“The… how do you say… sensation? It is ok?” Sebastien asked us in his charming French accent as we cruised lightly over the Loire Valley in his four-seater airplane. We nodded enthusiastically – yes, all good!
In the split second that followed the horizon fell away to somewhere behind my back, the clouds shot up in front of me and Sebastien’s laughing voice crackled through the headsets “And now?!!” I tried in vain to find which way was up and to listen if the engine was still in action – but I couldn’t hear it over my friend’s voice screaming “PUT IT BACK!!!” through the radio as I saw her hands shoot from the rear seat over my shoulder, presumably reaching to strangle Sebastien.
The aerial tour over the Loire Valley on the little Cessna 172 was my Christmas present from my sister & brother-in-law, who were reasonably confident that Sebastien probably wouldn’t fly us into the ground.
We took off from the vacant air strip in Saumur, a town in the heart of Loire wine country. The flight-path led us along the Loire River to the east, past the Troglodyte cave dwellings in Turquant, over the fortress at Chinon and back up around the blankets of vineyards as the sun set.
Eventually I managed to pull my eyes away from the pastel expanse of wintery grapes and castles to take stock of the deelie-dodads and wheelie-whatsits on the dashboard. This immediately led into a strange flashback of afternoons playing Flight Simulator ’98 on the hefty desktop PC of my childhood.
I was surprised to learn that we were cruising at only about 300 meters above the ground – approximately the same height as the top of the Eiffel Tower. I was even more surprised to learn that the altimeter is in feet, and I was suddenly doing some simple conversions to get the numbers into units I could understand.
Sebastien explained several of the more important controls to me – the whole process of flying is relatively simple it seems. Then he showed me how the control wheel works – pretty easy as well. If you push forward the plane goes down, if you pull back it goes up.
Then he handed the controls over to me. THEN HE HANDED THE CONTROLS OVER TO ME!!!
You remember that awkward feeling when you’re learning to drive and you can’t quite remember which pedal is the gas and which one is the brake? And you don’t know just how much power will lurch you forward or throw you backwards? And the whole time your mom is jamming her foot into the corner of the passenger seat trying to punch the parent-brake and bring the whole traumatic ordeal to an end?
It wasn’t quite like that, thank Darwin. Because if it was we all would be dead now.
As Sebastien pulled out his phone and sent a couple quick text messages I gingerly tried out the wheel. Meanwhile, my friend in the back seat tried to get Sebastien to put his hands back on the controls ferchristsake.
With his phone safely returned to his pocket he led me through a couple simple manoeuvres. “Turn left.” “Now right.” “Go up 200 feet.” “Level out.” “Take it down 100 feet.” (Gulp…)
He was disturbingly cool about letting an utter lunatic such as myself control our collective fate. I know he has a successful career in the wine business, so I suspect it is lucky he missed his calling as a driving/flying instructor.
Fear of flying
Something a lot of people don’t know about about me is that I have a fairly serious fear of flying. It doesn’t keep me from booking plane tickets, but it does lead to me embarrassing myself pretty regularly while on flights.
I once put my entire watch (band and all) into my mouth for pretty much no reason except that I was panicking as the plane banked unexpectedly over the Alps. This did not improve relations with the suit-clad man about my age next to me. Prior to the watch-munching-moment I had been practically sitting in his lap, since he had the window seat and I was desperately trying to see out the window – the only way I can be sure we aren’t nose-diving at any given moment. I’ve never been so happy to get off a plane.
So what about little planes? Statistically they are much more dangerous than the giants I spend so much time stuck in – but that doesn’t matter. I never said my fear was rational. I actually didn’t have a moment of panic while on this flight.
No. Actually that’s not true. I only had one moment of panic, when Sebastien intentionally spun the plane in some disorienting direction, and even then it wasn’t so much panic as it was the overwhelming guilt of being personally responsible for depriving my friend’s three children of their mother.
In hindsight I really can’t figure out my fear of flying. Before, I would have said that it is some sort of control issue – rooted in the lack of insight into what is going on in the cockpit. But that doesn’t really explain why it felt OK when I knew for sure that the pilot was taking pictures out the window and playing Candy Crush on his cell-phone.
I’ll just keep hoping that one day my phobia of large planes will disappear as fast as it started.
But in the meantime…
Until my fear disappears I’ll just add ‘small aircraft pilot’ to my mental bucket list and quietly keep an eye out for other chances for aerial tourism. There are so many ways to see the world – from the window of a train or car, from the seat of a bike, on donkey or on foot, looking up from underwater or down from the skies. So much to see – and so many angles to view it from!
While earlier I would have probably argued that the best way to see a vineyard is through the bottom of a long-stemmed glass, now I’m not so sure any more.