There is something remarkably abstract about commercial air travel. You walk from your New York apartment to a taxi to a terminal, amble through a series of tubes, fight discomfort in an ugly chair, and three hours later you're in Orlando. You can plausibly go the whole way without realizing you've left the ground.
It's a testament to the progress we've made since the Wright brothers first proved their concept late in the morning on December 17th, 1903. Airplanes are now so expertly engineered, and so well-built, that you no longer have to think about them.
Unless you want to. Then you'll discover that there's a lot to think about indeed, a fact I'm learning quickly as I roll into a shallow turn over the Florida coast in a two-seater PiperSport light aircraft.
It's only been about forty seconds since we took off. The fact that I'm already in control is simultaneously invigorating and deeply alarming. I expected there to be some sort of rigorous process--a waiting period? a physical? some paperwork?--before I'd be allowed to take the helm of a $138,000 machine that flies.
But here's what happened instead: on a whim, I called a number I found on sportpilot.org and set up an appointment for a $79, 45-minute lesson. Two weeks later I parked on the grass beside an open hangar, walked in, and introduced myself to the friendly proprietor. I waited on the tarmac--read a few pilotry magazines, shot the bull--while my instructor, a twenty year-old from Alaska who makes a living training new pilots and delivering planes all around the country (by flying them there), fetched himself a breakfast sandwich. When he got back he gave me a five-minute primer on aerodynamics; explained the buttons, rudders, stick and instruments; and took us up to about a thousand feet. "Your plane," he said.
I think I'm doing a pretty good job, actually. The stick is awfully sensitive: movements just one centimeter in any direction are translated with a slight delay into drastic changes in altitude and heading. My instructor tells me that most new pilots tend to over-maneuver and then over-correct, a nasty feedback loop which gets them into a sort of wrestling match with the air. But it looks like all my years playing first-person shooters have paid off--I'm a natural with the stick.
The pedals, not so much. These control the rudders, and after I confess to my instructor that I don't yet understand exactly what rudders do, he tells me not to worry. He points to the bottom of the screen in front of me full of indicators--airspeed, climb rate, heading, orientation, fuel level, oil temperature, etc.--and has me focus on a small white circle in between two vertical lines. It looks like a carpenter's level. "Keep the ball between those lines," he says. "If the ball goes left, press the left pedal. If it goes right, press the right pedal."
This sounds easy enough, and it would be if I didn't keep ignoring it entirely. That's my first big lesson: "Flying an airplane is the ultimate test of multitasking." He's right--most of the challenge here seems to be in efficiently collecting, triaging, and acting on a mass of messy information. But I can only seem to focus on one thing at a time. So when my instructor tells me to climb at five hundred feet per minute, I can delicately pull back on the stick and hit the number just so, but in the process I've forgotten where I am, which direction I'm going, how fast we're moving, and whether there are any birds or airplanes in my way.
These are dangerous tradeoffs, and an experienced pilot doesn't make them. At least in a small recreational plane like this, he spends--surprisingly, I think--90% of his time looking out of the window and just 10% looking at his instruments. He is a master at sizing things up. "What you have to do is kind of pop in every once in a while and take a quick look at all of your indicators. If something's yellow or red, you take care of that. Otherwise you make sure everything's on target and go back to looking out the canopy. It's situational awareness."
For now I'm lucky that I have someone to do all this thinking for me. It also helps that the PiperSport has dual controls, just like one of those cars used at driving schools, so that any adjustments made on one side are mirrored on the other. If I do anything wrong, then, my instructor can jump in and fix it. And if I do something really wrong, like slip into a stall or unrecoverable spin, one of us can pull the big red handle that launches the "ballistic recovery system," a rocket-powered parachute for the entire plane. This is about as comforting as it sounds.