I climbed into the back seat, plugged in the headset, and put it on. “No, they go the other way,” Mike said, and he took them off my head, reversed them, and placed them over my ears again. “Now give it a test, he said. Say something.” I felt his hand brush against my cheek as he positioned the ear pieces.
Mike was an old friend of my husband and an experienced pilot. “Hello,” I mumbled into the microphone. My hands were shaking. Nerves had the better of me, and that one predictable word was all I could squeak out. We were going for a ride in my husband’s new plane, a blue and white Cherokee 180.
I’m a walk-in-the-woods kind of a girl, but getting a pilot’s license and owning a plane had been one of my husband’s long time dreams. Although the whole idea of it scared me, I was determined to be supportive.
“Roger that,” my husband grinned. He gave me a thumbs up so I knew they could hear me, and I could hear them. His enthusiasm made his boyish charm even more endearing than usual, and I saw again in that instant the man I love. His face seemed to have taken on the glow of the late afternoon sun which was streaming in through the cockpit window. Perched there among the dials and levers, Gary looked happy and relaxed. I needed to push past my own fears so I could enjoy this experience with him.
“It’s a perfect day for a flight,” Mike said, flipping a lever. Gary was just a few lessons away from testing for his pilot’s license, and he wanted to get in as much practice as possible. Our plan was to depart from the Petaluma airport in Northern California, fly up the coastline, and do a few practice landings at Three Rivers, a tiny airport about an hour’s flight away in Mendocino County. Legally, Gary couldn’t take a passenger for a ride unless he was with a licensed pilot, so this ride with Mike was the first time we’d been flying together in Gary’s new plane. It was a big moment.
I double checked my seat belt, grateful to be in the back where my anxiety wouldn’t show. The guys were having a great time and probably didn’t even notice my nerves.
We taxied to the runway, my husband made the appropriate radio calls, and off we went. I saw Petaluma spread out below us and the clear blue sky ahead. I found the high school and followed the side streets to our bungalow on the west side. Our magnolia tree was in bloom, and I could make out its giant white flowers on the top branches. It was beautiful.
We headed west and pretty soon we all saw the Pacific Ocean and its vast rocky shoreline. My eyes fixed on the view, my nerves easing as I marveled at the wonder.
“How’re you doing back there?” I heard over the radio. My husband was checking in. “It’s amazing,” I replied. “I can see why you’re hooked.”
Right at that moment, we hit a little turbulence, and my heart raced. I clutched the back of the seat in front of me, bracing for a crash. Mike told me that turbulence is nothing to be afraid of. “Imagine we’re on a boat in the ocean,” he said. “Waves of thermals come up from the earth, and we ride over them, just like a wave in the ocean.” It was an image I could understand, and it helped me relax. I took a deep breath and looked out the window.
After a while we turned inland, and Gary spotted the runway at Three Rivers. Not another plane in site on land or in the air.
“Go ahead and get in the landing pattern and make all your radio calls,” Mike told Gary, “it’s good practice for your test.”
Gary lined up the plane in the familiar U-shaped pattern pilots use during landings. Then Mike shouted, “Hey, we have an engine out!”
Although I didn’t know much bout airplanes, I did know that ours was a single engine.
I tensed up but said nothing. The guys didn’t need a panicky passenger chiming in, they needed calm thinking and clear heads.
“May day may day!” Mike screamed into the radio. “Ready emergency landing procedures.”
Gary started to push buttons, and I knew he was focusing hard on getting the plane down in one piece. Mike was firing instructions at him, and each time Gary repeated what Mike said and reported the status. I sat in the back seat, helpless and silent while the two guys piloted our little plane. Beneath us, giant redwoods made a dark green tapestry except for where a thin cement runway had been carved out of the forrest and I wanted to touch that strip of concrete.
“We’re going down!” Mike said.
I could feel the plane losing altitude and could see the landscape getting clearer the lower we got. My heart was pounding, but still I said nothing, willing my husband and Mike to figure out a solution and get us down. There was nothing I could do, and in that moment I started to reflect on my life, wondering if I were experiencing my final moments.
I remembered an important conversation I had had with my parents, a conversation where we cleared the air about issues that had troubled my family and clouded our relationship. I imagined the faces of my siblings, all six of them, and my cherished niece and nephew. Then I thought about two of my dearest friends and my in-laws.
I have lived a deliberate life, and I have had plenty of painful, uncomfortable conversations. The people I love know that I love them, and I have asked for and given forgiveness even when its been awkward and gut wrenching. In the front seat, the person I loved most in the world, my husband and the love of my life, was there with me. A moment of calm came over me. Although we would be leaving a paperwork
nightmare for who ever had to clean up our affairs, it came to me that the true work of my life was done. I felt a remarkable sense of peace.
The plane’s wheels touched the landing strip as light as a whisper, and we taxied to a stop. I looked at the still landscape, bewildered but relieved.
Mike had been giving Gary an aviation lesson. The two of them were not aware that I didn’t know it was a drill.
Shaking, I climbed out of the plane, my first flight in our new airplane, and one I’ll never forget.