What’s It Like To Fly An Aeroplane?

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.

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