“Pull back on the stick! Back on the stick!” I could hear his insistent voice over the roar of full throttle as this old bird trundled along the wide runway.
So I did. My right hand instinctively pulled towards me. The only problem was, I was finally having my first lesson in a PA22, a vintage Piper Colt, and the controls were the inverse of my now beloved Skyranger. Instead of lifting us into the air, I started to close the throttle – and abort take-off.
“Well, it keeps him on his toes,” laughed Dan, when I confessed in a whisper how the lesson had nearly come to a crashing halt before it even started. “Keeps his engine failure on take-off skills sharp!”
The instructor didn’t think so. He opened the power and lifted us off the ground, while I sat in a muddled daze.
“What on earth did you do that for?” I just stared, wide-eyed. “What words can I use so that doesn’t happen again?”
Well, yoke, for one. There is no stick in this old bird. A vivid red yoke on both sides, yes, and one of those push-me-pull-you throttles, plus a whole lot more I have never encountered before. Mixture, carb heat, a window-winder trim and a brake that looks like a bumblebee.
It is not often you get to recall the very first time at anything, and my first flying lesson, where I sat in catatonic confusion, is happily now a distant memory. All I can remember is thinking, I don’t understand anything. Why? What is happening? What is he doing that makes the aircraft fly? How does he know where to go? What is keeping us up here? Nothing about flying commercially prepares you for the vulnerability of flight in a light aircraft. Just you, a wisp of metal and plastic, and the great sky around you.
I think that first time my brain seized. I cannot recall ever having been so perplexed, so far out of my comfort zone. It was beyond terror. The three-dimensional aspect of it also had me floored. Remember, I wasn’t someone who had been dreaming of flight since they were a kid. I had my feet firmly on the ground.
I know there are pilots who can hop from one aircraft to another, and well done to them. Me, I have bonded with my trusty steed and I am in no hurry to even upgrade her. The Colt is a whole different ballgame – solid, slow, heavy, with all these strange controls, much less surround visibility, and yet moving faster through the air than my Skyranger ever will.
By now I can fly, I know what is happening around me, I just need to work out how to make that happen myself. But the lesson did leave me acutely aware of how long things take to be processed when they are new. It is like the time delay echoes one used to get on a long-distance call decades ago – you had to wait while the sound travelled down the wires. Similarly, the instructor would say something, and it filtered – slowly – through my layers of understanding and experience, before being processed into action. That all takes an extraordinary amount of time, certainly in a space where seconds can make a difference to live or die.
As adults there are very few times we actually put ourselves in situations where we are taking new information on board. Children are soaking up new all the time, and that keeps them sharp and on the ball. Most adults don’t go further than tweaking what they already know. I know I had a massive recoil at learning a skill that was so far removed from anything I already knew. My instinct was to turn away from it. ‘I don’t do that!’ is so much easier than the total confusion and overwhelm brand new learnings bring.
Look at any older person you admire – what makes them stand out is their willingness to adapt and learn. It’s not easy to do, especially if you are pulling back on the wrong stick! But it’s a rewarding learning curve. Try it, you might surprise yourself!