Lesson 5

At night, trying to sleep and failing, I’ll play back in my head something Tom and I did in the air, and instead of a fluid playback, I will remember only a single frame, a vivid still-life, as if the plane has frozen in the air for a startling moment and I’m made to wonder with all my lingering ignorance how exactly we got there. Everything that came before—the thrusts and turns and configurations and maneuvers—have been lost to the past, and how and why the plane is going along at that particular speed at that particular altitude strikes me as an unreconstructable mystery. All that’s left for me to figure out is what to do next.

For instance, during lesson 4, Tom gave me a little more responsibility for our landing. We swung over the mall and the highway and turned in for our final approach. The runway was before us, more or less, but because I’d overshot it, we had to correct. We did so as we descended. We were flying lower and slower and lower and slower until we reached that point when we went over the little security fence that seems to divide every airport from its surroundings, and then we landed. But all I really remember of this fluid, ever-changing picture is the still-frame of the plane pointed at the runway as if frozen at an awkward angle. How did we arrive here? I wondered. What in the hell do I do next?

This feeling of uncertainty grew more complex with the next lesson.

Tom doesn’t usually feel the need to talk before we head out to the airfield. Today was different. We sat down at one of the desks and he explained that today, I was going to be a lot of landings. Here’s a taste of what he said:

“So, landing an airplane … we’re going to be using runway 22 … when we pull out, we’re going to do take-offs like we’ve been doing them … when we get up to roughly 800 feet, we’re going to be looking for our target … we’re making right traffic for runway 22 … at 900 feet, we’re going to turn toward our aiming point … we’ll bank approximately 30 degrees when we make our turn upwind from downwind … spot it, turn, and roll out on it–”

So much to process!

“–when we get up pattern altitude, which is about 1200 feet, we’ll get up on the downwind … we’re going to run through our pre-landing check—I’m going to take care of the radio, you don’t have to worry about that …”

Wait! Of course you’ll be taking care of the radio! I’ve never done the radio! But does this mean … does this mean … I’m responsible for everything else?

“On our downwind, we’ll qualify our lights, gas, and undercarriage … fuel pump’s on, pressure is good, primer is in and locked … when we get abeam the numbers–”

Abeam the numbers?

“–we’re going to bring the power back to about 18 … we’re going to hold the nose up briefly and wait for the airspeed to come into the white arc … we’re going to go flaps ten … we’re going to trim the nose up, it’s probably going to be a good crank or two … we’re going to pitch for 80–”

Pitch for 80?

“–as we come up to about 200 feet below pattern, which will be about 1000 feet indicated, we’re going to turn, roll out, flaps up to 25 … we’re going to use the numbers as our aiming point … when we get down close, we’re going to walk the power back, the nose is going to try to drop … we’re just going to hold the picture steady … we’re going to level off … at nose down, there’s a pause–”

What the hell does that mean, “a pause”?

“–and as we start to feel it sinking, we’re going to start to squeeze back … the yoke should be moving as the mains come down and we touch the runway …

Oh, boy. This was a lot to take in.

Tom had never used terminology like this before. And he’d never laid it out, point by point, like he was now. It was hard to take it all in, and hard to keep straight. I had so many questions, but if I’d stopped the poor man to explain them all—-whether to clarify something I thought I understood, or to explain something I only half-understood, or to begin all over again with something I didn’t understand at all–we never would have made our way out to the airfield.

Lesson 5 was landings. We made one after another. We did just what Tom outlined: we went up to 800 feet, turned to the right, continued climbing to 1200, banked a second time to fly parallel with the runway (i.e., the downwind), walked the power back to 1800 with the throttle, lost altitude, engaged the flaps to induce drag, which pointed the nose down, turned a third time and then a final time for our approach, added another degree of flap, powered down some more, slowed, descended, paused, squeezed back, landed.

A landing should be graceful. It should be poised and measured and allowed to take its time. It should be a long flirtation with the runway followed by a sweet little kiss.

My first landings are in every possible way the opposite of this. It’s like I’m not even landing an airplane. Its like I’m landing a drunken giraffe. She has four super-long limbs and they’re all splayed out and flailing, and she expects me to tell her which one to set down on the earth first. Having only recently started flying giraffes, I’m still not all that confident on top of one, I’m uncertain about how she moves and how she reacts, sometimes I can’t even get her to fly straight—but now I’m supposed to do the most complex, the most dangerous thing there is in the exotic world of giraffe flying. Ok—we all have to advance, right?

I do my best. We come in too fast, we come in too slow. We come in too high, we come in too low. Somehow I sense how these things, altitude and speed, are interrelated, and how, if I could just master the play between them, I could be a pilot. It’s a purely academic insight. During our descent we lose our “picture,” or that visual of the runway through the cockpit window that should remain as steady as possible. I fail to pitch for speed. I fail to pull back on the yoke. I forget to keep my hand on the throttle. Everything that goes wrong seems correctable by nosing down, which is the last thing you want to do while landing. We wobble. We skitter. We land far to the left of the center line, my drunken giraffe and me, and only by Tom’s sure hand do we her back on track and take off again, into the air for another fly by.

But folks, it’s like nothing else. It’s like a dream.