Continuing from last week’s piece. The story so far–I’m a student pilot, I’m lost and I’m panicking…
The October day had been a dull, overcast. Not the best conditions for flying but flyable. As if on cue, the sky darkened, squeezing out the late afternoon light. The cloud base descended and a mist formed. Just to complicate matters, air traffic couldn’t switch on its runway lights to help aid my return because they’d been affecting repairs all day.
If I didn’t get a handle on my bearings soon, I’d be lost in a big way. My mouth went dry and sweat poured off me. Fear strangled my good judgment. I still had the plane in a slow descent. The plane’s altitude was only 300 feet and I was heading for a crash landing in a field strewn with power lines. But that wasn’t such a bad thing. At that moment, I didn’t have the courage needed to get me out of the situation. It would be so easy to take a chance on crash landing the Cessna in the field. There was a good chance I’d be injured or killed, but at least I would be on the ground and that was all I wanted–my feet on the ground again, at any cost. It sounded like a plan and I let the plane drift downward.
I was down to less than 150 feet when I realized this easy answer was insane. I had to fight my fear. I hit full throttle and put the plane into a climb. Taking this action gave me no pleasure. With the mist closing in, I didn’t know if my ascent would fly me directly into someone. That very much in mind, I leveled off at 400 feet safe in the knowledge that it was unlikely that anyone else would be flying that low.
I told air traffic that I was totally lost. They admitted they didn’t have visual contact and told me to work at it. That instruction felt like a kick in the guts and as much use as a chocolate teapot, but I did my best.
Still nothing looked familiar. Twice I blew over the runway from the wrong direction. Both times my sudden discovery of the airport came as a surprise. I tried to maintain a visual lock on the runway, but with panic running riot through my brain I lost visual contact with safety within seconds. It was a miracle that I didn’t crash into someone flying like that. Air traffic admitted they were struggling to see me beyond the end of the runway because of the mist and that they were clearing the runway and other aircraft until I was down.
I checked my gas gauge. I still had half tanks, which was good enough for another couple of hours of flying time. A couple of hours? The plane might be able to stay aloft for that long, but I knew my nerves wouldn’t last. Stress would kill me long before then. I really had to get a grip and get the plane down.
I knew why I was so panicked. For the first time in my short flying career, I’d lost my safety tether. As a student pilot, I wasn’t much different than a baby bird that doesn’t venture far from its nest. I’d spent so much time in the circuit that it had become my beacon, my safety blanket. If I ever needed to feel safe, I knew where to go, but not anymore. By getting lost, I’d broken that link. I was flapping around in the breeze with no hope of ever getting home safe. I flew aimlessly in circles draining away my fuel and hope reserves.
Just as I was at the point where I didn’t know what I was going to do, a helicopter announced he’d spotted me and had a view of the runway through a pocket in the clouds. Air traffic handed control to him without a moment’s hesitation. He told me to do exactly what he said and when he said it. I told this sky angel I was his to do with what he would.
Air traffic advised they had the on-site fire crew on alert (hardly a heartwarming thought) and they’d managed to jerry rig the electrics to switch on the main runway’s lights (a very heartwarming thought).
The helicopter pilot issued instructions: Turn left now. Stop. Maintain heading. Turn right now. Stop. Begin descent now.
As I crested a tree line over a hill, the runway in all its blazing glory came into view. I was coming in at an angle to the runway, but I didn’t care. I could wing a landing, even if I trashed the plane doing it.
Although it should have been easy to make a landing, it wasn’t. Because of the shallow angle I was approaching from, the runway’s perspective from the air was unusual, making it hard to estimate my descent rate. But I wasn’t about to screw this up, not with the chance to walk away from this in one piece now within my grasp.
I homed in on the lights twinkling in the distance and brought the plane down, making one of the best landings of my flying career. The moment the undercarriage kissed the tarmac my jelly legs and rubber hands regained their strength. The relief was so overwhelming that I wanted to cry. I radioed in that I was down safe and sound. I continued to give an Oscar speech thanking everyone and apologizing to the airport, air traffic, the helicopter and everybody tuned in to the radio frequency.
I parked up and tottered into the flying club’s main office where a number of instructors congratulated me and the chief flying instructor told me, “You just learned the most valuable flying lesson you’ll ever learn.”
He wasn’t talking about losing my bearings, but the fallout from a screw up. When the shit had hit the fan, I’d coped with the stress. Up until that day, I’d been pretty cocky about my flying. I was accurate and adept and never made mistakes, but that meant I’d never having to fix a problem.
On the way home a wave of euphoria swept me away and I couldn’t stop laughing and crying. This passed, but the exhilaration didn’t. My adrenaline levels turned me into a rubber ball bouncing off the walls for the next several hours.
I wasn’t sure I could continue flying. I’d come very close to giving up and the idea of piloting a plane again filled me with dread. I didn’t trust myself not to screw up again. But I persevered and attained my license. I still fly from time to time. Unfortunately, learning to fly never did cure my fear of heights.
Yours still on the ground,