This story is by Kirsten Nixon and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“You gain courage, strength, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do”. Eleanor Roosevelt
On a cool Sunday morning in July 2013 I found myself in a little yellow airplane called Tweety Bird at the end of a grass runway in a paddock. I was about to launch into the sky and soar like a bird with just me at the controls. It was my first solo flight and a defining moment in my life. I was 53 years old.
It all started on a summer’s day in 2012 when MM (my man) and I turned off the highway onto a dirt road that led to Jaspers Brush Airfield, a road we had driven past nearly every day for twenty years. We were delighted to find a flying school. A small fleet of multicolored airplanes stood in a grassy paddock swaying gently in the light breeze, beckoning us.
The chief flying instructor welcomed us and suggested we go flying. MM was instantly sold. For me, motion sickness, claustrophobia, and fear made my flight much less enjoyable. Over the next few weeks, MM gobbled up flying lessons like a starved Pac-Man, it was enough to make me realize that flying was to become all-consuming in our lives. Feeling a tad abandoned I decided that I could at least learn to be a calm passenger and booked another flight.
Jaspers Brush Airfield had turned into Lake Jasper after a week of crazy rain, so my date with the instructor and her light sports aircraft, a Jabiru affectionately named Pinky, was at another local airport. After a restless night, I determined to face my fears with a ‘just take the next step’ approach and, this time made sure I had tablets to calm my wobbly tummy.
Pre-checks complete and my tummy well behaved, we were off again. I marveled anew at how one minute we were clumsy on the ground and the next we were set free to soar. What a gorgeous airplane – Pinky is such a graceful bird in the sky; I loved that airplane.
It was spectacular up there that day. In the words of Amelia Earhart, “You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky”. The world from above was a crazy patchwork of shapes, shadows, and color and we were flying beside small white, cotton wool clouds. I still gravitated between fear and exhilaration, and it took all the courage I could muster, but I did use the controls that day without freezing and ever so cautiously turned Pinky around. Amazing! A few more turns and, before an approaching large gray cloud bank could turn into rain and angry wind, my instructor brought us in whilst I stayed on the dual controls with her.
It was during that flight that a spark was ignited within me and I asked the question, “What if it’s possible that even I could learn how to do this, learn how to fly, to fly an airplane”? I needed to see what was over that horizon. I decided to learn how to fly.
And just like that, the madness began.
The month of April passed in an aviation blur. I learned how to fly straight and level, how to climb and descend and how to turn. MM moved on to stall recovery training, taking off and landing, and doing circuits. Circuits are where all the basic flying skills come together as you take off, fly in a rectangular pattern and land the airplane, all in preparation for that exciting/terrifying day when you fly your first solo. Flying is very much about consistency, and mastering new skills until they become second nature.
The incessant yawning and heavy feeling (a bit like jet lag), that had plagued me after each flight was gone now. I continued to take tablets to keep my wobbly tummy at bay but no longer felt claustrophobic in the cockpit. Each lesson saw me come away drenched in sweat and shaky, and some flights were better than others. On the whole, I was making progress.
When we weren’t flying, we were talking and thinking and reading about flying. We would crane our necks skyward with every low rumble and discuss what sort of wonderful flying machine had just passed overhead. We would drool over airplanes for sale and excitedly plan which one we wanted. ‘Scrabble with friends’ in bed at night had given way to a growing number of aviation magazines scattered across the bedspread. The book, Basic Aeronautical Knowledge became a coveted possession and, we regularly scanned the long-term weather reports in angst lest the prevailing winds were not flying lesson friendly. We sat and passed our theory exams. MM went solo in November – a great moment for both of us, it was an exhilarating time.
Clearly, we had both become aviation junkies.
Early 2013 saw me stuck in Groundhog Day where landings, weather, and aircraft just wouldn’t come together. Then, amidst great excitement, we bought our own airplane! She’s a mighty steed; a yellow, high-wing, two-seater, Skyfox Gazelle called Tweety Bird. MM and the chief flew her home from Mornington Peninsula on an adventure that took five hours over some of Australia’s most spectacular scenery, from magnificent Victorian Alps to beautiful eastern coastline. A few months later, a combination of great flying weather, skilful instruction and getting to know our awesome little airplane, saw me push through to solo stage.
Solo Sunday started early in a foggy paddock with the girls warming up airplanes around me. We checked over the Gazelle, the fog lifted and away we went. After several circuits, my instructor suggested we make the next one a full stop. We landed and taxied to the windsock where she turned and asked me, “Would like to go ‘round by myself”?
My heart skipped a beat and I answered with a high-pitched “Yes”. I felt a bit nervous but I was ready. She passed on final words of instruction and encouragement reminding me of the difference one less person in the aircraft would make and that I could go around if necessary and that she would be at the windsock with the radio. A final check, a smile and a wave and she stepped out.
And, just like that, there we were – me and a little yellow airplane called Tweety Bird in the middle of a paddock at Jasper’s Brush on a clear Sunday morning about to launch into the sky and soar like a bird with just me at the controls.
Who would’ve thought it ……?
Tweety and I taxied to the end of runway 24 and turned our faces into the wind. I said a quiet prayer and cast my gaze over the instruments and switches. All was in order. A deep breath; a rolling call for circuits; full throttle; right rudder and we were off……. Woohoo!
She rolled out happily and rather quickly – we were at 60 knots before I knew it. I turned to comment to my instructor about this, only to realize that the space next to me was empty. What a strange feeling – I thought best not to dwell on it.
We hit 1000ft before the downwind turn and as the parallel runway came into view, it was all so familiar. Downwind checks, radio call, turn onto base, establish on final, approach looking good, over the fence and a surprising little bounce on landing. I taxied off the runway to smiles and congratulations. My first solo circuit was over so quickly. It had taken a combination of persistence, encouragement, good weather, right instructor, and right airplane to get to this momentous stage.
Learning to fly has been both the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. The journey has enriched my life immeasurably. Flying is a collision of two worlds on so many levels; fear and exhilaration, science and magic, earth and sky. It changes your perspective when you look at the earth from above. “Man must rise above the Earth — to the top of the atmosphere and beyond — for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives”. Socrates
MM has since gone on to achieve his license, passenger and navigation endorsements. We’re looking forward to many flying adventures ahead. For me, the next goal is to achieve my license and passenger endorsement and then it’ll be my turn to take MM soaring out in the blue yonder. What a great day that will be.