We paused at the end of the runway so the pilot could make one final sweep across the plane’s various controls and gauges. He pointed out each one, rattling off quick descriptions that barely registered as words through my headphones. Altimeter, throttle, something about directions, pressure…
I raced to commit these all important tools to memory; Pavel pushed the throttle forward. Our little plane’s single engine roared, and the sight of an open field came rushing towards us through the cockpit window.
We bounced and skid over the grass and mud runway, and I instinctively tensed my shoulders as we picked up speed.
“This is it!” I thought.
I glanced at Pavel, who began pulling back on the stick. The horizon fell, and a world opened up before me.
Any tension I was feeling seemed tethered to the earth.
At 30 years old, I was 10 again. Every boyhood daydream of tearing through the European skies in a WWI fighter plane came rushing back to me. I checked the blind spot above us and to the rear for any sign of trouble from the enemy. All clear. Yet, better not let my guard down…
“We’ve reached a safe altitude, I will give you control,” said Pavel, shooting my little fantasy out of existence. Oh yeah, I’m actually going to have to do something.
He pushed the stick forward.
“This is down.”
We lurched towards the ground and my stomach jumped into my throat.
“Up,” he demonstrated, pushing my head into the seat behind me.
“And left; and right.”
And that was it. He waggled the wings back and forth, demonstrated the rudder pedals, then motioned for me to take a hold of the trainee joystick.
I gripped the handle. Pavel released his controls and lifted his hands in the air as if to say, “I am now blameless if we plummet to the earth in a plume of smoke and fire.” The plane began to twitch and shimmy under the control of my unsteady arm, but my resolve never wavered.
“Try a left turn,” he instructed.
I kicked the rudder and pulled the stick hard. We banked steeply and pulled to the left. A stream of tracer bullets rocketed past on the right — a close call. I pulled the nose of our plane up to gain altitude, hoping the crafty enemy behind me had overshot and wouldn’t be able to follow my maneuver.
At least, that’s how I remember it…
Thirty Years Young
I’ve never been one to get up in arms about an age change, but somehow turning 30 warrants special attention even from me. 30 is an age that’s pretty black and white. There is no question about it now. You, sir, are an adult.
“Wait, really? 30 years old?” I immediately question. “I don’t even feel 20. Shouldn’t I be working on my 401k, and furthering my career, and starting to have kids? I need to be more responsible. Act my age.”
While some people get freaked out about losing their youth, I worry about not being able to shake it.
That’s why my wife’s birthday present to me this year was so thrilling. After a day of visiting Plzen, Czech Republic, celebrating with the Pilsner Urquell Brewery Tour and the General Patton Memorial Museum, Amy presented me with her gift – a flying lesson at a Czech flight school.
What else could be so manly, yet so full of childhood fantasy?
On the one hand, you have a powerful boyhood dream – to fly a plane. Heck, to fly, period. On the other hand, you have mastery of the sky – a skill I’ve yet to attain, but know for certain is not a kid’s game. It’s serious, responsible, hard work – a complex mix of mathematical, mechanical, and meteorological knowledge that allows you to defy gravity.
Human flight holds these two worlds together in perfect tension. A pilot studying weather patterns or flight regulations probably doesn’t feel a sense of awe and wonder at the gift of flight in that moment. And yet, his study, skill, and careful determination enable him to experience the impossible. That’s why he does it.
Walking on Air
Of course, I couldn’t help but feel awe and wonder as I steered us back towards the airfield. I was flying. Through the sky. Existence is wonderful.
“Want to experience zero Gs?” Pavel asked.
There will be no hesitation to a question like that offered to a 10 year old boy.
“Yes. Yes I do.”
Pavel took control, pointed the nose of the plane straight up, and the craft lost lift. For a few brief moments we floated, weightless and happy.