FIRST PERSON/Kathryn Joseph – GREAT WOMEN IN FLIGHT

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Many young girls dream of being a princess but I always wanted to fly a helicopter. Years ago, I’d signed up for lessons but was notified the company had shut down. I searched the obituaries for the cause but apparently it was just a business decision.

I was ecstatic to discover one could take beginner lessons at American Helicopter in nearby Manassas. It cost $115 for one hour including 1/2 hour in flight. A lot? I would have paid double; I mean, it should cost more than my gym trainer, right? And surely it couldn’t be harder than an hour of heavy weight lifting, I kidded myself. Best of all, they guaranteed that after training, I could take over the controls and fly it myself. They must be nuts! I have a hard time maneuvering my vehicle down here on earth.

My mind tantalized me: Would I get to buzz the White House? Flash the Pentagon? Wave down to my friends in Middleburg? The possibilities were seductive.

I was certain to be a ‘natural’. There were online outlines on how it all works; I would learn to operate the machine through osmosis and go marching in there ready to rock and roll. (Unfortunately, that’s what the whirlybird did when I took over the controls.) ‘Natural clumsiness’ was more like it.

It was worth it for the instructors alone. I was greeted by my pilot. Aha! So this is where all the handsome guys in uniform are. I admonished myself: ‘pay attention to his words, not his looks!’

After a half hour of safety instruction, we strolled to the machine. Well, not exactly…the wind was howling, it was a freezing cold, blustery April winter day. He assured me all would be fine, despite the wind. I bet he also had a bridge to sell me. I raced to the helicopter to escape the cold, planning to hop right in – but it doesn’t quite work that way. We first had to walk around it for a pre-flight inspection, kind of like a car rental but with words like FAA & UFO instead.

It finally came time to board, and thankfully I had been working out enough to hoist my small frame up about 10 feet onto the seat. The only issue was that my legs couldn’t quite reach the pedals. But no problem – the pilot gallantly rolled his eyes, then took off his jacket and folded it up behind my back.

My helicopter (“Buzzy”) was tiny, more like a mosquito! It was so cute, I wanted to pet it. Built for executives to flit about from their offices to their mansions, it’s small enough to land on a placemat.

We finally got to the serious part about how the thing actually works. Think patting your head, rubbing your belly and riding a unicycle all at once. I thought I had stepped into the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. I’d settle for surviving this one life. After contacting air traffic control (“Tower, all hands on deck for this one!”), we lifted off the tarmac and my bravado vaporized. It was more like “Great Women in Fright” and hard to decipher which whining was worse – mine or the ‘copter’s rotor blades starting up. I urged him to stay low in case we came crashing down. Everytime we began a turn, the little bird banked, and I thought the door was going to fling open and I’d go flying out. Not like Peter Pan, more like an earthbound asteroid. Our attitudes were very different: “Lean into the turn”, he advised. “Get real”, I advised back.

I took over the controls and forced ‘Buzzy’ to climb so I could observe something besides my own internal panic. Gazing out over the verdant landscape, the view from above took on a unique perspective: “Jeez, that Monopoly house could use a new roof !” “Ants can jog?” “Wow, isn’t that Costco? Let’s land and make a quick grocery buy!” (certain that I was about to lose my lunch). My biggest challenge was ‘hovering’ — much like keeping a paddle boat at a standstill with forward/backward motions, except adding up and down and side to side plus a little nausea all at once. But I liked it because I figured if we weren’t moving, we couldn’t hit anything.

I don’t think the lesson could end fast enough for the poor guy. OK, so Amelia Earhardt I’m not! When we finally landed and disembarked, my sigh of relief was audible all the way to a very grateful White House and Pentagon. It was scary to be sure, but also exhilarating (kind of like the pilot.) For the life of me, I can’t understand why they didn’t ask me sign up for advanced lessons. 
 

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