessons, but that first left an indelible mark on my
personality. No experience since has so profoundly influenced the course of my life as
that one lesson that culminated in no more then 20 minutes in the air. It solidified my
love of flying, of course, but also gave me the sense of satisfaction of bringing life to
As if reading my mind, Otie, the instructor for my first lesson, didn’t waste time
‘getting to know me’. He treated me as if I were not just a kid, but a fellow enthusiast and
willing student. Instead of taking me up in the air and trying to make me sick, which I am
sure my parents had requested, he took the whole affair seriously. I beamed inside at how
grown up I felt, while trying to maintain my serious, studious exterior.
I was quickly introduced to my airplane for the day. It was a Cessna 152, with a
long since faded red stripe down its fuselage and a replaced aileron that had never been
repainted to match the rest of the frame. I was surprised at how small it was. Although I
could probably have recited it’s wingspan and length at the time, in person it seemed so
small. It was hardily any larger then a pickup truck and looked as properly proportioned a
flying machine as a Turkey. It worked, reliably and with out falter I was assured. But on
the ground it looked ugly, squat and not at all graceful like the fighter planes I dreamed of
one day flying.
But it was a real, working airplane and it was mine for an hour. I listened with
rapt attention as the instructor, Otie, walked me around and pointed to the major parts of
the Cessna while naming each. Nothing he said surprised me, but I was determined to let
nothing slip by or be overlooked. We stepped closer, and for the first time I laid my hand
on the cool aluminum body of a real airplane. I felt it yield and bend in just a little, as if
nothing was on the other side of the thin sheet. Otie gave me a moment just to take it in,
and run my hand over the rivets joining together the 152’s metal skin. I admired the
perfectly aligned rows of rivet heads and began to appreciate the smooth lines and gentle
slopes in the metal that were not visible from afar. The little plane was starting to come
alive in my mind.
The preflight check began, along with the strict formality and professionalism that
I’ve come to identify with pilots. A check list was produced that iterated step by step
every detail of the aircraft that had to be checked, rechecked and verified before taking
flight. It was wonderfully detached and mechanical with no gray area. Something was
either satisfactory for flight or it wasn’t and must be serviced. I reveled in looking in all
the spaces in between the control surfaces and tugging the safety cables that kept them
from moving to far. I saw the detail and complexity, and the responsibility of flight. I was
seeing things, the thin metal that kept an airplane together, most people never wanted to
It came time to check the gasoline in the tanks for water or dirt. Doing so involves
opening a small valve on a wing and catching in a cup some of the gas that spills out.
Aviation gas spilled on my hand, stinging in a cut and chilling skin as it evaporated. The
gas used in airplanes isn’t the thin watery stuff you put in a car. It is high octane and full
of detergents, oils and chemicals. The scent is a dozen times stronger then anything at a
gas station. I thought of blood, and how this was like airplane blood. The silly thought
stuck and I am reminded of airplane blood every time I smell the inside of a hanger.
Small airplanes do not us a large whining jet engine, but a snarling rattling, more
powerful version of the kind of in your car. It takes a powerful electric motor to set the
propeller swinging fast enough for the big engine to catch, and the peculiar high pitched
noise it makes signals the start of another flight. The whole airplane rocked back and
forth as each cylinder catches. It seemed to take an eternity before all 4 are firing evenly
and the engine reaches an idle. The noise is shocking at first. There is no muffler on an
airplane and even at a slow idle speed the propeller is moving enough air to set a loud
whooshing noise through the open doors and windows of the cabin. The airplane hardly
seemed like it could ever been a smooth, elegant flying machine. At that moment it
would have been more at home next to bull dozers and big motorcycles.
With the engine running smoothly, we could let it blow us along to the runway.
Otie and I stopped, radioed permission to taxi onto the runway and listened for the
disembodied dry voice to clear us. We were told to wait, in that terse detached manner
reserved for pilots and air traffic controllers, while another plane landed. We ran through
another check list, this time scrutinizing every dial and gauge that told us of the engines
health. Otie impressed upon me how the dials and sensors could lie, but my hearing
wouldn’t. I must learn to recognize by sound and vibration what the engine and airframe
had to say. It was the language and music of machines, or so Otie said. I strained to hear
everything I could.
When the engine was happy and droning on, its’ song faded into the background.
If something changed I became instantly aware. The smallest change to the mixture
setting, turning off a magneto, pressing the brakes harder all caused small but clear
changes to the pitch, tone, and rhythm of the engine the did not register on any of the
many instruments. Not only did the little 152 have blood, it had a voice and a song to
sing. Every moment I felt more and more connected to the machine I was strapped into.
The runway clears and my Cessna assumes it’s position at the end of the runway
facing south west, into the wind. Another checklist is produced by Otie, and for the third
time controls are checked, settings confirmed and permission asked of the tower. Flaps
are lowered in anticipation of take off just like a bird ruffling feathers. Everything is
cleared as I press in the throttle. The engine roars louder then I had thought possible, and
my little Cessna 152 starts rolling down the runway, gaining speed. Freedom was mine to