On Sunday, my partner flew us to Chico, CA and back. He’s been a private pilot for almost 2 years now, and it had been his dream to be a pilot ever since he could remember. When he wants to fly, he rents a plane from the flight school where he earned his license, and it’s not unlike renting a car, actually. Sometimes I like to go with him, and this time I did.
[Edit: by the time I was done writing this post, it had grown two heads and sprouted a tail, so this post will be about our adventures flying together overall, in general, the background, and the next post will be specifically about our trip to Chico.]
Brian usually flies Cessna 152s (a little two-seater plane made in 1979), and these are the same planes used by the pilots-in-training. Most of the instructors and pupils are men, and the interiors of these planes are quite small, with little legroom and very narrow seats. If the other pilots-in-training are anything like Brian was when he was in training, they are very nervous and excited to be in these planes (translation: they sweat a lot). Somehow I doubt that these planes get cleaned very often or very well, so I think it’s safe to assume that over three decades worth of scared man sweat has been marinating the tattered upholstery. It’s like wedging myself into a flying men’s gym sock. Lovely.
Just like with commercial flights, when I fly with Brian, I always bring a book. It takes him ~30 minutes to go get the keys and preflight the plane, and I spend that time jammed into my little seat, reading. Preflighting involves checking the oil, fuel, climbing up on the plane and walking around the plane to make sure it’s all safe and stuff. I’m sure there’s more to it than that. I just know that I have to keep my feet and knees away from the yolk (steering “wheel”) and foot pedals so they don’t jam into me when Brian is making sure the flaps and shit are in working order. Learned this the hard way.
Brian is required to give a safety briefing every single time he takes a passenger, which means I have heard it a lot. It’s similar to the one you get on commercial flights, in that most people have it memorized (although I just learned that my
sweat receptacle seat cushion does not double as a floatation device, so in the event of a water “landing,” we’re screwed), but it includes some fun extras. He explains how to buckle and unbuckle the seatbelt, and these seatbelts actually have a shoulder strap (yay! more safety!), but it seems to be designed for a much bigger person, since there is no way to make it tight enough to fit to my body. (boo! doesn’t feel very safe at all! feels like a useless prop.)
Side note: this combination of cramped legroom and overly long shoulder strap leads me to believe that the ideal pilot/co-pilot would be a short, fat man. Yet another way society is telling me I have the wrong body type.
Brian goes on to explain that there are three emergency exits in this plane. I look around…there are?! Where?! Sure, he says. Two doors, and…the windshield. Yup. He claims this can and should be kicked out if we ever need to get out and can’t do it via the doors. My first impression: that would be so kickass to kick out the windshield! Second thought: how the hell am I supposed to get my legs up over the yolk in this tiny thing to be able to even try to kick it out? How is a fat man supposed to be able to accomplish this? I want to see training videos! Third thought: sigh, if anything goes wrong, I’m a goner.
The last part of the briefing is basically Brian warning me to shut the hell up when he needs to make a radio call. Because of the headsets we have to wear, anything either of us says while his finger is depressing the radio button thingy will be heard by whoever is listening to that frequency. Brian also needs to be listening for other pilots making radio calls, too, and if I am yapping, he can’t hear those. This means that our in-the-air communication is reduced to me acting like a kindergartener tapping on his shoulder for permission to speak. Either that or I forget the rules completely and Brian has to hold out his hand abruptly to get me to stop. Yay safety!
I do great, even have awesome fun, when I fly with Brian as long as there is minimal to no turbulence. We can be cruisin’ along, having a grand ole time, and the second we hit bumps I am freaking out like…like a kid who loves cake and has run out of cake. Just kidding. More like a person who really loves life and has run out of life…or at least someone who doesn’t want to throw up in the very intimate cockpit. The movement that makes me fear for my dear life is when the plane suddenly drops what feels like 100s of feet but is probably only 10s of feet. It is during those times when I involuntarily gasp very loudly. At first, the gasping noise would scare Brian and he’d ask what was wrong, and I would look at him like are you in this same fucking plane with me or what?! But now he’s used to it and he ignores my panic. During those times, I also involuntarily grope for something to hang onto that isn’t 1) Brian, or 2) part of the plane’s controls. This is very hard to do, because there is freaking nothing to hang on to! Cars come with an ‘Oh Shit’ handle and all I get is this flimsy little strap that is right next to the release that opens the door to the plane??! Somebody didn’t think this through. I blame the fat, sweaty, short-legged men.
In the interest of lowering my risk of an early heart attack, I have learned to do things that help to ensure (or try to ensure) that I can maintain my calmness and not panic in the case turbulence does arise. First, I chew gum. The minty-ness of the gum helps to calm any tummy upset-ness, and having gum just gives me something to chomp down on beside my own tongue. I also am able to plug my ipod directly into my headset (but not Brian’s), so I use music as a calming force, and this really does work wonders. The only problem with this is that I can’t sing along with the music…which I tend to do…loudly…without even noticing it…because of reasons mentioned above in the blessed safety briefing. Since when did safety override the joy of music? Sheesh.
Because Brian gets his bloody safety briefing, I get to have one rule, too. My rule is that Brian is not allowed to say “oh shit!” or any equivalently negative exclamation while we are in flight. He did this once, and I nearly perished from panic right on the spot. As my pilot, I need to be able to depend on him to keep me alive and as vomit-free as possible. Neither of us would appreciate it if, in my panic, I accidentally yanked on the door latch instead of the “stay calm and carry on” handle, and then fell out of the plane to my death due to the shoulder strap that is too fucking long. Too morbid? My apologies. Nothing like being in a small plane to put everything into perspective right quick.
One cool thing that I can do and that Brian appreciates is when I scan the sky for other aircraft and then calmly, precisely point them out to him using the clock system and high/low position words. For instance, I see a plane straight in front of us but at a higher altitude, then Brian appreciates a good, hearty “Twelve o’clock high!” from me. Let’s just say he would appreciate that if I was able to overcome my excitement at actually spotting another
bird aircraft before it has a chance to plow right into us. “Ooh, ooh, there’s one!” is usually what he gets from me, complete with excited pointing. And I usually get the abrupt hand-to-the-face. My duty is done! I am such an awesome co-pilot, both in the air and in life.
Stay tuned for next time when we’ll visit the wondrous land of Chico and I’ll share the there-and-back adventures, which essentially amount to an epic tale not unlike our dear friends Mister Frodo and Samwise The Brave, only we have the foresight to take the [mechanical] giant eagle both ways.
Fade to black.
Fade to white.