It was a perfect day to fly.
On our way out to the Piper Cherokee, Tom talked about what the airport had to do to tend to the winter snow, as the air around us was starting to disintegrate in that direction. But boy this particular day couldn’t have been any finer: cool and crisp, almost windless, not a single cloud below four thousand feet. It refreshed the skin and the spirit as a bonfire on a beach will, or as a walk through newly fallen leaves in a familiar wood.
But it wasn’t until we got up in the air that the full effect hit me. It was late October and the trees were turning, and as we climbed they diminished and flattened out until they seemed small as individual feathers of some fantastically colored thing. They were cut away here and there by the still eye of a lake or an empty baseball diamond. I was immediately aware of how much attention I was capable of giving these earthly delights; I had full possession of myself in flight, and my observations had expanded beyond my sight picture and my instruments to include the world again. I had the plane under my control, and remembered the anxiety of earlier flights, when no matter the view it was better not to look down. I also noticed how true the plane was flying; after leveling off, I had only to give the yoke a little nudge now and again to keep us straight and level.
A few days prior, Tom and I had talked about the my first solo. “Don’t dawdle on the medical,” he told me, meaning, from his point of view, I was nearly ready to go. All I needed was my aeronautical physical in hand and he might, any day now, invite me to take the Cherokee up on my own.
The prospect no longer terrorized me. It no longer seemed insane. And in fact in the Cherokee that day, I discerned in Tom’s lack of liveliness a pedagogical trick: from the moment we stepped inside the plane, he had placed most of his attention vaguely outside the window, simulating for me the same conditions I’d face when flying alone. No one there to correct, advise, or rescue me, no one beside me to take the controls in a moment of uncertainty, no one to turn to with questions. And the fact is, I had no questions. I’d run through the preflight checklist, I’d radioed ground control and the tower, I’d sailed smoothly down the runway and lifted off into the air, I’d climbed steadily before leveling us out at 2500 feet and keeping us there, I’d directed us to Greenwood Lake and the practice area using a north heading and my charts, and then, to my amazed satisfaction, I ran through our protocol of maneuvers — slow flight, power-on stall, power-off stall, and steep turns — with hardly a hitch. I knew how to fly this plane.
We did a number of simulated engine-out landings at Orange County airport, coming in close and low, using the flaps to stretch out our descent when needed and putting the plane down without adding any additional power. I had some decent landings, making small corrections as we approached the runway, letting the plane ride along in ground effect without rushing the flair, and keeping the final nose-up on the yoke nice and smooth as I set the rear tires on the pavement before powering up and away again. I didn’t have any greasers but I didn’t have any stinkers, either. It almost felt like just another day at the office with old Tom.
Then we came in for our final landing, and everything went south.