While I’ve always liked the idea of adventure, the practice of it has not come naturally to me. I am terrified of scenarios where my body could make a splatting sound when hitting the ground.
That’s why I was shaking on my way to check out the Let’s Go Flying Program at Thunderbird Aviation flight school. On my way out to Eden Prairie’s Flying Cloud airport I missed two exits and gripped my steering wheel in anticipation of the flight.
Thunderbird Aviation is one of 3,500 flight schools participating in the Let’s Go Flying program, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s (AOPA) effort to get more young people flying airplanes. The program provides lots of sexy P.R., an effective “this could be you” website,, and affordable ways for young people to get a pilot’s license (some schools offer discounted intro flights for $99). After seeing a zany Let’s Go Flying press release I decided this could be my opportunity to buck up and face my fear of flying.
Arriving at the the desolate airport I saw a Phillips 66 sign towering over a squat white building beyond dozens of small airplanes. Yellow tubes shot out from the building in all directions like narrow gas filled tentacles. A biting wind whipped through the parked planes with names like Piper Warrior II and Sky Hawk. (I knew immediately I wanted to fly a Piper Warrior II; something with a name as far from my everyday life had to be worth flying.) I made my way towards the Thunderbird Aviation flight school thinking I had made a mistake—the school couldn’t possibly be in that dilapidated 1950s like gas station on the side of the runway.
Inside the school, staff and students drank coffee and milled around on overstuffed couches. The school’s chief pilot, an ex-flight attendant sporting furry Uggs and a miniskirt, talked shop about DPE, TCO, FAA 141, and OAPA regulations. As far as I was concerned they were speaking another language.
I got a chance to decode the language over the next hour when Chris Cape, the director of operations at Thunderbird Aviation, gave me a flight lesson. Chris was a tall guy whose cool shades, bright blue jacket, clipboard with a flight checklist, and no-nonsense stride all gave him an air of confident authority.
The best thing about Chris (besides that he seemed like an upstanding guy that you’d trust with your life 3,000 feet above ground) was that he really knew his stuff. Flying appeared to be an extension of his body. He was born with an urge to fly and as a teenager was so tenacious about learning to fly that he worked for free at a small airport washing airplane windows. Chris spent his adolescence zipping above Maryland and hanging out with middle-aged men who talked about altimeter and air pressure.
“It was like a fraternity and still is,” Chris told me. “Once you start to get to know the lingo you have a group of people-a community really that you bond with.” He also assured me that flight schools aren’t the place for college party type of fraternity. “It’s not just men, although that’s how it was back in the day. Now you have a lot more women and we’re starting to see a lot more racial, age, and economic diversity.”
In his office nestled into a quiet corner of the airport, a picture of the Maryland airport of Chris’s adolescence hung above model airplanes and certificates from his Chris’s commercial flying days.
Chris is at home here.
Even his family life now revolves around aviation; Chris’s wife Sara works in the traffic control tower a few runways across from Thunderbird Aviation and the most striking building visible from Chris’s office window. As a college student Sara was going to be a music teacher but then took an aptitude test that told her that her God-given talent would make her an excellent air traffic controller. Ditching aspirations of teaching wide-eyed kiddies to beat tambourines and clink triangles, Sara embraced air traffic control. She met Chris in aviation program in North Dakota, they carved out their flighty dreams together, and now work a few hundred feet apart in a sleepy Twin Cities airport.
I imagined them talking during take off and slipping in a little, “love ya, hon” or “what should we do on our date tonight?” between a chorus of “roger that” and “clear left, clear right.” I was seriously disappointed later when we took off on my flight and Sarah was on her lunch break.
Where’s the aerial romance in that?
When Chris and I left the flight school we headed for a Sky Hawk, the tiny plane I would fly. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t fly a Piper Warrior II because it sounded so unlike anything in my quotidian undertakings, but quickly convinced myself that being a Sky Hawk was just as cool.
In moments of fear I tend to joke relentlessly. It’s my defense mechanism. Chris proved to be a gentle and good humored, but professional flight instructor who would play a joke out thoughtfully but wasn’t about to crack his own. He was exactly the Steady-Eddy I’d want in control of a plane.
As we walked around the Sky Hawk I asked questions and occasionally cracked a joke, to which he would simply answer, “correct.”
“So that’s how we check the fuel?” I’d ask.
“Has the Let’s Go Flying program brought in more young pilots?”
“If a huge bird runs into the propeller we’d probably die?”
Chris was such an even keeled guy he convinced me there was nothing to be scared of. Well, except when we did a walk around of the Sky Hawk. We checked the fuel, looked at the brakes, gave the wheels a “swift kick” to ensure they were inflated, checked the wings for “dinks and scrapes,” and made sure all the bolts holding the plane together were screwed in tight.
“We use a coin or our nails or something if the bolts are a little loose,” Chris told me.
That’s what we were doing to make sure we didn’t fall out of the sky? My skepticism soared until Chris told me to make sure the pitot tube was clear. We needed to measure the air ram…or ram the air…or make sure the air rammed the tube…or something.
I liked that. That sounded official. These were words whose order I didn’t know and whose purpose required explanation.
These were fraternity words.
This was aviator talk, like what Chris taught me seconds later in the cockpit. He explained the switches for carburetor heat, rotating beacons, avionics power, and transponders. I smiled and nodded. I was one step closer to the fraternity even though I had no clue what the words meant.
Before take off it suddenly occurred to me to ask whether we had parachutes. Chris told me our plane didn’t have a parachute, but told me they don’t really work anyway.
“To be honest, they just put them in for the scaredy-cats so they’ll actually get in the plane,” he said smiling with a hint of disdain.
“Ach, scaredy-cats,” I said, wishing our plane had a parachute.
I spent the next hour learning how to fly and trying to convince myself I was not a scardey-cat. I’m not sure who decided we should steer planes with our feet while terrestrially bound, but I was cursing them as I tried to get our Sky Hawk to the runway. I cursed some more anonymous people moments later when I took over the controls in the air; clutching the steering wheel (which isn’t called a steering wheel even though it’s a steering wheel), pulling and pushing the gas, and bringing up the nose of the plane. As Chris made small talk I concentrated every ounce of my being towards making sure I didn’t kill us both.
Then, little by little, I felt myself the getting a hang of it. I realized I might jostle us around a little bit, but it didn’t mean we were going to nose dive. When I had enough control to look around me Chris told me to pick somewhere to go.
The freedom to choose chose a flight path is exhilarating. Unlike driving, you are unrestricted by stop signs, traffic lights, or little old ladies crossing the street. You are completely suspended without obligation to objects. You can choose a highway or river whose path you’d like to follow, a lake to move towards, a factory to check out, a sleepy farm whose inhabitants you’d like to know more about, the outlines of a monotonous row of houses you’d like to trace. You can focus on a distant goal and get there unhindered.
In that freedom a poetry of flying somehow became clear to me. The cadence of the engine, the rhythm of propeller, the isolation, and the uninhibited permission to explore all conspired towards peacefulness. On that mid-March day we cut through the air, crystallized from evaporating snow, and the colorless monotony of March in Minnesota, so tiresome from the ground, gave way to nuance from the sky.
I wasn’t necessarily going to plop down $6,000-$10,000 getting my pilot’s license and sign up for Let’s Go Flying program, but as we flew over Shakopee I considered it for the first time in my life. I could get used to this: coming out to Thunderbird on a Sunday morning, grabbing a cup of coffee with my aviator frat friends at our tucked away school, going up in my little planes with war-like names, leaving behind all earthly cares, and getting to be like Chris who feels more comfortable steering a plane than a car.
After we landed I my upper body shook from the concentrated effort. I reeled a little, finding my body so weak, but looked up at Chris grinning.
“So did you like it?” Chris asked me, as he has presumably his hundreds of students.
“Correct,” I answered.