The grandly named 'Terminal Building'
was a long long blocky construction between the carpark and the hangar. The watercolours of Spitfires and Tornados rather outmatched
the eclectic but obviously well-loved collection of light aircraft packed in the
hangars and scattered across the apron.
Inside the office come radio control
tower were about half a dozen people. An
old gentleman took my name and booked me down for a slot the following morning.
An older woman sat in a corner commented on my name and I admitted I do
spend half my life spelling it out.
The following morning in mortal terror
of being late I got up early, ate breakfast (cold pizza) but no coffee (the
thought of me caffinated in control of an aircraft doesn't bear thinking about)
and headed out to the airfield. The
weather was calm and slightly overcast but cloudbase was high and visibility was
On arrival we had a good half hour to
wait so headed for the 'Propellors' café where I discovered I was related to
the chef (some variety of cousin).
My instructor pilot turned out to be a friendly young man named Justin. He had a light Scottish accent which proved very reassuring as he talked me through the flight.
He grabbed a map and a spare headset for
me and we headed out to G-BSSB the Cessna 150 we were taking out.
It struck me before how small and fragile aircraft tend to look on the
ground and this little plane though having a sweet and somehow lively appearance
was no exception. The fear that
that little cockpit would feel either terribly claustrophobic or terribly
exposed (or possibly both) gave me a moment's pause.
Then Justin pointed in the direction of the left side door--the pilot's
seat--and I grinned, patted the wing and climbed in.
While I adjusted my seat (I'm short and
had to run it all the way forward to comfortably reach the pedals), fastened my
seatbelt and figured out how to close the door properly, Justin ran through the
preflight checks, primed the engine and started the prop. He plugged in the headsets and I settled mine on my ears.
It was amazing what a difference that made.
I felt suddenly very cut off from the outside world and a trace of doubt
crept in again until Justin's voice came clearly through the intercom asking if
I could hear him okay. I could.
"Nervous?" he asked.
Was I? I had to think about it. I decided I wasn't nervous of flying--not of something going wrong and us falling out of the sky anyway. If anything I was worried that it somehow wouldn't be what I expected. That I'd be disappointed with the whole experience of flight.
"Na," I said as we taxyed out.
Out on the runway we headed down to the
far end of the side to get our nose into wind.
Justin explained how to steer the plane on the ground using the rudder
pedals and differential brakes and we swerved our way along until I got us more
or less straight. Once we were
airborne I was to learn the value of this exercise as it was a foretaste of just
how light a touch on the controls was needed and of the slight delay in the
response of the plane.
At the far end of the field, Justin took
the controls, got our permission to take off from the radio and accelerated down
the runway. It seemed like no time
at all before we were off the ground and climbing, I don't think we used up a
third of the runway.
By now I had a big grin on my face and
any worries about the flight had been left back on the ground.
The small cockpit felt secure and comfortable, not cramped, and in such a
small plane the closeness to the sky was exhilarating not frightening.
We continued to climb and while Justin was flying I took the opportunity
to look over the instruments, tallying what I recognised and what I could guess
At the top of our climb about 5000 we
levelled off and my stomach did that strange going-over-a-hump flip at the
change. The grin on my face
belonged to a child on a swing.
More or less as soon as we were straight
and level Justin checked I knew what the controls did and handed it over to me
with instruction to just keep her going in a straight line at this height.
I knew by now that only a light touch was needed but wasn't quite
prepared for the near constant tiny adjustments needed.
Left to itself, the nose wandered all over the place.
I had a tendency to let it get too low and Justin gave me a tip to keep
an eye on the airspeed which would give an extra clue if we were climbing or
falling. We wanted to cruise at
It was quite difficult to see straight
ahead. You certainly couldn't see
the ground ahead most of the time, so navigation was interesting. It took some getting used to and I think my tendency to drop
the nose was from a desire to get it out of the way so I could see where I was
going! I was attempting to use the
outcrop of Dinas Head as my reference point as we flew towards Fishguard but
definitely wandered about quite a lot on the way there.
At Fishguard we flew over the harbour
and saw the ferry below. Here we
practised a turn or two. Great fun.
Those banking turns were what had my six-year-old self shrieking for more
in my dad's friend's Cessna way back when.
We followed the coast along for a while and, caught up in the flying
itself, I had by now lost all track of where we were, a fact I somewhat
sheepishly admitted when asked whether I recognised the offshore island ahead
which turned out to be Ramsey. When
Justin pointed out a little grass airstrip below, I found myself hugely
impressed that anyone could find the place.
I suppose learning to intercept the landscape from above must come with
practice, to me it looked utterly foreign from this angle.
We followed the coast around, flying
over the old RAF base at Brawdy and over Newgale beach (both of which I did
recognise) before turning left to follow the Haven.
When we reached Milford I was quite impressed that I managed to
successfully locate and fly to my house. I
spotted the docks and the railway line and from there managed to find the Meads
leisure centre (after some confusion because the hill it sits on looks
deceptively flat from the air) and from there I could see the estate. I found the house and Justin took the controls to do some
steep turns above it, while I peered out the window and just laughed in absolute
glee doing the tourist thing--"Oooh I can see my brother's car!"
After a few minutes of this Justin
handed the controls back and we levelled off and headed for Tenby and
Saundersfoot. The nice thing about
flying in Pembrokeshire is how the coast makes such a wonderful guide.
At Saundersfoot we turned back towards the airfield, flying over Oakwood
Park on the way. All those tall
rollercoasters looked far less impressive from where we were!
By now I'd got the hang of things enough
to relax and enough the scenery and in fact did rather better at keeping things
stable when I wasn't worrying over every little adjustment.
The ground seemed oddly remote, a thing apart from us.
I knew intellectually of course that if we collided with it, it would get
very immediate very quickly, but there was no sense of fear.
The air seemed almost solid, fluid, buoyant.
I think it would be very easy to just drift off and lose your
concentration if you stopped paying attention to what you were doing.
Keeping an eye on everything and the actual process of flying was quite
mentally taxing in the kind of enjoyable way that some people find sports
physically taxying but emotionally satisfying.
Back at the airfield Justin took the
controls to bring us into the circuit and down to a gentle landing.
We taxyed back to the hangar area and that was that.
I had a grin on my face for the rest of
the day and the slightest thing made it grow wider still--the slightest hint of
a prop overhead, walking into my garden and knowing what it looked like from
5000ft, seeing a map of the county and being able to trace the route we'd taken.
People who haven't flown stare at you
stupid when try to describe it. They
say things like, "That sounds like fun," which doesn't come close to
Some sort of poet could express it
perhaps--how manoeuvring such a lump of metal and machinery can feel so natural.
The way that little plane feels so much alive.
Like a finely trained horse you just 'tell' it where you want it go and
it responds. You don't haul it about like a machine. Nothing mechanical either in the constant adjustments made in
response to wind and thermal. Like
swimming in a sea, you compensate for waves and currents without really thinking
I walked down the garden path with the
light wind on my face, resisting the urge to spread out my arms and run like a
child playing at flying.
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