A good friend of mine has just surprised me with the best present ever: an introduction to flying, in a CESSNA 172 four seater light aircraft. It was an experience that will remain fresh in my mind for the rest of my life.
It was a perfect day for flying, slightly overcast and so cooler than it has been and with virtually no turbulence. Starting with the pre-flight checks, including a look at the engine and its reassuringly rudimentary (non-electrical) engine, the calm and confident instructor explained things in enough detail to satisfy my curiosity without overwhelming with information. And in no time at all he was letting me taxi the plane down the runway – I hadn’t expected to take the controls so soon! Steering with my feet was an initially unnerving experience until I got used to it, realising as I did that every muscle in my body was tense and my hands were locked in an involuntary clasp of a non-existent steering wheel.
Trying to avoid following the other beginner in the aircraft in front, who was waving back and forth across the taxi runway, I successfully got my plane to the beginning of the take-off runway, stopped and awaited clearance from the Tower. Which came almost immediately.
If I hadn’t been expecting to manoeuvre the plan across the runway, I certainly didn’t expect to actually take off! Ok, so the instructor helped control the steering but I was in full control as I throttled up, guided the plane down the runway and on cue pulled the “horns”, as the Spanish call the flight yoke (steering wheel to you and me, even though it’s not actually a wheel and does more than steering…) What a feeling. Pulling the nose up and lifting off the ground just like in the movies felt surreal and yet smooth and natural. Soon I was banking right, keeping the nose up, and heading for Montserrat, the iconic mountain just outside Barcelona, home of the monestary I had visited in 1992 during the Olympic Games trip that sparked my ongoing love affair with Catalunya and Spain.
Apart from the amazing views, especially of the monestary, what struck me most was how easy to fly it was. Sure, there is a lot more to flying than what I experienced, but when you think of flying I, at least, certainly didn’t think it would be so easy to control the aircraft. Even the part where I failed so many times in flight simulator games as a kid, finding the runway, didn’t seem difficult. I decided to let the instructor land 😉 though he insisted I pushed the throttle in to slow the plane down, which was the only slightly nervous part of the flight, as the revs dropped down to a point it felt a little to slow to keep going. With the computer monitors displaying instrument readouts and no warnings (plus the inherent confidence in a commercial flight and instructor) that feeling soon passed and we landed gently on the short runway of aerodrome and taxied home.
We then headed to the coast for some local seafood and cava sangria right on the beach (with the sea just a few metres away) followed by a long siesta and a dip in the gloriously warm Mediterranean Sea. On the way back, the sky darkened with storm clouds. During the first pounding of welcome rain I stopped for fuel at the Panadella, an ancient stopping point between Lleida and Barcelona now bypassed by the Autovia (dual carriageway).
There we were greeted by a setting sun burning red through a gap between storms. And having sunk below the horizon we were treated to a spectacular and continuous light display as what was to be one of the most violent and destructive storms to hit Lleida in many years rolled down from the mountains.
Next year’s 40th will be hard to top after that! But I’m looking forward to trying!
ps Will post a video here soon…!