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.