“Turn off the moving map, your NAV-II radio has failed, take the cross-radial to hold, 2 min turns, and here, your vacuum has failed, I’m going to cover up your attitude and heading indicator.” Under the hood that limits my view to the instrument panel, my brain is breaking into a sweat. Outside it’s getting dark and the little light for the whiskey compass is broken. Every time I need to check it after counting out my timed turns, I hold up a flashlight, frantically computing lead and lag times for my turns. At least, in the falling darkness, winds are calm. I switch radio frequencies and can’t believe the needle is coming in…it seems I’m actually back at my fix.
“You were 20 seconds late.”, the old B-52 navigator in the right seat huffs indignantly. I risk a glance and a half-smile, but quickly look away again. Wow. He seems personally offended by the oaf fumbling around in the left seat. After one and a half hours of demonstrating exactly where my limits are, I land feeling rather defeated. Once clear off the runway, I ask humbly when I may repeat my progress check. To my great surprise, I receive permission to continue on to the next phase of training for my instrument rating. I actually wonder, whether this seasoned aviator just does not want to fly with me again, trusting that my CFI will prevent me from downsizing the flight school’s fleet. Back on the ramp, my torturer swiftly hops out of the plane and disappears into the night, presumably to heed nature’s call.
I tie down the little Cessna and gather my stuff, fumbling around in the pitch-black cockpit with my flashlight. Reflecting on this high-anxiety flight, it finally dawns on me that it was probably not quite as terrible as I made it out to be. Sure enough, in the beginning, I was so nervous, I turned North when I was instructed to fly South. But after that, not once was I off course. And after all, the plane is still intact, ready to fly again. No, thinking about it all, I actually demonstrated that I had learned quite a bit. This makes me think of the young and introverted CFI, who prepared me for this show down with Mr. old grumpy-head. Aloof to the point of abrasiveness and frighteningly intense, it took me a while to understand that behind the rough exterior hides a passionate aviator with unwavering commitment to excellence in flying and teaching. Smiling to myself, I allow a small moment of contentedness and pat the warm engine cowling, before strolling back to the FBO. Like Richard Bach noted, a plane is nothing but a heap of metal, a cold machine. But we both agree, in moments like this, fully aware and calm, one senses the spirit of an airplane. I thank the graceful little Cessna for allowing me to learn the amazing feat of navigating in the clouds. I can’t wait to try my hands on an ILS approach, now that I have some basic idea about instrument flying and holding patterns.
A final scan of the instrument panel, and the approach is briefed. I take a deep breath and relax for a second. With the autopilot in heading mode, I follow radar vectors to join the localizer in due time. Then, I will hand-fly the approach. How much I love to center the needles, keeping them stock-still all the way down the glideslope to the decision altitude. The airplane and I one, acutely aware of every single degree off the course line, every foot of change in altitude and the smallest deviations from airspeed and attitude.
We’re about 10 miles from establishing the final approach course, so for now, I look up from the instrument panel and take in the view. City lights twinkling at dusk with the immense ocean stretching out behind them, dark and calm. Shades of green, blue and grey in soft twilight. The unbearable lightness of being for once quite bearable, actually in tune with the steady hum of the engine. There is a curious, yet faintly familiar sense of belonging. 3000 feet above our beautiful planet, the cockpit has never been cosier and I am free, my soul stretching along the horizon. I feel a hand on my shoulder, a delicate, gentle touch. We grin at each other happily. Before the next radio call, I’m back on scanning the instruments. The focus never broken in a fleeting moment where we were infinite.