A Dream Taking Flight
Photo by Jared Hillier
Photo by Jarred Carr
A week prior, it had been nothing more than a lifelong dream. Yet here I stood, at the age of sixteen, queued up to take control of an airplane. My instructor, coincidentally also named Jared, minus an additional ‘r,’ assured me that as long as I keep my number of landings equal to takeoffs, the chance of severe injury or death is usually minimal. Phew. I exited the small terminal as sweat fell down my face in small beads even before the summer heat began its attack. I adjusted to the Sun’s harsh glare as a large tarmac field came into focus ahead. Aircraft of several variants, from small corporate jets to propeller planes littered its surface in a loosely organized fashion. I peered down at the binder I received in an effort to identify the aircraft my instructor challenged me to find. Brandished on the binding, the plain text “547CA.” A simple white, inconspicuous airplane sat alone to the right sporting low tapered wings and the number 547 on the tail, which I correctly presumed to be the tin can I would be flying.
I began to walk around the plane, which immediately showed its age. Despite rigorous service and maintenance, thirty plus years of use had definitely taken its toll. Paint peeled off in small, dotted patches, hairline cracks that lined the wing tips and dents around the front cowl presented a mystery I did not want an answer to. We completed the walk around with a small laminated checklist that left no surface untouched.
“Does everything look good to you?” Jared asked.
“Ummm, I hope” is all I could manage in response. I clambered up the back side of the left wing and cracked open the single door’s double latch. A wave of intense heat filtered out as I climbed across into the left seat and trembled in anticipation of what was to come.
I peered around at the various flight instruments, almost as if they provided a surreal moment of adrenaline fueled peace. Despite my basic knowledge, I identified only a third of the three dozen buttons, knobs, levers and indicators spread about in an unfamiliarly organized fashion. My instructor believed in the whole hands on spiel, so there stood quite the challenge alone in no prior training. A short moment later, the aircraft sputtered to life and the smell of high octane aircraft fuel played at the tip of my nose. An intense vibration spread throughout my legs and torso as if to only add to the shake from nerves. As we prepared to taxi, I made my first radio call and eased off the brakes. “D-davenport traffic, Cherokee 5-4-7 Charlie Alpha, trafficking, excuse me, taxiing from Carver to runway one-five, no, um, three-three.”
Jared laughed in response. “Don’t worry. Most people don’t listen anyways.”
We completed the run-up and ground checklist as I stopped short of the runway behind a simply marked yellow line. To the far left, a seasoned pilot exited his jet and gave a short salute as if to send us off. I grew increasingly nervous as I made the final instructed radio call on the ground. “Davenport t-traffic, Cherokee 5-4-7 Charlee Alpha, exiting, sorry, departing runway three-three to the Sou-North.” I rolled onto the runway, extremely intimidated and dropped my feet from the brakes to the floor which marked the point of no return. “One Mississippi, two Mississippi” I muttered to time the throttle, and we began to accelerate rapidly as the engine roared in response. Wind rushed into the muggy hot cabin but provided little relief for the induced stress of chaos within my mind. At 65 knots, the plane began to skip, chirp and pull away from the ground. Jared nodded as I lightly pulled back on the yolk, and our banged-up tin can, in defiance of gravity, became airborne.
Instantly, as we gained altitude, a wave of relief replaced my discomfort with a sense of exhilaration. The ground quickly fell away and blue sky took its place in the horizon. The light tug of gravity became a dominant sensation with security from being planted on firm ground no longer a factor. The sky was now my domain and it hit me more so than anything I’d ever previously experienced. We reached an altitude of 4,500 feet before Jared gave the cue to level off and Earth’s surface appeared once again ahead. Square green, brown and tan patches of fields and forests covered the surface, cut into sections by roads with buildings spread loosely across. Although only faintly, I made out the unmistakable curvature from the horizon and time seemed to come to a photographic standstill.
As I grew more and more acclimated to the plane’s characteristics, Jared encouraged me to feel out some basic maneuvers. I turned the yolk to the left and the world tilted in the opposite direction. I added some back pressure, which made gravity begin to pull from below as the plane nosed up into the sky. In response, I pushed the yolk forward and gravity reversed entirely which almost sent my lunch back up in the process. I grew more and more bold, and with some encouragement, attempted the same thing once again. As I quickly pushed the nose of the plane steeply downward, Jared’s iPad took flight and bounced off the roof before landing in the back after I leveled out.
As we began to near the airport once again, having formed a big loop, I grew increasingly distracted with an overload of emotion before Jared captured my attention at the mention of “attempt to land.” My nerves began to spike again at the mere thought, but I accepted the challenge as a way to further test my capability. He only mildly mitigated my fear under the assurance that he’d try his best to not let the plane crash if I made a critical mistake. “Davenport traffic, Cherokee 5-4-7 Charlie Alpha, inbound runway three-three straight in, full stop, Davenport” I called with the cautious confidence of my pride on the line, or worse. As the runway came into view, we ran through the landing checklist and I silently prepared my final words.
The ground began to grow closer as I found the correct descent rate so as to not over shoot or come up short and hit a car. I initiated the first stage of flaps which jolted the aircraft and the controls became less responsive. Next came the second stage, followed by the third until it felt like the air outside had become thick syrup. The ground grew extremely close as I pointed the nose towards the runway straight ahead. My sweat began to bead again in anticipation, much to the enjoyment of my instructor. Finally, I powered back slowly and the improperly trimmed plane grew extremely heavy which made it difficult to hold the nose up. Jared rolled a wheeled control between us forward to correct the problem as we glided down no more than a dozen feet from the surface. I subtly pulled back on the yolk and flared the nose up. Seconds later, a small jolt and wheel chirp indicated that we returned to the ground in one piece.
As a child, I longed to be amongst the stars, to be one who, rather than call the sky the limit, considered it a destination I intended to reach. At the realization of what I just accomplished, I broke down from a mixture of relief and elation. I not only flew a plane, but managed to carry out a lifelong dream in doing so.