I Flew the Plane On August 22, 2001, I flew a single engine plane down and up the Hudson River. I recently found the email I had sent to friends about that day. Feeling a twinge of nostalgia for days long past, I blew the dust off and did some work on it.
Also, it should be noted that when I lived in New York, I trained as a boxer for my workout, so that's what the sparring is all about.
And now, back in 2001. . .
I just had to tell you all about my flying experience today. Yes, I actually flew a plane. It turned out all right. After all, I'm here typing this to all of you.
This morning, I hopped on a NJ Transit bus to somewhere in New Jersey. I met up with my buddy Neil who's a flight instructor at a tiny airport with teeny tiny little planes. How small are these planes? Think Mini-Cooper. I stared at the plane I would fly in. Okayyyy. Suddenly, I was very nervous. I knew I wasn't going to fly a 747, but I didn't expect a plane sooo small.
But I'm a tough chick. I'm a Manhattan girl. Last night, I sparred with a 240 pound man---true he was my bud, Ray, and I trust he's not gonna hit me hard. Still, seeing his hand come toward my head was a little disconcerting. Anyway, standing in the sun and looking at the Cessna Skyhawk, I thought, Ray's boxing glove is bigger than that plane.
'Are ya nervous Jen?' Neil asked. By the way, Neil's Australian (if you need to know how his voice sounds). His phone messages always begin with Gday Jen.
'A little' I said. I'm a chicken, I admit it. The first time I ever rode the Cyclone at Coney Island, I had my eyes closed the whole time while clutching my friend Natasha for dear life while screaming out in pure terror. I have ridden the Cyclone with eyes open since then, but my hands had a white-knuckle grip around the bar.
'So you're writing a play about a pilot. Is there anything you need to know?' Neil asked.
'No. Just absorbing what I can.' I said. Neil later told me that the sound of my voice scared him and knowing that I hit things for fun scared him even more.
But then Neil went into flight instructor mode. The first pre-flight check is a plane inspection. Basically you walk around the plane and make sure everything's where it should be. The rivets were all in place. No dents. The flaps moved liked they're suppose to. No birds nests in the engines. Two wings. Three wheels. A bunch of dead bugs, but the plane was all there. It was also a new plane---ten months old. Okay, these things are good to hear.
Then, I learned how a plane's airspeed is determined---by a gauge on the wing which measures the air pressure and compares it with the thingy on the side of the plane that also measures air pressure. I was learning stuff, which is good. Learning stuff gives one the illusion of being in control. I know it; therefore, I control it. Illusions are good---they bring comfort in the midst of approaching doom.
Then, the fuel check. Apparently, even though the plane had just landed, there was more than enough fuel for an hour trip. Fuel is good. Neil pulled out a shot glass with a metal rod in it to check the quality of the fuel. Shot glass! Familiar object. I felt at ease. The fuel was clear with a bluish tinge.
'See, no bubbles. That's good' Neil said. I nodded.
Cut to. Interior Plane. I am 5'8", 140 pounds. I now know why pilots are small people. Pulling the door closed was not exactly a treat for my hip. After I pushed the lever down, Neil suggested I throw my weight against it a few times to make sure it wouldn't open. Can't be too careful. And the seatbelt. Just like a car. But planes go faster than cars. I decided not to ask where the parachute was.
We plugged in our headsets---just like in the movies, we had headsets---big monster things. Now we could have conversation while the plane was flying. What's wild was that Neil's voice came into my headset at the same volume as other pilots on the radio. So the person sitting next to you sounds very far away. Also, you can hear what everyone else is doing because you can't see all the planes---especially the one about to land from over the trees. Altitude is everything.
After some preflight circuit checks, Neil turned the ignition key and started the plane. The engine came on, the propellers started turning, and there was a nice, constant hum. It sounded all right to me, but I wouldn't know if something sounded wrong. But nothing was wrong. Everything was fine. The sun was shining. It was a clear summer day.
We taxied down to the end of the runway and waited for two planes to land and another one to take off.
The take-off. Actually, it was the easiest take-off I've ever been on. Very smooth. I didn't know I was off the ground until I looked down and saw I was way off the ground. Then, up, up, up over tree tops. Okay, I can deal. Damn, a lot of people in New Jersey own swimming pools. The sky was blue with clouds above us. There were green trees and highways. My ears popped.
Then Neil said, 'Okay Jen, now you can fly.'
I took the yoke and aimed the nose a little under the horizon line as the plane climbed to 2,000 feet. It buckled a bit---mostly from pockets of warm air coming up from the ground (see, I learned something else). After finally feeling steady, I stopped making the plane do a high speed climb. If we go above 3,000 feet, we're in the land of jet planes. That's bad. But I was getting the hang of it. It probably helped that Neil was a flight instructor who has seen students do weird things. Suddenly, everything felt very calm. Flying a small plane is like boating. You just need a light touch and then ride it.
There was a plan. Go down the Hudson River, past Manhattan, around the Statue of Liberty, over the Verrazano, and then back again.
As we came to the Hudson (at the Tappan Zee Bridge), Neil took the controls back and took the plane down to 900 feet. Out of my window, I could see the Jersey Palisades gleaming in the sun. Off in the distance, the city was fast approaching. On the radio was the Hudson River Air Traffic. You could hear pilots flying past the GWB, the Intrepid, the Twin Towers, the Colegate (the clock sign), and the Lady (not the girl, the Lady). Like regular traffic, we flew down the Jersey side and up the Manhattan side of the Hudson.
Down the river, I could follow Riverside Park, then the West Side Highway, then all those tall apartment buildings on both sides. Then, the bay. All the boats looked like they were standing still. We were going too fast for them. And around the Lady with tourists at her feet. Then over the Verrazano and a U-turn. Then, Brooklyn. It looked like paradise.
Going back up the Hudson, we flew toward the end of Manhattan and those financial district buildings seemed to grow out of the water. And I thought, I live there, and I love it. I spotted the street leading to my gym. Then up through the Village and Chelsea. Lots of trees along those streets and the brown buildings rise up from them. There are a lot of brown buildings in Manhattan. Then Midtown. Taller buildings. No trees. I couldn't see Times Square. Then the West Side, and for a bunch of blocks between Central and Riverside Parks, the West Side seemed like a small town between two great forests. I found 72nd Street and counted up to my street and saw my building---it was a brown stripe. Then Columbia with the green roofs. Then tall apartments. Then more trees. Then the Cloisters peaking out from the trees. Then the Harlem River and the Bronx. It was all a sight, a lovely sight, viewed from 900 feet.
As we approached the Tappan Zee, Neil asked if I wanted to fly it again. So hand on the yoke again.
'Now you have to turn left and head toward that office building sticking up through the trees.'
Simple enough. I turned the yoke and headed toward the office building.
'You could be a stunt pilot, Jen.' Apparently, I had made a hard left. Most people ease into their first turns. But the Manhattan girl decided she was going left and by golly, she did.
After passing the office building, we headed toward a church steeple, then a blue water tower, then another church steeple. Those steeples sure stick out.
Neil took over for the landing. Apparently, landings are the most tricky. Tricky? Tricky??? Fine whatever.
Like the pro he is, Neil lined up on the runway and landed the plane. A woman stood at the side of the runway and waited for us to pass before walking across.
So that was my flying experience. I made it back to Manhattan in one piece.