I’m happy. I’m flying.
I’m on a plane from Madrid to London, observing the clouds below me and thinking about the place I left a few hours ago, Oviedo, 39000 feet below me.
Instead of flying one short 90 minute non-stop flight, I’m making a connection that involves “going backwards” (i.e. on the second leg I am, as I write, overflying the place that I originally left) taking two flights totalling 3+ hours and a 90 minute stopover/transfer in one of Europe’s most user-unfriendly airports. Most people find it crazy – and it’s certainly illogical – but far from complaining, I’m actually quite happy.
(By the way, I’m not totally crazy – there are only nonstop flights on that route 3 days of the week, and this is not one of them. I need to fly today. If there’d been a nonstop, I would have taken it!)
I just love flying, airports and planes – even this one, a basic workhorse A320. I’ll travel as often as I can, ideally by air. I feel privileged that I have so many excuses to travel. And, before I carry on, yes, I know that I’m contributing to climate change. (However, I would argue that it’s nothing like as bad as is made out, and that stopping flying won’t make any significant difference to our futures – but that’s a topic for another future article).
Every time I’m up here I wish I was flying the plane myself. Well, perhaps not the Madrid-London leg – commercial pilots must feel like they’re not much more than glorified bus drivers. But I’d give an arm and leg to be able to fly myself between Asturias and London – or to go anywhere else I felt like. It’s strange in a way, because I’m not a fan of driving. I’ve always had nice cars, but only ever use them for A to B commuting and (when I’m lucky) a trip to an airport. Flying, though…. that’s different.
Learning to fly
So, you might ask, why haven’t I learnt to fly and got my own licence? It’s not that difficult. It just entails 45 hours of practice flights, a medical and a fair number of exams. Lots of people do it.
Back when I was in my 20s, I really did want to learn to be a pilot. What stopped me was money – I was as poor as a church mouse in those days, and it’s an expensive hobby. Then, by the time I might have been able to afford lessons, I’d become a father, and a number of incidents with light aircraft alerted me to the risks, and it felt wiser to leave it for another time. Through my middle life I could never find the time – it seemed I was busy with work seven days a week. The desire always resurfaced when I was a passenger – which was frequently – but it’s not possible to research taking flying lessons when one is oneself up in the air (well, maybe now that some airlines have wifi…). By the time I landed, there were always more pressing matters.
Finally, four years ago, something (I can’t remember what) triggered the urge to do something about it, before I become a geriatric. I found the nearest flying school, and took a test flight in a single engine Piper – it was such fun! I really wanted to learn, but was doubtful that it was realistic to start in my early 60’s. However, I was reassured by the very enthusiastic and engaging owner of the school, so I decided to start lessons.
l felt there was no time to lose, so I started to book 2 lessons a week. That in itself wasn’t easy – it seemed that the school had a shortage of instructors and a surfeit of pupils, and finding times when both I and an instructor were available was a struggle. Then there was the weather – beginners can’t fly if there is low cloud cover or strong winds, and, even though it was summer, it was England after all. Nevertheless, I managed about a dozen lessons over the next three months – rarely with the same instructor, though. The first one I had was great, but he never reappeared on the schedule after that. One or two of the instructors were helpful and tolerant of an old fool like me, but I felt that most were just “going through the motions”, and one young guy – himself possibly the best pilot of the lot – scarcely contained his irritation at my repeated mistakes, and that thoroughly demotivated me.
Nevertheless, I carried on – avoiding that particular instructor, of course. After my penultimate lesson, the instructor told me that I’d soon be doing my first solo flight and would have to start planning to take the exams. He sold me a £20 manual on air law – volume 2 of 7. Belatedly, I realised that I’d been taking all those lessons with practically no idea of the curriculum – obviously my own fault for not asking, but I did feel a bit aggrieved that nobody had explained the order of training and exams in detail at the start. Of course, I knew there would be exams, but not at what stage – I even knew there were 7 books (I was still progressively working through the first). I would have to make time for home study of all these texts (as far as I know, the school is solely practical, and doesn’t provide any classroom training other than preflight and postflight chats). But it wasn’t that which dissuaded me.
My last flying lesson
My next – and last (though it wasn’t intended to be) – lesson was with an older instructor, who I had flown with before and felt I had got on well with. It was due to start at 9am. By now I’d clocked 12 hours and could take off and land under supervision, maybe not very smoothly but at least without crashing. The weather I woke up to on the day was pretty horrible – overcast and vaguely threatening to rain. I checked Aeroweather, the app the same instructor had recommended I get, and I figured there’d be no lesson. I called the school and they agreed. But 20 minutes later the instructor called, and said that the weather was OK at the airstrip (which is only 7km from my home, so I was surprised it was that different) and that I should come for the lesson.
In the plane, doing preflight checks, and the tower said there was cloud cover at 2000 feet – so good enough to take off. First, though, we had to taxi to refuel – which took about 10 minutes. Then, taxi to runway. It did seem a bit strange that, at this relatively busy airstrip, that usually has a lot of small planes jostling for position, we were the only one moving, but…
I managed a smooth takeoff and was feeling relaxed when, 2 minutes later and at 800 feet, we hit cloud – and wind, and rain… “This is not weather for you”, said the instructor, immediately taking over and returning to the field. So in that lesson I was in the plane for 30 minutes, 25 minutes of which was spent either taxiing or refuelling.
“It’s good experience anyway, you see what wind and rain are like”, said the instructor. Yeah, right. An expensive lesson in weather. I had to pay for a 30 minute lesson for that. And had a wasted journey – 40 minutes to get to the airfield, 30 minutes back.
Since it had only been a few days since the previous lesson, I’d not had time to open the book they had sold me (it’s still unopened on my bookshelf). I’d made notes and been meaning to ask about the rest of the curriculum after the practical flying. Sadly, the abortive 30 minutes depressed me too much to ask even one question.
This was early November 2018. Unsurprisingly, the weather got worse, the days got shorter, and it was nearing a long winter holiday I’d got booked. I decided to stop thinking about learning to fly, and leave a decision on continuing until the Spring.
In the end, I never went back. Although I’d loved flying, I now only thought of the bad experiences with instructors. I thought that the school would call me to encourage me to come back, or at least to find out why I wasn’t returning – after all, I was still a “member” of their group – but the call never came. On their Facebook page, I saw, week after week, all the happy and young people who had achieved their first solo flights. Never a more mature face. Definitely a young person’s thing, then.
Further, there had been several high profile light aircraft crashes, most notably the one with the footballer Emilio Sala. Even if I wasn’t worried enough about flying solo, I had my wife to remind me of my general lack of coordination, and that I’d been an idiot to start to learn to fly in the first place. I had become a grandfather, reminding me that becoming a father had contributed to stopping me learning at a younger age. Nothing there to encourage me to go back to having such a risky (but fun) hobby.
Learning just made me love being a passenger even more
I still adore flying, though. I’ve nearly finished this, and the flight from Madrid to London is just overhead southern England, though it could be anywhere as it’s swathed in cloud and it’s twilight time. I’m going to go on flying as a passenger as often as I can.
I’m glad I had the lessons, as they taught me the rudiments of aeronautics. I enjoy commercial flight as a passenger even more than I did before. I know the difference between flaps and rudders. I understand the criticality of power and attitude. From my window seat (always window – any other seat and one might as well be on a bus or train) I can observe the use of flaps and listen to the change in engine tone and the descent of landing gear, as well as seeing the world below and enjoying the privilege of flight.
Recently, in Guyana, I was able to sit next to the pilot in the largest single-engine aircraft (a Cessna Grand Caravan taking 12 passengers) and appreciate that it is essentially the same as the little Piper I was learning on.
Flight is wonderful. It connects people across thousands of miles in just a few hours. No improvement in video conferencing – even the somewhat surreal concept of teleportation that a fellow passenger on a long flight a few years ago was explaining to me, in total seriousness – can replace the value of face to face, hand to hand, body to body contact, whether in personal or business life.
And, as I said at the start, my thesis is that it’s nothing like as bad as it’s painted by environmentalists (of whom I generally approve). I’ll explain why in another article. I admit I’m biased – I love travel and I love flying. However, I’ve also studied the statistics and explored the alternatives. Climate Change is real and something needs to be done to allay it; more significant steps need to be taken more urgently than stopping people flying.
The time will come, hopefully not too soon, when I won’t be able to travel any more – meanwhile….
It’s important to say that I don’t blame the flying school for my decision to give up learning. They’re one of the best schools, and I’ve been glad to stay on their mailing list and see how they have grown over the last few years, despite the pandemic. It just wasn’t for me.
Flying as a passenger isn’t always relaxing and fun, though – read about some of my scarier experiences in my book, “There’s No Business Like International Business”, now on sale.