Thursday, 10 June 2010

Re- post to celebrate the 110th birthday of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Did I ever tell you about the time I flew a plane? No? Well this is what happened...

“OK, you have control.”
I look at my hands. My knuckles are white. I can hardly breathe because of the heavy, hot air in the cabin. I’m gripping the control stick of the plane. The plane which I am now flying. By myself.
In front of me is the black control unit; a collection of dials, false horizons, tickers with numbers slowly rotating, that is telling me nothing.  A line of sweat rolls down my forehead. I want my right hand to let go of the control, to wipe it away. But it just won’t let me.
“Ken!” I bark into my head set.
I steal a quick glance to my left. Ken’s head is between his legs. Wasn’t that the crash position?
“Ken.There’s a screw coming loose on the cover of the engine. It looks like its going to shoot out its socket any minute...”
Visions of the bonnet flying off with a large tearing noise, then fire and smoke barbecuing us to a crisp, as we plummet, spiraling from the sky, gripped my mind.
My flight instructor, Ken came up red faced, staring at the pen in his hand that had rolled underneath his seat.
“Oh, that? Yes, I noticed that with the previous client. Nothing to worry about there. Perfectly safe. But I do think you should be worried about the altitude. We are gaining. We’ll be on Mars if you don’t concentrate. Remember what I said. The four finger rule! Now push the control in, slightly, and bring the nose down.”
Yes, that was it. If you place four fingers on to of the control panel, the line of the horizon should fall on your index finger. I was so tense I had been pulling back on the stick and I didn’t even know it. Pressing the column in, the plane slowly straightened out. I could now see my point of reference, the luminous green of Clee Hills.

This was my first flying lesson. I wanted it to take me out of my comfort zone. And it did. It certainly did.

I was a little lost for a while. The band I was in was on a break, (our singer was having a baby). Also, my previously unshakable faith in the power of music was being questioned. I felt stuck and a little scared of what was going to happen next. Then I stumbled across a French writer called Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I suppose Saint-Exupéry is mostly recognised as the author of the children’s classic, “The Little Prince”. But it was the books he had written about his time as a pilot in the 1930 that mesmerised me. Tales of adventure and descriptive passages about the act of flying opened a door to a different world that appeared in places bright and weightless, compared to the black and lumbering days I was enduring.

He depicted sublime places in the sky; man in, and against nature. He seemed to be away from, but also very much in the world. I realised what I needed was to be very much part of the world again. There was, however the small problem of my fear of flying. But Saint-Exupéry was my man and I wanted to experience the beauty and the exaltation that he wrote of. This was the only way to do it. It was time to face my fear.

Over the phone the receptionist at the test centre told me that there was room in the back for a passenger. Due to reasons far too intimate to divulge here, I'd forgot my Dad’s birthday the year before. The Christmas before that I promise to take him Go-carting, but, illness stuck and the idea was forgotten.  Asking him to join me on this flight would be a great opportunity to get back in the good books.

The “Flight Centre” is situated in a small hamlet near Kinver, Worcestershire, called Halfpenny Green. I imagined a large aircraft hanger, dotted with battle scarred spitfires and twinkling private planes. A mixture of veterans and the ridiculously rich, taking their “Birds” to Challis for lunch then back to Blighty. Halfpenny Green, chocks away chaps…It is, in reality, in a business park. The big strip of tarmac strapped to the side of it goes by the name of Wolverhampton Airport. “It should be called Noddy Holder airport.”said a friend, half joking...

HQ was a prefab that dated back to the 1940’s. It sat, off white and squat under the Micro lights and private rust buckets that rumbled up, into the blue above us.

My instructor, Ken, was about sixty. He had bad breath, creamy white hair and a certain stillness that was of the odd, rather than calming variety . Ex –public school rang from his very soul. He wore square, tinted glasses, (the type that darkened in the sun) behind which sat his large, blue, watery eyes. There was something else about him, something that I couldn't quite put my finger on.
He led us into a tiny wood paneled room, and took me through the basics of flight with the aid of an old, red, wooden plane.

I would hazard a guess that it had been made about twenty years before Ken had, and like Ken looked a little rickety and worn at the edges. He pointed at the wings, pushed at the brass stick in the cockpit, lifted the whole thing and turned it around in the air. This was all said and done in a calm tone, but in a hurried way, with sentences that ran into each other...and he lost me. I didn’t absorb one single word. Plus, there was something still bugging me about him I couldn’t put my finger on.
Ken placed the aircraft down on the table in front of us and smiled.
“Ok. Got that? Would you like me to go over any thing? ”
“No. That’s great.”
“Right. Just going to check for clearance and we should be good to go.”
Ken left the room. My dad poked me in the ribs and whispered.
“Did you see his eye?”
"His eye?"
“His left eye. He’s got a glass eye...”
Ah yes, that’s what it was! They wouldn’t let a test pilot up there teaching pupils with a glass eye, would they? I’m sure he flew like a dream... I was just worried that if any thing was hurtling at full wack on our left, Ken would be none the wiser. Before I could change my mind he was back with clearance and we started the walk to the plane.

Previous to the lesson I had read, “Wind, Sea, Sand and Stars” by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. A poet of the skies, flying was a spiritual experience for him. Coming from the first generation of flyers, an era when the technology was still relatively new, engines consistently used to break down. When this happened you were pretty much a goner. He tells of his comrades flying out over the Sahara or the Alps and never coming back. Being lost to the skies. It seems that the experience couldn’t be anything but spiritual. Death rode on your wings every day, and that sense of perspective elevated one from the squabbling masses below. Surviving the flight alone had to electrify the senses – a truly existential existence.

In an early part of the book he talks about his first mail flight to Africa, he was like a cool postman, with a death wish. Antoine knew about the notorious flash storms and cloud banks that peppered the route. Cloud banks that concealed within them savage mountain ranges, and storms that could suck off your wings and spit you to the ground. Worried, he consulted a friend who was an old hand to the route.  He told him, “Sometimes the storms, the fog and the snow will get you down. But think of all those who have been through it before you…They did it, so can you”.

Ken went through the starting procedure, talking to himself as he went. Clunking buttons, setting dials, turning whatever was in front of him. All the time I kept looking at his eye. Did it move then? It was hard to see behind those glasses.

Ken manoeuvred us in to place and completed a final check with flight control. He powered the engine. Suddenly, the propellers flared up. The cockpit was now like a mobile sauna. The plane started to buzz and we pelted down the runway. Then, in seconds, I sensed the weight of the earth drop beneath us. A field turned into fields, that in turn became a tawny and green patch work, ever increasing in size. The cloudless blue of  the sky was now around us, everything below became smaller and  easier to see as a whole. Ken pointed east.

“That’s Wolverhampton, over there!”

It struck me how rural a country Britain still is. Wolverhampton looked like a concrete island in an ocean of fields. As he tipped to the left and banked to the right Ken pointed to the right
“R.A F. Cosford just there.”

As we flew nearer we heard ghostly, American voices invading our headsets. It was coming from the pilots in the chunky fighter planes which roared and spun above us as they flew back to base. Ironbridge was just about visible. Though, more striking was the silvery thread of the River Severn which flashed and twisted beneath it, coiling off in to the landscape.
I had relaxed. There were no goblins, running around my stomach. I was just enjoying the ride. Ken leveled the plane out.

“Ryan, if you would like to place both of your hands on the stick”
I did it automatically.
“Ok. You have control.”

And that was it. Ten minutes before, I had never flown a plane. Let a lone been in one as small as this, and now I was in control of it. And of our destiny. This was a flying lesson. I had almost forgotten that.

After the loose screw incident, I managed to keep a straight course toward the Clee Hills and their mysterious satellite tower. Then Ken suggested that I try and manoeuvre the plane round the hill. Time to steer the damn thing. This was done by turning the stick the direction you want to go, and when the plane was on course, turn it back to level out the flight path. My arms were still taught with anxiety. I gripped the stick and turned it slowly to the left. Then I froze. I didn’t want to turn it back. I felt that if I did I would flip the plane. It felt so precarious. It was bobbing around up there with no safety net. Ken grabbed my right arm and gently pulled it down.

“You’ve got to loosen up a bit!” he said flustered. Then quietly,
“You know, on a good day, all you need to steer a plane is your index finger. OK? Try again...”

Although I did not use my finger, with a nervous laughter from my dad in the back and some encouragement from Ken, I managed to get round the hill.

“Well, that seemed quite easy for you! What about a proper turn?” Ken ask, laconically.

By a “proper turn” he meant a 360 degree circle. You have to bank it at 35 degrees and lock the position by pulling back on the stick at the same time. Whilst doing this, you have to keep an eye on the false horizon; make sure you’re not going to too far over the 35 degree limit, listen to Ken guiding you through, try and block out the questions to Ken streaming out the mouth of an increasingly uncomfortable parent in the back; and also ignore the official babble of “Tango, Foxtrot, Papa’s” cracking in your ears from the flight control. I wiped my hands, in turn, on my jeans, placed them on the stick and squeezed.

“When ever you’re ready” said Ken.

Imagine being on the worlds tallest, flimsiest roller coaster in the world, hurtling round a bend at 160 mph. But in this case you’re in control of it.

“That’s good, Keep in the hold” I just didn't want to flip the thing and end my days compressed and burnt to a crisp in a field, just out side Wolverhampton.

The plane flowed smoothly in an almost perfect arc. Then - Boom! The left wing flipped up. The stick slipped through my hands, my heart filled my throat. Ken grabbed his controls.

“Turbulence” said Ken. “You get it over hilly areas. The thermals collect in the valley and spiral up. You’ll just have to deal with them. Tricky bastards. That was just one of the many factors up here to knock you off your course. You just have to deal with them.”

So I dealt with them. Turbulence stuck at least three more times and each time I took control. I won’t say I wasn’t frightened, it was just different. I knew what to expect and just put in place the procedure that I was told. It was all I could do. And, I pulled it off pretty well. Ken seemed pleased too.

“Yes! Well done!” his voice crackled, distorted and lively in my ears.

Somewhere in me a valve loosened and a lingering pressure streamed out. I had steered my way through a hazard that real pilots dealt with every day. Then he asked, “Do you want to do it again?”

I did. I did it again and went on flying to various points on the landscape for the rest of the lesson.
It was hot, uncomfortable and frightening at times, but it was also a thrilling and extremely special experience. It’s easy to take these things for granted. When we are squashed into economy, thoughts of deep veined thrombosis,  kids squealing and having to eat plastic food. This isn’t flying at all. This is being ferried from A to B in the quickest time possible. It is a shared experience and you are at the mercy of a airline.

The main feeling I got from flying in a three man plane was a huge sense of possibility. It offers hope and a feeling of freedom that you could fly off anywhere in the world when ever you wanted. You are in control of guiding the plane to your destination.

I agree with Exupery, that, “The machine (the plane) does not isolate us from the great problems of nature but plunges us more deeply into them.”It gives you a sense of perspective. A distance to view what is happening down there, to you and everyone else, literally and most importantly, mentally. It offered me a place to break away from the world for awhile. Of course, it wasn’t as dangerous a feat to fly a plane as it was back in Exupery’s day, but to me, it was just as scary. The experience had plunged me into my problems, and I came out alive and blinking the other side, exhilarated, ready to fly again.

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