Lesson 7

Once again the wind was up and Tom decided to forgo landings another day. We worked on stalls.

Here’s a power-on stall: slow the plane way down. Then add power and point the nose directly at heaven. (Not literally, but it does feel like it.) Add sufficient right rudder to offset the left-turn tendencies. Not long after, the plane starts to grind out. You can almost hear it sputtering. A final yank on the yoke and then you dive for recovery. You go from looking at sky to looking at treetops. You gain speed during the dive and use that speed to climb. Climb, baby, climb.

It’s like a roller-coaster without the roller.

What’s difficult about stalls, aside from mastering them, is how you willfully ask the airplane to stop performing as you would always like it to perform. You demand it act badly. It’s not very intuitive.

A lot of flying is counterintuitive. Being in the air itself is counterintuitive. It’s a natural state of affairs for birds, not for human beings. Learning how to keep your composure in the air, and to keep it when the plane is acting unlike it ever does, say, during a commercial flight, is a big part of learning how to fly.

I’m always a little reluctant to stall. How the plane is acting (which is to say, “badly,” to put us in a stall) is not how I want it to act (which is to say, “normally,” in order to get me home safe). I do what Tom tells me, trusting in him entirely, but I still find working the controls to put us into a stall hard to do because it’s so counterintuitive. I grip the yoke as if to strangle it, which makes it hard to be limber and “inside” the plane.

From day one, you’re taught that you should spend about 90% of your attention “outside the plane.” That means that you’re looking outside the windows, obeying the visual picture before you to maintain straight and level flying, using landmarks to chart and keep your course, and sweeping the area for other planes.

But I’ve acquired another sense of what it means to be “outside the plane.” To me it sometimes means that moment when, instead of paying attention to the controls, I start paying attention to the weirdness of the world that can only be glimpsed from inside an airplane. Pointing a plane at the sky, watching the horizon disappear, seeing the clouds overtake the windscreen, all in order to stall–that’s a highly unusual sight, and for a split-second I’m “out there,” so to speak, and have forgotten that all of my attention needs to be “in here,” with the controls, in order to execute as perfectly as possible.

Here’s another example. Landing that day, as I turned into our final approach I saw, outside my window, the trees as they seemed to rear up at me. We were close enough to the ground that they were no longer a unified quilt of treetops, but individual trees, and all shockingly close. Out of instinct, out of some subtle primal instinct for self-survival, I raised the yoke up as I turned, nosing us up, in the hopes of putting some distance between us and those trees. But we were landing. The whole point to landing is to come closer to those trees. Not only was I making us climb just as we should have been descending, I was also botching the turn, so that we failed to square up neatly to the runway. All because I left, in a manner of speaking, the airplane. I mean to say, inside the airplane were my instruments, and my knowledge of how to use them—still very imperfect, but not helpless. Outside were those trees. Outside was fear and weirdness and death. To focus on my fear was to leave the airplane, and once I left the airplane, I was no longer inside controlling it.