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Way Up in the Sky

(Photos by Timothy Norris)

My palms are sweating so much I have to keep wiping them on my jeans. Which is just as well because I have to use my feet to steer. It’s my first time piloting an airplane, a brand-new Cessna Skyhawk, and I’m doing a lousy job, sending the craft zigzagging across the path to the runway like a drunk attempting a sobriety test. When I get the plane positioned, I dig in my heels and press hard with the balls of my feet to hold down the brakes. I look up at the long strip of asphalt before me. My anxiety is so palpable I almost throw up.

In the co-pilot seat is my instructor, Bill Monte, who says it’s time to push in the throttle. When I do, the entire aircraft shakes and the brakes seem to strain as they try to hold us back. This plane just wants to go. The sound of the engines is so intense that we have to use top-of-the-line, noise-canceling headphones and built-in microphones to talk to each other.

Bill looks calm as he gives me the okay to release the brake. The ground races beneath us as I give her more gas; the yellow marker that had loomed in the distance now speeds toward us. When we reach the point of no return, Bill tells me to pull up on the yolk, the steering-wheel-like control in front of me, and as soon as I do, we lift off the ground. It’s just a few feet at first, but easing back on the yolk brings us higher and higher. We keep climbing until the houses seem to be the size of pencil erasers, the cars mere spots along the long concrete rivers below.

It’s a calm, clear day, and for a minute it seems as if we’re just going to keep rising with the plane’s nose pointed up, like Chuck Yeager flying into the ether. But before we get too high, Bill tells me to level her off — we’re about to exceed our designated airspace — so I push in on the yolk slowly until I see the horizon level. We’re at more than 3,000 feet, and thoughts of missing parts, a failing engine and Goose from Top Gun race through my head. Somehow I stop myself from calculating the chances of Bill having a heart attack and leaving me up here alone to land this thing. Then the ocean comes into view. I realize that navigating the Skyhawk is a lot like driving a boat. The plane wobbles a bit in the air current, but it’s not hard to make the small but constant adjustments needed to keep us on a straight course. A couple of times the current shifts and the plane drops slightly, and I’m surprised to find that this is no more distressing than hitting a wave in a speedboat.

Bill picks out two points on the horizon: “Stay between those,” he says, pointing toward a peak near the Getty Center and the 405. At some point, sunlight begins to flash on the ocean and I take a deep breath, then make a wide turn over the water to cruise up the coast. That’s when Bill tells me I’ve been flying the plane all by myself this whole time. My pride swells, like a mask over fear, but I finally relax and take a moment to really look around at the houses of Westlake Village, the topography of the mountains and the sequined light of the waves.

“This is more civilized than driving,” Bill says, smiling. “Up here everyone knows the rules. I find it scarier and more nerve wracking to drive on the 405 during rush-hour traffic.” It’s true there are no stoplights, no stop and go, no carpool lanes, and as I get comfortable, I know what he’s talking about.

“This is kind of like the great frontier,” says Bill as he looks out his window at the green, sloping hills. “Pilots are kind of like the last cowboys. There are places you can’t go,” he says, pointingto the restricted airspace on our computerized instrument panel’s map, “but there are plenty of places you can go. There’s amazing freedom up here.” I follow his eyes out over the ocean.

Bill, dressed in pilot attire — crisp white shirt with gold-striped epaulettes on the shoulders, and polished black shoes­ — is an instructor at the Van Nuys Flight Center in a program sponsored by Cessna. It begins with a discovery flight, “to give you a taste,” as Bill says. But I was shocked when I first learned that I’d actually be flying the plane, taking off, landing, turns, everything. “Of course, I’ll be right here with you,” Bill said, sensing panic.

If I were to enroll in a full flying course, I’d take the plane up, driver’s-ed-style, with an instructor at my side. After that, you practice with a computer-based program that uses a simulated cockpit. A written test is given at the end of the classes, leading to a student-pilot certificate, the equivalent of a learner’s permit for drivers. Youhave to prove you can take off and land with confidence and skill to get your full license. Depending on the type of license you’re going for, you may be required to fly at night or fly a long distance. It all leads up to the check ride, like a road test, and most pass on the first try.

Dual-instructed flights like mine are $89 per hour through the program, which is about half the cost of many other flight schools. The total cost for a private license is $5,000 — if you do it over two years, it works out to about 200 bucks a month. If all that still seems overwhelming, the nonprofit Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association sponsors a mentoring program that matches students with experienced pilots and an instructor, helps aspiring pilots find a flight school, and offers financial assistance and scholarships to partiallyease the cost of flying lessons. Fliers who go through the program — devoted to ensuring that the friendly skies aren’t limited to commercial and military flights — are said to be three times as likely to get their license compared to those who go it alone.

“People don’t realize just how easy it is to fly and how affordable it is,” Bill tells me before he signals that it’s time to head back.

I pull a wide turn and guide us toward Van Nuys Airport for our descent. It seems we’re going to get through the whole hourlong flight without seeing another plane in our airspace — a relief. But then a computerized voice squawks from our radar panel.

“TRAFFIC,” the voice calls out, and a yellow rectangle appears on our map. I look out the window and watch as a jet passes by, like a shark passing a minnow.

There’s no time to really enjoy that moment; instead, I get into position to land, and here Bill helps me out as we descend. It’s a smooth landing, much smoother than commercial jets that propel you forward as they seem to careen down the runway.

“You’re a natural,” Bill says, smiling.

“I’m hooked,” I tell him. Suddenly, having wings doesn’t seem so out of reach.

For lessons, contact the Van Nuys Flight Center (an authorized Cessna Pilot Center), 16700 Roscoe Blvd., Van Nuys, (818) 994-7300 or www.vnfc.com. For mentoring and scholarship programs, contact the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) at www.projectpilot.org.


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