Learning to Fly

7 May 2012

“Ok, now push in the throttle slowly – and take off.”

The Hunter Valley is traditionally known for its prolific array of premium wineries… but, this isn’t a post about wine. When the #unmapped bus stopped off in this famous region, we had a few other activities lined up to take part in while we were there. While the other bloggers got up stupidly early to take a sunrise ride in a hot air balloon… I had something different lined up.

We pulled up at Hunter Valley Aviation a little after 8am. Today, you see, I would be flying a plane.

I can’t say I’ve always dreamed of flying a plane – but the concept has certainly appealed to me in a loose “that’s-nice-idea” sort of way. When the opportunity arose to actually do it, though, I was suddenly hell-bent on becoming the world’s next best stunt pilot. Kind of.

We’d scheduled a 1-hour flying lesson – and it’s actually surprising just how much of “how to fly a plane” one can squeeze into a single hour. The initial safety briefing was comprised largely of “here’s the door, here’s the seatbelt, close this, put on that” – which seemed pretty straightforward. Then there were a few other things like “pull this to go up, push to go down, don’t touch the big red button labelled ‘engine kill’…” etc etc.

The plane was a Cessna, which is a very small 2-person, propellor driven aircraft. My instructor taxied us down to the start of the runway, explaining a few things along the way while quipping gleefully about what an exciting first day on the job this was for her (I did fall for it, briefly). Then she told me to take off.

I’m not sure what I expected, but hopping in a plane and then steering it into the sky roughly 10 minutes later wasn’t it. I pressed the throttle in slowly, as instructed, and used the foot pedals to keep the plane’s alignment straight down the runway. Once we hit 80kph, she told me to pull back – and the plane eagerly left the ground and started climbing as the green scenery of the Hunter Valley dropped away beneath us.

Once airborne, I was taught a few manoeuvres including basic turns and changes in altitude. Surprisingly, this wasn’t nearly as daunting as expected. It was really very similar to flying a plane in any modern video game. It doesn’t necessarily feel *real* – which is quite comforting given the very real 3,000ft of nothingness just below my seat.

All too soon, however, it was time to turn the plane around and head back to the runway. Before this I was allowed to take some photos of the experience with my iPhone and even Tweet them – apparently phones don’t really mess around with aircraft instruments that much, surprise!

My instructor also took over the controls to demonstrate zero gravity, a process which involves dipping the plane at the same speed as a falling object so that everything inside the plane is effectively weightless. We tested this by placing a pen in the palm of my hand, and then watching as it floated up and hovered there during the dive, before landing back on my hand as the plane levelled out. Very cool.

Flying in the Hunter Valley

So, the landing. Every aviation documentary I’ve ever watched has always said that landing a plane is the most difficult and the most dangerous part of piloting an aircraft. There was no way I thought I’d be landing my little Cessna after 40 minutes of flying… but I did.

My instructor told me how to line up the runway, how fast to descend, and then when to pull the nose up to let the back wheels touch down first. I won’t lie – it was much scarier than taking off… but it was still decidedly straightforward.

By the time we’d come to a stop at the end of the runway I was full of adrenaline and new found attraction to the art of flight. Within a few minutes, I’d decided that this was one of my absolute highlights of the #unmapped trip, and I still haven’t changed my mind even following the conclusion of our amazing month.

Given the opportunity to get behind the wheel in another plane, I definitely won’t hesitate. But doing all of this with the Hunter Valley as a backdrop really made it something special.

If you’re ever in the area and want to experience something truly unforgettable – this has got to be on your list.

John O’Nolan

United Kingdom

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