It’s really important to find a good flight school … says every pilot in retrospect. With chagrin. In Canada – specifically in the Metropolitan Toronto area – there were but a few flight schools, at a few airports, to choose from. And they were all enshrouded in litigious rumor mongering bordering on urban legend. Flight schools love to trash talk each other – it’s part of the culture … like the WWF … or the NHL … or high school.
The first small municipal airport within driving distance was not too far from what was then Toronto International Airport – now Pearson International. Which was unfortunate because recently a pilot had mistakenly confused the two and landed a Cessna 150 at Toronto International … while 737’s had to be waved off by tower control. Don’t let it be a woman … don’t let it be a woman … don’t let it be a woman. Damnit. Female pilot. I had a lot of trouble navigating my way around in only two dimensions in my silver Saturn SUV. Generally I used Tim Horton’s and Dairy Queen’s as my only visual reference points. So that airport was out.
Then there was a tiny airstrip that was grass and privately owned. You could get freelance instruction there. The only caveat was that every time it rained, the field was too soft to land on and your wheels would get stuck. Not a metaphor. The owner was also rumoured to be a trifle eccentric and would arbitrarily run out on the field as your plane was turning onto final and make a big “X” with his arms. Mostly it was because he didn’t feel like company. So that airport was out. At a cocktail party, I learned from a licenced pilot that the third school I was looking at kept their planes in terrible condition. He told me heart warming tales of radio failures, collapsing nose wheels and aircraft bursting into flames for no apparent reason. Next.
The last place did not have a great reputation with respect to flight instructors. By this time I was impressionably gobbling up any dirt dished my way. “So, this one flight instructor let his student taxi right through a group of orphans who were having a picnic on the runway.”
“I know. There were strawberries and dreams scattered everywhere.”
Back to the third school.
When I got there, I was pleasantly surprised. The planes didn’t look too bad and their fleet was large. And almost half the instructors were women. I inquired if any orphans had ever been killed there. None had. I had found my school. My first disappointment came when I found out that instructors were assigned – I couldn’t choose my own. My second disappointment came when I was told I had to take a mandatory 10-week ground school course before I could step foot in a plane. My third disappointment came when I found out the classes were held twice a week in the evening – which meant I had to fight my way through rush hour traffic to get there. Fortunately there were 8 Tim Horton’s and 2 Dairy Queen’s en route so I got myself there without much difficulty. A lot of Timbits and Blizzards. But not much difficulty.
The first night I went into the little pilot supply shop and bought my textbooks and a flight bag full of what the sweet elderly retired pilot shop owner described as, “goodies”. I went into the empty classroom, sat right up front and opened the bag.… a protractor. WTF? … a slide rule. Uh-oh. … and an incomprehensible metal contraption called an E6B. I was so screwed. How can I put this without disparaging myself? I sucked at math and science in school. Sucked so hard that light vanished in the vortex of my crappiness. I dropped high school physics as soon as I was old enough to sign that withdrawal form. My teacher was very sympathetic. He said that girls generally excelled more in the languages and that I shouldn’t worry about it. Ultimately he was right because at this very moment, if he walked into my apartment, I would have some very descriptive language to share with him.
My blossoming panic only worsened when I opened one of my textbooks. The first few pages “reviewed” Newton’s 3 rd Law. Physics. Then there was a diagram of a cylinder rotating in water. Physics. Then an explanation of something called, Bernouilli’s Principle. It sounded sexy and Italian. It wasn’t. It was physics. I thought about leaving but I was determined to learn to fly. I was resigned to bettering myself. And most importantly I had already bragged about getting my pilot’s licence to any one who would listen. So I was basically stuck there. Then the other students started filtering in. They really made me want to stay. There were several middle-aged business men who had recently become empty nesters and finally had some disposable income. They came straight from the office in their suits and were so excited about flying. It was like watching puppies wearing ties. Then there was a younger self-professed nerd in his twenties who had taken the sofa out of his living room and built his own flight simulator out of three tv screens, a keyboard and a Lazy Boy recliner. His wife kept calling him on his cell. About the sofa. And some other stuff.
A precocious teen came through the door next. Give him the benefit of the doubt I told myself.
“Yeah, like my Dad owns his own Gulfstream so, like, I’ve been flying since I was 3.”
There was even another woman in the class. A gentle older lady who crocheted while she was waiting for the festivities to get under way. She told me this was her third time taking the ground school. That made me feel better somehow.
“Was it too difficult for you the first two times?”
“Oh no, dear. I just really enjoy a night out.”
Then we heard the door close behind us. And the class began.