I have a habit of getting myself into situations bigger than I am. When you’re 5′-4", that’s not hard. I thought I’d post a couple of what I call "I was bloody lucky to get away with that" incidents. These incidents tend re-emerge in my stories in one shape or another. So sit back and enjoy the first of calamities…
I hadn’t always been afraid of heights. In fact, when I was a kid, I was a bit of a suburban monkey, forever climbing trees and running along rooftops. My fear struck during a business flight to Paris. The plane took off and banked left. As I stared out of the window at the world below me, petrifying thoughts gripped me. I was mortal and I stood no chance of survival if engine failure or gravity got the better of aerodynamics. My engineer’s mind cataloged every possible reason for the plane to crash and, with every foot in elevation gained, my chances of survival tumbled. I spent the flight clinging to the armrests like they were going to save me as my gaze remained glued to the world outside the window.
My fear spread beyond flying. My heart rate leapt any time I was in a building more than three floors tall. My imagination got away from me and I feared I might lean against a window that wasn’t closed and that would be the end of me. No, my life expectancy depended on me staying on firm, flat ground. After several years of this, I decided to learn to fly to combat my irrational fear. A kill or cure approach, if you will.
I signed up with the local flying school to get a license. They ran a fleet of Cessna 152s–tiny two-seater aircrafts with less elbowroom than a GEO Metro and in aeronautical terms, about the same capabilities. They couldn’t fly to fast or too far, but for the purpose of training, they were more than sufficient. When I arrived for my lesson, the school assigned me one of their Cessna.
I took to flying pretty well. Being a competitive person, especially with myself, I wanted to do well. I had to ace the milestones laid down in the course, one of which was the first solo flight. Flying solo is when the student gets to pilot the aircraft without the security blanket of the instructor at his/her side. The target time for a student to go solo is ten flying hours. My instructor cleared me for my first solo after nine. Once I had that under my belt, I was free to accumulate the number of solo hours required for obtaining a pilot’s license. At the end of our exercises, my instructor would hop out and I’d fly off again, alone.
Things usually went well, but on one particular day things didn’t go to plan. I was returning to the airport after practicing some slow flight exercises in the local area. I contacted air traffic to tell them I was coming back to land and they gave me clearance to rejoin the circuit. The circuit is essentially a traffic circle in the sky the planes join to take their turn to take off and land. Basic landmarks on the ground stake out the circuit. At Booker Airport, Wycombe Wanderer’s soccer stadium was one, a Victorian mausoleum with a golden ball atop was another, a radio tower marked another and the runway itself completed the circuit. Beginning pilots are taught to navigate and fly using visual landmarks and you need to develop a sharp eye. It’s not until you’re 3,000 feet above the ground that you realize the world is mainly anonymous looking cities, pastures and woodlands. Booker Airport proved this point. Beyond the circuit’s basic landmarks, the city of High Wycombe, the M40 motorway and farmlands were the only other recognizable objects for miles.
I joined the circuit at the “Golden Ball” and pointed the Cessna in the direction of the radio tower. Reaching the tower, I prepared for my descent announcing my intention to air traffic control. Air traffic acknowledged, when suddenly, another plane (a twin-engined Piper) radioed in for a landing. Since the other aircraft was the bigger and faster plane, air traffic wanted to get him down before me. The pilot said he was five miles out and asked for a straight in approach, essentially allowing him to circumvent the circuit.
I told air traffic that I was on “Base” which is the last leg before final approach. The other pilot quickly corrected himself saying he was only two miles out. Air traffic got a little nervous and asked if we could see each other. We both responded that we couldn’t. The pilot radioed in to correct his position again. He said he was right on top of the airport. Air traffic nervously asked where I was. Equally as nervous, I told them that I was about to turn on to final. There was a moment of hesitation from air traffic and I could understand it. They had a tough decision to make. Was it better to have someone competent get the plane down on the ground first or keep the experienced pilot up in the air to prevent spooking the student pilot? They decided to give the twin engine priority over me, but asked again for us to recheck for visual contact. We both said we couldn’t see each other and given no other instruction, I reluctantly turned on to final. As I banked left, my wing lifted and there, about a hundred feet above me, was the twin-engine Piper and its pilot had no idea he was descending on top of me. The expanse of our aircraft’s wings had placed each other in our collective blind spots.
We were seconds from a collision. With no time to explain the situation, I slammed the plane into a dive to avert the crash and radioed air traffic to tell them what had happened. A shocked voice told me to get into the circuit again and come home. With a racing pulse, I said that I would.
I looked over my shoulder for the runway. It had gone, and so had the Piper I’d nearly collided with. Nothing looked familiar. It was as if I’d punctured a hole in the world and reemerged in some alternate universe.
I tried to reorient myself and scanned the landscape for the “golden ball”, the radio tower, or the stadium. All I saw were trees and the M40. Extending beyond the horizon in both directions, the motorway was no help. I’d committed a student pilot’s cardinal sin–I’d lost my visual bearings and I didn’t recognize a damn thing. This was ridiculous. I’d flown over the same places a thousand times, but nothing seemed familiar. No matter how ridiculous it seemed, I was lost.
To be continued next week…
Yours safely on the ground,