During the late 1980's I was working as a free-lance building surveyor which enabled me to base my working day around my children and allow me the opportunity to generate sufficient income for the annual holiday, running a car, etc.
On this particular morning I have been asked to carry out a building survey for a friend of a friend living in a large detached house to the north of our town. Entering the spacious lounge area it is easy to imagine that my client had a serious interest in flying as on almost every wall hung photographs of magnificent aircraft. May of these aircraft dated a few years ago, but some were more up to date and included the very latest in airliners.
Once I had completed the survey, and we returned to the lounge for a coffee, the conversation was directed towards the photographs. It transpired that my client had been a pilot for one of the large airlines and having recently retired was presently the Chief Flying Instructor at my local airfield. Naturally, my imagination switched to overdrive and within a few minute, a deal had been struck. I was to begin a course of flying lessons on a single engined Cessna aircraft.
I could hardly wait, but eventually the pre-arranged day came around. The weather was good and we would start today.
I have been in a plane before, and had a trial flight in a helicopter at one of our local air-shows, but I am amazed at how cramped it is inside the Cessna. As a passenger I am sitting in the right hand seat, the ground checks have been made, the engine is powered up and we gather speed whilst running along the grass runway. Sixty knots and my instructor pulls back gently on the joystick and we are airborne. The ground is rapidly falling away as we climb up in to the clear blue sky. The noise is deafening, but the view sensational. Everything below us is as if made by skilled toy-maker. Each piece immaculately prepared and placed in exactly the right position. Trees, bushes, hedges, tiny animals and people, buildings of every shape and description laid out below in neat rows, each with a small garden, some with a brightly coloured car parked in the front driveway, the golden sun glinting off the roofs. Within minute we are at two thousand feet and flying parallel to the shoreline below. I can see the waves gently breaking on to the seashore and crowds of excited children splashing in the warm water. Some are building sand castles.
We are now flying along a valley between two large clouds and we twist and turn in and out of the 'hills' on either side. We are climbing above them now and below us is a sea of soft billowing white down, through which I can glimpse the occasional speck of blue or green from the land below. I am lost in a world of dreams, floating on air, with the vivid blue summer sky high above us. Banking to one side, it is time to return and we head towards the airfield. The plane has dual controls and asked to take control I can feel the force of the plane as it falls slowly downward. I am too 'heavy' on the stick and the plane is tossed about like a ship in a high sea. "Be gentle with her" I am advised, and soon grasp that I need very little movement on the stick to produce changes of direction or rate of climb. I am told to use my feet on the rudder controls and can feel the 'crab like' movement that an incorrect rudder position can create. "Don't forget to increase the power slightly, or dip the nose when banking or we will lose height. Increase the power when climbing to avoid a stall" There is a lot to remember and it will take a while to get used to the controls, but the experience of it all is wonderful. My instructor completes the landing and we roll gently to a halt. I will be back next week for lesson two.
Every person intending to take the controls of an aircraft must first apply to the Aviation Authority for a medical certificate confirming that you are fit and able to operate a plane safely. The concern, I believe, is that you must not be a hazard to either other aircraft, or people on the ground. I am not sure that the safety of the pilot is under consideration. My present medical condition does not lend itself to achieving an A1 grade, but I am distinctly anxious when I arrive at the surgery of the approved Medical Officer. A brief history of my past illnesses, some discussion about the spinal fusion, and an intake of breath when discovering that I have only one good lung doesn't ease the anxiety. However, concluding a considerable number of tests, I am declared fit enough to fly a single or double-engined aircraft, but for pleasure purposes only. A commercial licence is out of the question.
Armed with my new certificate I arrive at the airfield a week later and lesson two begins. Take off is a reasonably straightforward manoeuvre once I get to grips with the rudder controls which whilst on the ground operates the small pilot wheel at the front of the plane. The first few take offs resemble my golf game where I tend to explore the entire fairway and surrounding land rather than head in a single straight line to the pin. A four hundred-yard hole and I probably walk at least eight hundred before the green is reached. Drunk and disorderly is probably a good way of summing up my initial attempts to reach the sky.
Once breaking contact with Mother Earth, my instant reaction is to pull hard on the joy-stick placing us in an almost vertical position and forcing shouts of "What the hell are you doing" from my dear old white haired instructor. Once I master this and climb steadily to eight hundred feet, I raise the flaps a couple of notches and continue climbing until we reach eleven hundred feet, which is the approach height for this airfield. A tight bank to the North, continue up for a further nine hundred feet or so, and then begin to level off. Easy. I always wonder why my instructor looks behind when we have just left the ground. It's too late to pickup something that I may have dropped! Level flight is remarkably easy. Keeping a close eye on the controls whilst listening to the control tower and looking around for near traffic becomes automatic, and at times I can actually take in the view.
"Okay, lets try a landing" from my instructor and my palms begin to sweat and beads of perspiration appear on my forehead, and strangely the guy in the next seat. I reduce my height to eleven hundred feet, and line up the plane for an approach. Check with air traffic control that I have permission to land, look for any near traffic, and reduce height to eight hundred feet whilst maintaining a straight flight with the rudder.
This is becoming frighteningly complicated and I am finding it difficult what to do next. At 100 Knots the ground is coming up rather quicker than I had hoped. " If you don't want to kill us both, I would suggest that you cut the engines, lower the flaps, and level off until the speed is down to sixty knots, but don't stall it". Confidence, that's just what I wanted. Oh well, in for a dollar, in for a pound, I cut the engines, level off the plane and stare at the speedometer. "Peter", I don't like the sound of this, "You have missed the runway by about half a mile, if you land now, we shall be in the river. Go round and try again". On the television this sounds fairly simple and the pilot react without any obvious signs of concern. With me it is different and to be honest, if I could get out and walk from here, I probably would.
"Increase the power, raise the flaps, gain height and go around for a second attempt."
The second time round and for some reason I am in control, and following handbook style manoeuvres I land the aircraft and taxi to the parking area. "Well done, that was really good. See you next week ". I'm not sure.
I have had over thirty-five hours of training including endless 'touch and go's'. This is where the aircraft is landed on the runway, but does not stop, and instead immediately takes off for a further flight. The object is to just touch the runway, avoid leaving too much of the undercarriage behind and repeat this several times to practice the landing and take off techniques.
Today I feel good, confident and am looking forward to my flight. Ground checks are completed, control tower notified and I taxi to the runway awaiting clearance to take off. My instructor is wearing a broad grin. "
Well, Peter, I think it is time for your first solo flight. I will meet you in the club bar and you can buy me a drink. Good luck, you'll be fine" With a pat on my shoulder he steps out of the plane and walks back to the hangers.
The control tower is asking me to either take off or vacate the runway so I take a deep breath, whisper a short prayer to whoever is listening, and accelerate down the runway. Sixty knots, lower the flaps, increase power, raise the nose and I'm airborne. Watch my rate of ascent, keep straight, control the rudder, keep an eye on my speed, and begin to level off at eleven hundred feet. Come round to the North, climb to two thousand feet and level off completely. Trim back the power, and relax.
Exploring the view I can see my car parked next to the hanger, club members are having a quiet drink under colourful umbrellas on the patio, and the ground seems a long way away.
Time to notify control of my intention to request approach, and I receive the go ahead. Bring the aircraft around, watch my speed and elevation, notify control, line up the runway and begin my approach. Height is fine, speed is fine. I keep forgetting the rudders so am coming in like a demented crab. If I land in this position I will roll the plane. Straighten the rudder, cut power, raise the nose, lower flaps, and continue on line. The ground is coming up. I can see the line marking the centre of the runway. It looks good. Speed good, rudder good, ascent good. Twenty feet to touchdown. At the last moment I flare the plane, and feel the judder as the wheels make contact with Mother Earth. The drink tastes really good. I have flown solo and live to tell the tale.
There are some parts of life that I have chosen to forget. Maybe one day I shall put the proverbial pen to paper and document some more episodes, but in the meantime, my life has changed. I am a lecturer in a local College of Further Education, lecturing in the very subjects that carried me through many financially difficult years whilst single handed bringing up my three sons. I enjoy the many experiences very much and have a wealth of anecdotes to be shared with you at a later date. I developed a wide range of friends and colleagues. These are not only within the College, but many of the students who pass through our lectures return to show us how they have progresses, some raising a family of their own.
Life, however, is unpredictable, and like so many polio survivors of the 50's and 40's, the very cause of our determination and endurance is returning to haunt us all. During the last five years or so I have noticed deterioration in many of my physical abilities. Excessive tiredness and exhaustion, a weakening of various muscles, difficulties in swallowing and breathing, particularly when tired, and a general feeling of despondency. Anger, frustration, depression, these are the feelings that most of us are sensing at the moment. The enemy has returned and in force. The 'normal' living of life over the last forty or so, years has taken its toll and the already damaged nerve endings are beginning to weaken.
'Post Polio Syndrome', or 'The Late Effects of Polio' is trying to complete what the initial Polio virus failed to accomplish those many years ago. We weren't defeated then, and we won't be defeated now. Life will go on, and I will continue to experience many wonderful events throughout the next fifty years. Some will be joyful, some sorrowful, but all of them not to be missed.
Good luck with every one of your endeavours, and may your God be withyou.
/- Come Smile Some More