As my job requires me to take more and more flights around Australia and across the world, I’ve grudgingly come to accept that I’ve developed a bit of a fear of flying. When I was presented with the opportunity to fly a light plane myself I wondered - could this help ‘cure’ my fear?
Admittedly, it’s not a huge thing. It’s not enough to make me lose sleep and certainly not enough to stop me from travelling. In fact as I write this I’m sitting on a flight from Bangkok to Sydney flight, with an hour behind me and almost eight ahead. But when I find myself on more than 30 flights a year, I’d rather not spend each one believing my horrifying, unavoidable death is imminent.
I haven’t always had problems with flying. As a kid I was always too excited about travel to care, as an older teenager too nonchalant. It probably started sometime last year, on a series of flights through Mexico that weren’t any more harrowing than any I’d taken before, but nevertheless had me sitting white-knuckled and sweating through the entire trip.
Perhaps it’s because the more I fly the more I question everything. Are we meant to be losing altitude right now? Why are we turning so sharply? Is that noise normal? Does the captain sound more stressed than usual? This is, of course, despite all the evidence saying that commercial flights are only getting safer, if they were ever even high-risk to begin with.
It’s not a rational fear, however.
Late last year I was offered an aerobatic flight to promote the DVD and Blu-Ray release of American Made, a movie all about Tom Cruise doing aerobatic stunts as high-flying pilot Barry Seal.
The event involved a joy flight with the Australian Aero Academy, where you learned not only how to handle a light plane but also how to do loops and barrel rolls. My palms were sweating just reading the email, but I knew I had to do it - if only to challenge my growing fear of flying.
It turns out I’m not the only one who’s had this thought. When I turned up for my flight, my instructor-to-be, Pete, told me about a student of his who had signed up for regular lessons to conquer her crippling fear of flying. Did it work? Well, that was yet to be seen.
We climbed into the gorgeous Pitts Special S-2A, a tiny thing made from fabric, wood and perspex - and a far cry from the huge commercial airliners I was used to. Only the clear bubble of the canopy snapped in above my head separated me from the vast sky outside.
Pete took us up, the tiny plane’s ascent feeling far more stable than I was expecting. All too soon, after being walked through the controls, it was my turn to take control. At first I held the control stick in a white-knuckled death grip, but soon discovered it only needed a gentle touch to guide it through the skies over western Sydney.
Even with the simple stick controls, the plane responded easily. Nose up to climb, dip to the side to bank, hold to continue the turn, pull the stick back the other way to straighten up. I didn’t have to fight it, only guide it, and slowly relaxed into the controls. Likewise the winds that buffeted us weren’t a problem for the tiny plane, I just had to ride through the bumps and shakes and correct our course occasionally.
While obviously I wasn’t worrying about any of the more complicated minutia of flying, it turned out to be easier than I thought. Another one of the students I bumped into at the airport said it best: it’s easier than driving a car because there’s less you can crash into.
Although experience thus far had been far easier and less terrifying than I had expected, I still didn’t think I’d be able to pull off the loop that had been promised in the program. There’s something about the idea of angling straight up into the endless sky that feels like a no-go for me.
Pete nevertheless talked me through it, then demonstrated the maneuver while I kept my hand on the stick to feel what movements it needs to go through to complete the loop. I procrastinated on my turn for a few minutes but eventually took a deep breath and went for it — push forward into a dive, then pull back, back, and all the way around. The g-force of the loop pushes you firmly into your seat for the first part of circle, your body only floating up just as the plane is about to come back level.
Though you can't see my hands in this shot, somehow this is me flying this plane.
The next maneuver after that, the barrel roll, felt positively easy after the loop. As a faster spin you don’t have to hold your nerve for as long, and to get into it you just have to tip your nose up and then slam the stick all the way to the side. Forget terrifying — it’s positively exhilarating.
Two rolls: The first is Pete's demonstration, the second my own attempt.
While thankfully commercial airliners are never going to be doing these kinds of aerobatics, I still feel like that was the part that helped build my confidence the most. If I can not only sit through but actually fly a plane through those sorts of maneuvers myself, I can certainly survive a short jaunt to Melbourne.
The thing that struck me most about my brief experience as a pilot was how solid the plane felt in the air - even when upside down, on its side and every which way. It’s easy to forget when you’re on a flight and the seats are rattling and floor is shaking, but these things are built to be in the air (and stay up there).
Now I can sit through patches of turbulence and think back to how those buffeting winds felt when I was in control of the plane - a little alarming, yes, but I could feel how little those bumps and shakes actually affected our flight path or ability to remain airborne.
So did my aerobatic flight cure my fear of flying? Having just sat through a particularly rough patch of turbulence over Malaysia I can’t say it’s 100 per cent gone, but it certainly helped.