I have one piece of metal in my hand. Its only a small, V-shaped piece of sterling silver, no more than an inch and a half across, with nothing but a very modest triangle within a circle in the center. It is very plain; its only a pin to some people. But to me, this pin is a shiny memory.
The twenty-five-hundred-pound machine I am sitting in is just a light framework of aluminum and fiberglass, and its interior is no more than three feet wide at its widest point. Its roughly the same size, different dimensions taken into account, as a Kia.
My nervousness isnt helped by the fact that theres a very gusty crosswind. I dont even look back at my instructor now as he retreats from the tarmac and heads into the terminal to warm up. I open the window for some air, letting the wind, laden with the smell of rain, circulate through the cockpit. The smell that usually calms me does little to ease my jitters now.
I put the battered, laminated checklist on my lap and start running through the procedures, my hands flying from the red master switch across silver switches and dials, and at last running a finger along the lines of little white, numbered circuit breakers. I reach into the bottom left corner of the instrument panel for the dime-sized primer pump. I turn it to unlock it and pull it out, then push it in, hearing the squirt of fuel in the lines as its injected into the engine. I move my hand to the ignition key, and place my right hand on the silver knob of the throttle. It used to be black, I think, because there are old paint chips on it, but it has been worn smooth by twenty-six years of hands. This comforts me somehow. The faux leather texture of the yoke is worn and almost completely smooth as well. Things like these, signs of use, show the airplanes age. But they also give it a well-loved, almost tamed feeling. I lean my head against the window. My heart is fluttering in my chest, and I close my eyes for a moment to focus.
Clear prop! My voice has a slight tremor.
I turn the key in the ignition and the engine turns over with an electric whine, kind of like a throbbing version of the sound of a cheap remote controlled car. It doesnt want to catch, and I push the throttle in. The engine roars to life and the propeller quits its jerky cranking and blurs into motion. I hear the familiar whistle of the blades and the Cessna leans forward slightly as the prop wash generates enough airflow to lift up the tail a few inches. I press my toes hard into the brakes at the tops of the rudder pedals, reach between my knees for the parking brake, and turn the handle. It clicks as it releases and I push it back into the panel.
I take another deep breath, return my hand to the throttle, my thumb against the panel the way my instructor told me, and let go of the brakes, pulling my toes back and using my heels at the bottoms of the pedals. I stand hard on the right pedal and clamp on the brake, then push the throttle in about a quarter of the way. The airplane pivots on its right main gear, leaving a little dot of rubber on the tarmac. I smile, but its forced. I used to think the random tarmac dots were funny. Im too nervous now.
I release the brake and head for the taxiway, keeping the nosewheel on that yellow line, that perfectly straight yellow line. Keep the line under your right foot, my instructor kept telling me. At the beginning of the week I was weaving all over the taxiway. Now, with the rudder and ailerons adjusted so the wind doesnt flip me over, and my feet making minute adjustments on the pedals, Im straight and steady as an arrow down that bumpy stretch of blacktop.
I come to the end of the runway and use the left brake to make the airplane pivot around its left main gear, and set the parking brake again. I look off the end of the runway for other airplanes. Theres a red, white and blue Cessna on final. Another solo pilot.
I perform my engine runup as I wait for the other airplane to come in, throttling up to seventeen-hundred-odd RPM and flicking the ignition key between right and left magnetos, pulling the carburetor heat in and out to make sure the RPM drops slightly. Everythings normal. No rough running, no coughing, no weird clunks or whines.
The other plane floats past my nose, wingtips waggling, ailerons and elevators twitching like the feathers of a hawk on caffeine as the pilot compensates for the crosswind.
At the last second, something goes wrong. The Cessna stalls and the tail drops within feet of the runway. But the pilot is well-trained. I hear the engines drone rise in pitch and the pilot brings the nose back to level. The left main gear slams into the runway and then the plane is off again, clawing for altitude. They climb back to pattern altitude and retract their flaps.
I shiver and close the window. Its a nasty crosswind for first-time solo pilots, and there have already been many go-arounds today. I just hope Im not one of them. Though I love to fly, this is the day Im flying the pattern just to get back on the ground.
New Ulm traffic, CAPflight 2159 turning left crosswind for one-five, New Ulm. I watch the other airplane bank left into a ninety-degree turn to crosswind. Its my turn.
I take a deep, shaky breath, and swing the Cessna out onto the runway.
The runway, when you look down it, is a black strip marked like some alien zebra. Theres a dashed white line down the center, with several sections of parallel dashed lines all along its lengths. They tell you how much runway youve got left when youre next to them. Right now, Im sitting right smack in the middle of a huge fifteen painted on the runway. Thats the magnetic heading. Almost as an afterthought, I check my heading indicator. Its dead-on.
New Ulm traffic, CAPflight 2159 turning left downwind for one-five, New Ulm.
Its now or never. I cant very well whip a U-turn and get off the runway and out of the other airplanes way.
I take a deep breath and push the tiny red button marked PTT with my thumb. Its hard, because my hand is shaking.
New Ulm traffic, CAPflight 2146 departing one-five, New Ulm. My voice is faint, tremulous.
I let off the brakes a little, making sure the nosewheel is straight, turn the yoke toward the wind, lightly step on the right rudder, then push the throttle to the panel.
The engines roar is dulled by the thick cups of the headset around my ears, but the 170-horsepower Lycoming engine lets its power be known by shaking the Cessnas frame like an earthquake. The plane hurtles forward, down that black stretch of runway, and my feet tap the pedals, making tiny adjustments. The machine leans forward a little more as the wind begins to lift both the wings and tail, and then I feel the telltale rear-end shimmy as it starts to get light on its wheels. My eyes are fixed on the end of the runway, occasionally glancing to the airspeed indicator.
Fifty-five knots. Rotation speed. I gently, smoothly pull up on the yoke, and the instant the gears are off the runway a gust of wind broadsides the fuselage and shoves me sideways. I snap the wing down into the wind and keep the plane centered on the runway as the ground falls away. I scan for other traffic, though I know there wont be any. The needle of the altimeter sweeps smoothly up toward that sought-after reading of two thousand feet.
I hit the altitude, and sure enough, right off my left wing are the old beige grain elevators that I picked out for my landmark. I thumb the PTT button again.
New Ulm traffic, CAPflight 2146 turning left crosswind, one-five, New Ulm. The airplane practically banks itself as I turn away from the wind. Timewise, this will be a short leg since Ive got a tailwind. In a matter of seconds, I radio again. New Ulm traffic, CAPflight 2146 turning left crosswind, one-five, New Ulm.
I turn again and fly parallel to the runway. I pull my throttle out and begin to descend slowly, pulling out the carburetor heat so I dont ice up. I push the flaps lever down one notch and feel the plane hesitate in the air and rise up a few feet before my hand goes down and turns the trim wheel down a bit. The plane evens out.
Since Ive got my windward wing down into the wind, I have a good view of the tarmac from here. The two other cadets on the ground wave up at me.
Youre looking good from here, one of my roommates says. Keep it up, girl. Theres only five of us girls at Flight Academy, and we all share a room. Weve become quite close, and the friendship between the sergeant talking to me and myself is probably the closest of them all. Hearing her voice reassures me.
I grin wryly and reply. CAPflight 2146 says thank you.
The gleaming white water tower in the hills is right off my nose. Time for the moment of truth. I look over my shoulder, everything but the airplane fading from my conscious mind. I am so focused now, you could probably put a screaming two-year-old in the back seat and I wouldnt notice. The end of the runway looks like its between my wingtip and my tail.
New Ulm traffic, CAPflight 2146 turning left base for one-five, New Ulm. I push the flap lever down to twenty degrees of flaps. The plane rises again, and I trim it out accordingly. I pull the throttle back even more and I descend faster. The time between the turn to base and the turn to final goes by in the blink of an eye. I purposely fly a longer than normal base leg so when I turn to final, the wind will push me back on course. New Ulm traffic, CAPflight 2146 turning left base for one-five, New Ulm.
I only notice then that theres another red, white and blue airplane circling at about four thousand feet, one wing low, watching me. So that was where all the other radio calls are coming from.
I line up for final, and my breathing quickens markedly. My heart pounds like a drum in my chest. I start overcorrecting.
CAPflight 2146, this is CAPflight 2152. Youre looking great from up here. Just take it easy, kid.
Thanks, I say, after swallowing the lump in my throat I dont use the radio. I know theyll hear the fear in my voice. My eyes lock on the end of the runway.
I have reached the single most critical part of flight. The part that requires undivided attention, a very good feel for the airplane, and nerves of steel.
I pull out the throttle so my rate of descent climbs to twenty thousand feet per minute, and I fight to keep from instinctively pushing the throttle back in. Easy. Youre supposed to drop out of the sky like this. I nearly laugh at my own not-so-reassuring thoughts.
Im being blown off course at about ten miles per hour, and almost instinctively, I touch the right side of the yoke and give the right rudder pedal a gentle push, dipping the windward wing and skewing the nose into the crosswind. The rain has started to come down in a fine drizzle, and that makes me increasingly nervous, because where theres rain theres clouds, and where theres drizzle there could be fog and carburetor ice, the bane of all pilots. Theres nothing quite like losing RPM when you might need to abort a landing.
What if I get stuck above fog? Im not rated to fly in that kind of weather! What if -
This is the part where I start becoming unpleasantly aware of exactly how small this aircraft is, and how fragile it is. The feeling of confinement doesnt start getting to me until I get within six hundred feet of the ground. I look over to the empty seat beside me, where I had looked not even ten minutes ago for help from my instructor, who is now watching me from the ground. There is no one to critique my approach, no one to reassure me or shadow me on the controls now. I am on my own.
My heart climbs into my throat. I look up at the observing Cessna one more time.
No. I will not back out this time. This approach is perfect. The line of rivets on the Cessnas gleaming white nose is perfectly aligned with the dashed white lines down the runway.
I start to feel faint, and reach up to open the cabin vent. The cool air blows into my face, somewhat quelling the butterflies.
Im screaming in my head right now.
As a pilot, I have the unique dilemma of being absolutely terrified of landings. Something about dropping a machine onto a strip of pavement at seventy miles an hour after falling out of the sky scares me. Im also slightly afraid of heights, but Ive pretty much conquered that this week. Landings? Different story, Ive never done it alone.
The runway rushes up to meet me, and with a whispered Oh, God I pull the throttle out and feel the tail of the plane start to sink as I keep the earth-seeking nose level. The runway lunges up at me and I quickly but smoothly give it more power.
And then I hear the rumbling and jostling of the plane bumping down the runway.
YES! I scream triumphantly, though my voice is mostly drowned out by the engine noise. Theres no one to hear me anyway.
CAPflight 2146, that was fantastic from four thousand feet.
I taxi back to the terminal, shaking all over with adrenaline and excitement. Id done it. By myself. I had taken control of that machine, and despite less than desirable weather, I had put it down safely and lightly on the runway.
I look up and see 2152 dip its wings, fly one more circle, and head back toward Mankato. I smile.