Learning to Fly
I am a great admirer of Sharon McCone, the intrepid PI created by Marcia Muller. Sharon has learned a lot of new skills over the years. None impresses me more than how she’s taken to flying a plane since she hooked up with Hy Ripinsky, her husband in the most recent book, who’s a skilled pilot. When I say that learning to fly is not easy, I speak from experience.
Back in the 1970s, I was married to a guy with a burning desire to get a pilot’s license. He was my future ex, but of course I didn’t know that then. I thought we’d stay married for the rest of my life. I envisioned his getting a license…buying a plane…taking me up in it…getting a heart attack—and how the hell was I going to get back down? My first thought was to take a couple of lessons, ie learn just enough to land the plane in an emergency. As I found out, landing is the hardest part of flying. No way could I do it first and skip the rest. Anyhow, from the first lesson in a little Cessna 150 from the Westhampton airport, not far from where we had our little weekend house, I was hooked—in a terrified kind of way.
I still dream about taking off, which was my favorite part of flying: pulling the stick back, keeping my feet steady on the pedals (which are for steering on the ground, not for braking or accelerating), moving faster and faster down the runway until I see the nose come up and realize we’re in the air. On the other hand, I still look out at the sky on a particularly clear blue winter day and get a shiver of apprehension. The Cessna was so light that if the winds were too high—wind blows harder aloft than on the ground—we couldn’t have our lesson. A part of my mind still wants to make that—didn’t have to have our lesson.
There were two flight instructors: Barry, who looked a bit like Robert Redford in The Great Waldo Pepper and knew it, and Karl, who had less ego and more tact. I cherish the memory of how he handled some of my dumber moments. One time I got all excited about spotting another aircraft. You couldn’t get lost flying on Eastern Long Island. It was literally all spread out beneath you like a map. But you literally had to look out for low-flying planes. I wasn’t very quick at visual comprehension, so I was proud that this particular time I saw one coming.
“Look, Karl!” I exclaimed. “Is that aircraft at the same altitude as us?”
Karl said, perfectly deadpan, “That’s a sailboat.” I was looking at Long Island Sound.
I logged about thirty hours with the instructors, but I never got to solo. I had almost reached that point when I had a setback. I sent the plane into a 2 g bounce on a touch and go in a crosswind, if you must know. As my jaw settled back into its socket, Karl said with his usual calm, “Check if the landing gear are still on the aircraft.”
“You mean are the wheels still on the plane?” That’s what he meant, all right, and it took all my nerve to look out the window. (They were, luckily for us.)
Soon afterward, we decided the lessons were too expensive ($33 an hour—eat your hearts out, 21st-century student pilots) and gave up the dream of becoming pilots. I confess to relief that I’d never have to solo or do another stall. That’s when you let up on the gas and raise the nose so high the engine cuts out—on purpose. I’ve forgotten all the aerodynamics I studied, and I think my ex got the textbook in the divorce. I’d have to do an awful lot of research to create a Sharon in my own mystery. But I’m not one bit sorry I got to do it. When I add up the riches of my life experience—my tradeoff for publishing the first novel at 64 instead of 24—I remember that once upon a time, I could fly.