i’ve heard this phrase a few times in my life. the first time was when i was student piloting a little cessna 150: 704EL
seven zero four echo lima
those were the call letters to the plane i used to fly. you read that right, i used to fly planes. sometimes i forget that i was once fearless. but there are always little moments in which i remember, and can almost feel like i am flying again.
i took flying lessons at a little airport about 45 minutes north of my college, which was in boston. it all started with a friendship, and then over coffee with my grandfather.
i worked at a comedy club in harvard square all through college. met all sorts of comedians, some totally famous, some boston or new england locals who would one day become fairly famous. funny enough (no pun intended), cocktail waitressing at that club was one of my most favorite jobs and provided some of my best college memories. anyhow, i became good friends with one of the comedians and we stayed in touch when his comedy stint was up. we both discovered that we had each always wanted to learn to fly, he went back home and when he called me to tell me about his first flight lesson, i was all, “shit. he beat me to it.”
not long after he beat me to the skies, i went to florida to visit my grandparents and while lingering over a coffee at their favorite diner one morning, i told my grandfather, a WWII fighter pilot, that i was planning on taking flying lessons when i graduated and moved to los angeles (i already had a teaching position there – thanks to that snazzy diploma from fine upstanding, expensive school).
he said, “why wait? there’s a flight school 20 minutes from here. your first lesson is on me”. and off we went.
one flight was all i needed to get hooked and turn into a total junkie. i went back the next day and paid for my own lesson.
vacation over, i returned to college, hell bent on finding a flight school. before i even unpacked from the trip, i got a legal pad, a pen, the yellow pages and the phone with the really long cord that stretched to every roommates’ room in the first floor apartment that we rented, and i sat on the toilet (i like to multitask) and started calling flight schools.
i called every one within an hour of my college, asked all the right questions about planes, instructors and yadda yadda. but the only answer i really cared about was the one to: how much is flight time? i didn’t care if the planes were held together with duct tape (and in fact, i wound up flying one that did indeed have some duct tape holding bits together) – i just wanted to be able to afford it with my cocktail waitressing tips.
so i’m on the toilet, on the phone talking to a guy on the other end who’s answering all my questions when the answer to how much is flight time? decides more than i had anticipated. it was the cheapest school i had called. sweet. sign me up. when can i get my first lesson? he scheduled me with an instructor for later that week and i hung up the phone. oblivious to the fact that i had just spoken with the guy i would wind up marrying.
i pulled into the parking lot for my lesson a few days later, and as the story goes, that guy i was on the phone with saw me get out of the car and head towards the building – he knew i was the one he had spoken to on the phone and he knew he was going to marry me.
as far as i knew and was concerned, he was the guy who worked behind the counter at the flight school, scheduled lessons and fueled my plane. literally. and all of this is another story entirely.
back to flight lessons: one of the first things my instructor said to me was that the plane inherently just wants to fly. so just let it. it doesn’t really want to fall from the sky. just let it fly.
this knowledge alleviated some fears, but still not enough to practice stalls when i was soloing. sorta like i never liked to practice sand pits when i was by myself on the ‘cross course. i trusted the knowledge that should an emergency arise, i could find a landing spot and put it down.
i still to this day, look for emergency landing spots.
i spent all spring and summer that year waiting tables at the comedy club & taking a flying lesson every chance i could get. i’d pay for my lessons one by one in singles – a big wad of them. all the flight instructors thought i was a stripper. i’d cancel lessons if i didn’t make enough tips the previous night. my instructor would always tell me it was so much cheaper to buy a big block of time for about $500, but i never had that much money at once. and so it went until the day after 16 hours of instruction, i finally soloed the plane. this day also deserves its’ own post, but after that i was free to take to the skies whenever i wanted. plus, soloing saved me the $24 per hour instructor fee.
touch and go’s were my favorite. take off, stay in the pattern and land. over and over and over again. i loved the take offs. and the landings. and actually, everything in between.
my instructor would always admonish me – he’d tell me i didn’t need to come in screaming out of the sky. i had developed a bad habit of coming in high & hot. also known as steep and fast. i was 21. and fearless.
my now husband, then fueler guy would sit outside the flight school and make bets with a friend. he’d watch me doing touch & go’s and say if she puts it on the numbers, i’m going to marry her. i put it on the numbers every time. it was a huge source of pride. to come screaming out of the sky and put that plane right on the numbers at the end of the runway every damn time. grease the landing. flaps up, power up, take off and do it all over again.
i’d leave my lessons, or solo flight time and drive back up to our summer house. getting on the highway with the airport tower just off to my right, i’d watch the odometer hit 55 and pull back a bit on the steering wheel just to see if i would take off.
that’s all it took. 55 mph. a little power on the throttle, pull back on the yoke and the plane just wants to fly.
we now live near a tiny little airport much like the one where we met and i used to take lessons. i still think, on certain days “it’s a good day to go flying”, but haven’t flown (an airplane at least) in 13 years.
i remember the training rides earlier this year and even late last year. most of my teammates knew that i’d be one of the last ones down a steep descent, white knuckle braking all the way down. a few of them were always kind enough to stay with me and coach me through the turns, what do do with my oustside leg, inside arm, where to put my weight, etc. it was just another version of flaps down, pitch down, decrease power, then level off. land. put it on the numbers.
one teammate would tell me during these white knuckle descents – let it fly suzanne, just let it fly.
but i was too afraid.
last week, i was on the rollers in my safe little cocoon of a vestibule. i wanted to try something different. i wanted to try starting with both hands on the handlebars as opposed to the death grip on the doorframe method.
both hands on the handlebars, with my right arm out a bit leaning onto the doorframe, i start to pedal. faster. faster. faster. all of a sudden, the bike uprights itself and i’m rolling. no death grip. just me and the bike rolling. a tiny little lightbulb moment that proved just letting it fly is okay.
pedal. push the throttle. pull back on the yoke. and let it fly. come in high & hot and put it on the numbers. fleeting moments of realizing i just went down a screaming hot descent and my hands didn’t go numb. or i take a turn and realize i hardly touched my brakes.
season number 2 officially starts on saturday with the first race. here’s to hoping this is the year i learn to let the bike fly.