One of the questions on the Nano forums was for a writer who’s character was going to be starting flight lessons, and they were asking about the experience of piloting an aircraft. What’s it like? Would I be far off describing it as this incredible feeling of freedom and oneness with nature?
I mine wasn’t the first reply, and the previous commenter said the same thing:
No, it’s not really like that at all.
Which is not to say it isn’t awesome. But oneness with nature isn’t what we’re chasing – really, twenty five thousand feet above ground level is hardly a natural place for a ground dwelling human to be. And with the level of ATC control in the sky these days, the feeling-of-freedom thing is something we laugh at.
So what is it?
You’re in a machine, and everything that machine does is in response to you. It’s not like a car where you can just go slow when you’re just learning. When you’re landing, your approach speed in the 152 is 60 knots, and you’re generally touching down at 55 knots, which is literally 100 kilometres (about 63 miles) per hour. Learning to do that is a damn accomplishment! So when your instructor sends you up for the first time solo, when they’ve got the confidence in you that you can do it, that’s such a feeling of accomplishment and pride, I don’t know what I could possibly compare it to.
It’s a thing that people say “Oh, I wish I could do something like that,” or “Wow, that’s amazing that people can do that,” or “That’s not something I could do,” in admiration of our ability to guide that aircraft safely into the air and back to the ground. And we pilots are those awesome people who do it. We’re awesome. I’m so fucking awesome, you don’t even know.
I heard something about pilots and egos somewhere…
But it’s empowering like you wouldn’t believe.
I’m sure it happens to other pilots too, but every once in a while, as I’m lining up the plane on the runway, I remember what I’m doing. My intellectual brain reminds me that I’m at the helm of nothing but an (arguably) well organized heap of metal and fibreglass with a giant fan bolted to the front.
And then I open the throttle and my animal hind-brain wakes up like it hasn’t been paying attention, realizes what’s going on, and shrieks what-the-fuck-are-you-doing-this-is-insane.
Meanwhile the pilot brain is going “HAHAHAHAHA!”
But I don’t have time to listen to them because I’m watching my airspeed climb up to Vr, and then I’m in the air. And then it’s calm.
I read about a word in welsh a little while ago, that has no translation in english, but someone had written that the closest approximation was homesickness for a place one has never been. It’s like that, only it’s a place that by all logic, I shouldn’t belong, and yet I get there and it feels like coming home.
So as a passenger, flying in the air feels to me like an intrusion in to another world, a world where you are sealed off with chunky bits of metal and fat pieces of glass (or whatever they make aeroplane windows out of) from a beautiful but hostile environment. A bit like how I imagine a deep sea dive in a submersible might be. The weird thing for me is to look out of a window and see, literally a few metres away, the top of the clouds moving beneath you, and taking off in cloudy or wet conditions and then suddenly you’re through the cloud and it’s sunny, when your earth bound sense of how things are is telling you it’s grey and drizzly.
Is there any of that for a pilot – allowing for the fact that the experience might depend on the size of plane, altitude, and of course you can’t just sit back and watch it all go by because you are in charge of the beast.
There’s definitely wonder at the beauty all around, though I don’t know that I’ve ever felt like I was intruding. If can seem very foreign, especially when, as you say, you have clouds around and beneath you, obscuring the familiarity of the ground, but that only makes the dichotomy of me feeling perfectly at home there all the more strange.
And yeah, while I am in charge of the beast, you can’t help but see the beauty around you. If the air is smooth, I can take my hands off the controls and just let the plane coast. I often fly on cross countries with my arm resting on the door and one finger on the control column, for the sake of safety, of course. If you can do that, that means you’ve got the plane trimmed out properly. The other thing is, while you do watch your heading, and keep an eye out for other aircraft, you don’t so much have to keep the plane from drifting across the centre line on the road into oncoming traffic.