Up in the air

CN&R contributor learns to fly

Ken Smith mans the controls of a plane for the first time and sails over the valley on International Learn to Fly Day.

Ken Smith mans the controls of a plane for the first time and sails over the valley on International Learn to Fly Day.

PHOTO by Ken Smith

Take to the sky:
For more info on International Learn to Fly Day, visit www.learntofly.org.

“All right, you’ve got the controls now,” came the mechanized voice of my for-the-moment copilot through the headset. “Let’s try to keep the plane straight and steady for a while.”

It was a simple command less easily accomplished than expected while hurtling through the sky 1,000 feet above the Sacramento River at 120 mph, a control stick resting in my shaky hands for the first time.

Flying has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. As a kid, it was an intense passion that led me to pore through books until I could identify every warplane flown between 1935 and 1985. I built models, watched Top Gun dozens of times and longed to live the life of an ace fighter pilot.

As a teenager my attention turned to more earthbound pursuits, and since then my paradigms have shifted so far and my waistline grown such that the notion of an illustrious military career is laughable.

Yet the longing to fly remains. Sure, I’ve been on airliners, even a few small planes, but until last weekend I’d never experienced taking control to sail through the sky of my own volition.

The occasion of my date with destiny was a Pancake Fly-in and Young Eagles Rally at the Corning Airport held to coincide with International Learn to Fly Day last Saturday (May 21).

Learn to Fly Day is organized by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). The EAA and AOPA coordinate with flight clubs and schools around the world to host events to promote general aviation.

The Young Eagles is an EAA program that gives free flight lessons to children ages 8 to 17. To date they have flown more than 1.6 million children internationally. During the event in Corning, nine pilots flew with about 90 children.

Local Young Eagles chair and EAA member Barbara Boot, who organized the event, explained that light sport aviation is a relatively new class of certification that allows people to get licensed easier, faster and cheaper than before. With a sport license, pilots can fly aircraft that meet certain FAA guidelines—generally small, two-seat planes with a limited top speed and weight capacity.

photo by Kate Ronan

Book introduced me to my pilot, Tony Miller. He’s president of the local EAA chapter, an AOPA representative and holds a few titles with other acronymed organizations. He also jockeyed fighter planes in the Air Force for 30 years, and knowing he’s flown supersonic fighter planes helped allay any worries I might have had.

Miller in turn introduced me to his plane, a red-and-white CTSW Light Sport Aircraft made by Flight Design. It’s equipped with state-of-the art electronics and all kinds of features that Miller explained expertly, the one I remember best being a side compartment marked BRS.

“It stands for Ballistic Recovery System,” he said. “It’s a built-in ballistic parachute, so in a worst-case scenario it deploys and floats the whole airplane down.”

After not-so-graciously stuffing my prodigious frame into the tiny cockpit and strapping in with some help from Miller, we taxied toward the runway, stopping for a few minutes before liftoff to warm up the plane and let air and runway traffic clear. The realization that many of the aircraft I’d be sharing the sky with were presently piloted by children both comforted and terrified me. On one hand if they can do it, why can’t I? On the other, they’re little kids flying planes.

My pulse raced as we bounced, bobbed and buzzed into the great blue yonder. My apprehension eased as I appreciated that this is what it’s all about. You can close your eyes on an airliner and imagine it’s a bus rolling down the highway. In a plane this small, you feel the engine, are moved with the winds and surrounded by sky.

This unity of man, machine and nature was more profound when Miller handed over the controls. After flying straight, he told me to pick a spot to the east and head toward it. I started turning ever so slightly until he said, “Don’t be shy, let the aircraft know where you wanna take it.” I banked harder and my earlier nervous chuckles were supplanted with an outburst of joyous laughter.

My aerial adventures may not be as grandiose as my childhood dreams, but so what if flying over Los Molinos is less exhilarating than dog-fighting the Luftwaffe? Learn to Fly Day helped rekindle a long-dormant dream in this aspiring aeronaut.