Friday, January 08, 2010

Guest Blog: First Date, First Flight

(note: This is another in my series featuring Guest Bloggers. Discover more of "cockeyed optimist" @Shelley Delayne on Twitter.

For more than a year, I had refused to let my friend set me up on a blind date with a life-long friend of her husband’s. “He’s got a great personality,” she said. “Really terrific guy! And he’s a pilot.” But nothing she said could get me to reconsider my “no blind dates” policy.

In mid-summer, while at her birthday party, I found myself chatting with a handsome and charming guy. Twenty minutes into a lovely conversation, we remembered our manners and introduced ourselves — and immediately, we both laughed and said, “Oh, you’re the one they’ve been trying to set me up with.”

A few days later, Dean called me and asked if I’d like to have dinner with him. Then he asked if the Burbank or Van Nuys airport was nearest to my apartment, so he could perhaps pick me up there and we could fly in his plane up to Santa Barbara for dinner.

(Note: If he hadn’t come with references from trusted friends, I’d have refused for fear of being charmed by a Lothario or ending up abducted to Tijuana. As it was, I agreed.)

Having never been in a small plane, I didn’t know whether to be excited or terrified. I went with excited, aided by Dean’s assurances that if I got at all nervous or scared, we didn’t have to fly; we could just eat dinner somewhere near the airport and it would be no big deal. Now I realize it was a litmus test, but it was nice of him to say otherwise.
When the day arrived, I met him at the airport and found myself standing on the tarmac next to a pretty little blue and white plane, my heart pounding, completely unsure what to think of this whole endeavor. Dean introduced me to his airplane, a Meyers 200D, showing me around the outside and pointing out the basic features of an airplane and explaining that inside the aluminum skin of this plane was a steel cage which made her very strong and very stable. He talked me through his pre-flight checks and asked how I felt about going for a flight.
By now, I was beginning to feel some genuine excitement and curiosity, so he told me how to climb into the plane after he got in and settled: to stand on the black area of the wing, grab onto the door frame but not the door itself.

Once we were in and seat-belted, he reached across and closed the door. He gave me a quick overview of the instrument panel, and gave me a headset to wear. I don’t remember what he said, since none of it meant anything to me yet, but I was very reassured by his willingness to answer questions and explain things. He asked if I was ready to go and I nodded.

Then he was yelling “Clear!” and starting the engine and speaking in gibberish on the radio and I was reminding myself to breathe as we began to taxi toward the runway. He was balancing a clipboard with mysterious scribbles on it and turning dials and flipping switches and a million other little things which are now part of a familiar routine, but at the time seemed incomprehensible.

Soon enough, we were rolling down the runway and were suddenly climbing upward into the afternoon sky. Dean explained the bumps of landing gear retracting and told me not to worry about little bits of turbulence as we passed over the hills. As I looked out the window and watched the traffic-clogged streets and the crowded houses shrink away from us and the blue sky stretch out before us, I was too thrilled to be afraid.

I’d flown on commercial flights, but nothing prepared me for the unique beauty of flying at this altitude: high enough to be lifted out of the everyday world, but low enough to really see everything on the ground.

When Dean said we were close to our destination, my face must have registered a little disappointment. He suggested we could continue to fly and land at another airport a little further away. He changed course and headed for Santa Maria. Landing made me a bit nervous, but Dean touched down light as a feather and I was soon grinning again. After dinner, we headed back and he flew a lovely scenic loop around downtown Los Angeles before returning me safely to the airport and my car.

My head was spinning with all this new knowledge: It had never crossed my mind that you could have a little plane and whenever you wanted to, you could get in it and fly somewhere just like that. That flying a plane can be as easy as a road trip only you can go lots further, much faster, without roads to follow or speed limits or traffic signs. That private airplanes did not necessarily cost a bazillion dollars. That there were little airports with restaurants right on the field and you could pop in and have a meal, just for fun. That flight is attainable, even for an ordinary girl like me. The freedom and adventure and beauty and unbridled possibility of it all seemed absolutely magical. It still does, every single time we fly.

For the record, my friend was right: Dean is a terrific guy with a great personality, and a fine pilot. The first time I climbed into his airplane, I was a stranger to him and to the whole world of aviation. Now, we're engaged to be married and I'm saving my pennies for my pilot's license and the radial-engine, tail-dragger biplane that I long to fly.