Learning to fly – Trial Lesson

Back in 1999 I went on a fear of flying course to help me get over an inexplicable fear of flying I didn’t even know I had. As mentioned in a previous post, it was an experience, but didn’t resolve the problem, I still had this desire to keep my feet firmly on the ground. My wife of the time (bless her) persevered and convinced me that a trial flying lesson might be just what I needed to knock this irrational fear well and truly on the head. She found a flying school at a local airfield, made some enquiries, and then booked a one hour trial lesson for me.

I woke up on the 14th of July 1999 hoping for rain, wind, fog and all sort of other weather phenomena that would cancel my flying lesson but unfortunately although the skies were initially cloudy the day turned into a relatively nice summer’s day. We packed the kids in the car (they were intrigued and didn’t want to miss out) and headed down to the airfield, parked up and walked over to the control tower where the flying school was located. The airfield was busy with private pilots taking advantage of the good weather. There was a real buzz about the place which I liked but I wasn’t so keen on what I was about to embark on. I booked in and was told my instructor was still flying and would be with me in a little while, so the family and I went up to the viewing platform and watched some of the aircraft flying around the circuit. The kids loved it, and I guess I found it quite exciting too, but I’d have been happy just to watch for an hour and then head home – or even better, to the pub!

A little later a middle aged grey haired chap in a white pilot’s shirt headed up to the viewing platform and looked as if he was trying to find someone; I assumed he was an instructor so I headed over to him and he was indeed looking for me. We headed down into the reception area at the bottom of the control tower where he asked me a few questions about what I was hoping to achieve and what the flight would involve. I sensed he was a little taken aback when I told him the lesson was a vain attempt to deal with a fear of flying – after already taking a fear of flying course. I remember him saying “well this is certainly an interesting way of dealing with your fear!”.

We headed out onto the airfield towards a small high wing aircraft which he advised was a Cessna 150 two seater aircraft. I’d seen a lot of large commercial aircraft during my trips to the local airport viewing park as a child, but this was the first time I’d been up close and personal with a light aircraft. It looked so fragile; “how was it going to take the weight of both of us” I thought to myself, but my interest was growing, I was intrigued as to what this flying thing was all about. I felt nervous and uncomfortable about what I was going to experience but curiosity was getting the better of me, and I was going to take that flight no matter how I felt – after all, I would do exactly as I did after the fear of flying course and say “never again” so as a one off, why not! My instructor did a very thorough walk around with me and explained the process in great detail; he clearly enjoyed what he was doing, which I thought was crazy! Then it was time to go flying..

Under his instruction, I got into the left hand seat of the aircraft in a rather ungainly fashion as it was quite difficult in the way it is to get into a very small and low sports car when you’ve never done it before. He slammed the flimsy door shut and as he did the window popped off it’s lock and swung open before banging back down again but remaining unlocked. I could also see light coming in from the bottom corner of the door indicating that it had become a little warped or even bent after years of use. He jumped in the right hand side like a gymnast, making my entrance look even more embarrassing. I made some weak joke about the door and window to him followed by a forced nervous laugh in an attempt to make it seem like I wasn’t concerned. Hoping he’d reply by saying “I’ll get an engineer to look at it, he unfortunately responded with “It’s fine as this aircraft isn’t pressurised so doesn’t need to be airtight”, and then chucked and added “These old machines are all a little bent after years of student pilots at the controls” and then leaned over and locked the window. “Bloody great, what a thing to say to someone who’s scared of flying” I thought, but I rationalised it in my mind by convincing myself he seemed a sensible, balanced chap and didn’t have a death wish!

He showed me how to secure the five point harness, asked me if I was comfortable and ready to go to which I replied “No!!”. He clearly thought my response was sarcasm as he rubbed his hands together and said “Right, let’s go then!”. He turned the key one turn and the radio and other instruments sprung into life. He tuned a frequency and spoke requesting to start the engine. The response was clearance to start (at his discretion). He pumped the primer a few times and then turned the key again and the engine instantly fired up – the sound was deafening as the well worn headset I was given certainly didn’t have much sound proofing.
He pushed the throttle and I remember seeing the spindly undercarriage leg and wheel on my side wobble as we started to move over the uneven grassed surface, reaffirming my view of just how fragile this contraption was. Slowly we made our way up to the runway holding point where he stopped the aircraft and performed a number of checklists. I instantly liked this use of checklists and not doing things from memory. I’d never seen it done before and it gave me a little confidence in what was about to happen. He spoke again on the radio and was cleared to take off (at his discretion), so he lined up on the runway.

He slowly pushed the throttle fully in while holding the brakes and I anticipated a lurch forward when the brakes were released but there was nothing of the sort. The aircraft slowly started to accelerate and I remember thinking to myself “This is one damn short runway, will we even get enough speed up to take off”. But the aircraft did accelerate and we began to bounce over the slightly uneven ground – it all felt a little uncontrolled and I felt quite anxious. Then we were airborne and my anxiety changed almost instantly to wonder, especially considering I’d only seen the ground from above once before when on the fear of flying course and through small commercial aircraft windows. The view was amazing.

My instructor flew the aircraft out to the North West to an area of less busy airspace and climbed to around 3000 feet. I was quite happy for him just to fly the aircraft and for me to enjoy the view but he reminded me it was a flying lesson and the flight time would contribute towards the hours needed for a pilots licence. I remember thinking to myself “Pilots licence!! I’m here to deal with a flying fear not to become a pilot”, but he convinced me to take the controls. After some brief instruction, I put my hands on the control column, and he took his hands away from the controls on his side – I was flying. The boy with the fear of flying was actually flying an aeroplane! I was grinning from ear to ear. He talked me through some manoeuvres including turns, climbs and descents which I managed pretty well. Before I knew it, the hour was almost up and it was time to head back.

The arrival back to the airfield, joining the circuit and approach to land was so interesting to watch, and seemed so much more controlled than bouncing down the runway to take off. I did remind him that I was afraid of flying and that I would appreciate a smooth landing to which he just smiled. The final approach was really fantastic to watch and the landing was perfectly executed. I was in my element until we were back on that damn bouncy uneven runway.

We taxied back towards the tower and I could see my family stood watching and waving. I’d been so distracted and engrossed in the flight that I had forgotten they were waiting for me.
He shut the engine down, did his final checklist and we exited the aircraft and walked back towards the tower. It was so different to the way I felt when I had been on the fear of flying course. I felt I’d achieved something special and I had – I had flown an aeroplane. Having a technical background, the whole experience captivated me – something clicked – I was instantly hooked!

I wanted to learn to fly!