Clenched in concentration, I am at the controls of a small aeroplane on final approach prior to landing. Pressing the joystick button, I intone, 'Golf Yankee Yankee on final zero four'. Plying joystick, throttle and rudder, I must keep the runway's end in the same place on the cockpit canopy as we descend, maintain the airspeed at 55-60mph, hold the slip-ball in the middle of its travel, align with the centre-line of the runway, and generally do nothing stupid while maintaining control of this aluminium butterfly frisking about on the breeze: a breeze which can make progress bumpy when spilling down into the valley from the hills to our west, like river water tumbling over rapids.
Flying is actually fairly easy because the sky is generally quite soft and yielding. Landing is an altogether more ticklish matter, however. It is when you encounter the hard stuff. The ground looming up towards us looks very hard indeed just now and part of me wants to push in the throttle, step on the right rudder pedal, pull back the stick, climb away and avoid the whole situation. Pushing these thoughts out of the way, I focus as best I can. Through my headset comes the instructor's voice, “keep up airspeed, stick forward a touch, nose down. That's it, remember you're right rudder soon ...steady... now think about rounding out, stick back, keep her flying as long as you can”. An eternity of seconds passes...., and boomph, our back wheels are down, then the front one drops to earth a second later, and with a shimmy from the plane, we start a less than straight ground roll, as I try to steer again with the joystick which has no effect on the ground. Reverting to the rudder pedals, which also control the nosewheel, I make the plane straighten its course, eventually coming to a stop when the toe-brakes are applied. I finally remember to make another radio call, “Golf Yankee Yankee, backtracking zero four”.
We turn around, taxi back to the end of the runway following the central line, turn around into wind again, line up, set the first stage of flaps and adjust the trim lever to the sweet-spot, gradually apply full power and keep a heavy foot on the right rudder. Now we are shooting along the runway, and at just over 40mph I pull the joystick back. Leaving the ground, we veer off slightly sideways from the runway until I correct it, then settling the nose on the horizon, we climb away for another circuit of the airfield to position us for the next landing. Driving home later, I feel drained but happy; the flight now seems abstract, a dream, an episode from someone else's life.
This lesson, consisting of exercises 12 and 13 (take off and landing) on the syllabus, is to be repeated many times. After one session of poor landings, all flawed in some different way, I become quite despondent, wondering whether I can ever relax enough to master the mental workload that comes with landing. Sensing my low spirits, the instructor suggests that our next outing should be a navigation exercise to provide some distraction and to cheer me up a bit, a tactic which worked a treat.
It all started when her ladyship and I had a more than usually chatty evening, having perhaps had a little more to drink than usual. I had been recently been impressed, and envious, when an acquaintance mentioned he had a flying licence. It was one of those things I had always wanted to do in a vague sort of way, but as with lots of youthful uncosted ambitions it had remained unfulfilled. It brought to mind how my Father had once been keen to fund me through a commercial flying course when I was a teenager. I didn't take him up on it, knowing we could not possibly afford it. “I've always regretted not learning to fly”, the wine and I remarked. Like many relaxed late-night conversations, the memory of it soon faded away, to languish with the rest in the recycle bin of the soul.
Some months later, my birthday arrived. To my surprise, an envelope I opened contained not just a card, but also a voucher for a trial flying lesson. Ever inventive and secretive when it comes to gifts, her ladyship had exceeded herself this time. I was as excited as a child who hears sleigh runners scraping the roof on Christmas Eve. I had only one other experience of flying in a light aircraft. This took place after the girls on the factory floor at work proposed me for a charity parachute jump being promoted by a local radio station. “Toss the Boss”, was the inglorious name of the promotion. Anyway, bravado left me little choice but to go along with the whole affair and we raised some money for a local hospice, Nightingale House. After two abortive trips, because of bad weather, on the third visit I did the jump (in tandem with a parachute instructor). This consisted of dropping from the plane at ten thousand feet, then enduring the sensory saturation of freefall followed by blissful peace when the parachute opened. I was glad to have had the experience, but as a leisure activity it is not for me, loitering and tea drinking all day in the clubhouse for a few 10 minute periods of excitement being a parachute tester.
The day of the trial flying lesson arrived and with voucher clasped in hand, I met the instructor, Nick James, at Welshpool airport on a delightfully sunny day. I got a few minutes briefing, a look around the plane and then he piloted us over Oswestry, Chirk, our home and Llangollen, allowing me to take charge of the joystick for some of the time. We were back to Welshpool within an hour and the whole experience was a complete delight, apart from occasional unsettling turbulence. There was nothing to be done except to arrange some lessons, and a major part of my spare time has since been devoted to thinking about flying, reading about flying, studying for the exams, and now that I think of it, flying. A prize student I certainly wasn't, but finally I reached the point of landing competently enough to fly my first solo flight when a nice still afternoon with a light crosswind eventually occurred. The first solo is a major psychological milestone, knowing that the instructor trusts you enough to fly away in his aeroplane is amazing in itself. Following this up by taking off, flying and landing on you're own is astonishing. Accompanied lessons continued after the solo, with some solo circuit flying. The slight headaches didn't come any more and lessons after solo were more enjoyment than work. Along the way came the studying of the books and the exams, which were easier than expected in the end.
Before long we were on to flight-planning and local navigation. Two solo cross- country flights are required, each one involving landing away at another airfield, getting forms signed there and flying back to base. With those done, the next hurdle was the big one, the test. Practice of stall recoveries, steep turns, working on many practice forced landings and unusual attitude recovery were tidying up things a bit and eventually, following what seemed a very long period of unsuitable weather, the test day arrived. I didn’t think I was nervous, but was probably the only one on the airfield who believed that. The examiner was completely charming and did everything possible to relax me (what a waste of effort!) during the pre-flight checks and technical discussions and as we lurched across the sky through the various tasks. I flew some of the scruffiest circuits I had ever achieved, somehow got through the slow flight, the stalls, steep turns and the practice forced landings and all the rest of it. Finally the hour and a half was over and we landed back at the airport. As landings go, I thought it was a fairly good one. “Oh, it’s so hard to get a greaser (a mint landing) on tarmac”, said the examiner. I thought that didn’t sound promising at all and my heart sank. Taxying to a halt and doing the shutdown checks, I reflected on the clumsy way I had executed manoeuvres which I was capable of doing fairly well and started to feel quite pessimistic. A few questions followed, some were technical and some explored how I thought I had done. I honestly admitted that the circuits had been much ropier than usual and explained a few of the odd things I’d done while feeling like a rabbit in the headlights. “Well, I’m pleased to tell you that you have passed.”, he said, “ congratulations!”
Finally I had become a pilot!
That was a few years ago now and apart from taking her ladyship into my life and buying our home, I still think it’s the best thing I have ever done.