“Have you ever flown in a Cessna before?”
“Well, I’ve taken off in a Cessna 17 times but I’ve never landed in one.”
“I’ve never landed in a Cessna.”
“That makes no sense.”
“Think about it.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Okay. Skydiving. They always dumped me out at 5,000 feet.”
“I’m really looking forward to landing. Never done it before.”
“Uh-huh. Can you come tomorrow at 2 p.m.?”
As it turned out, I couldn’t come tomorrow at 2 p.m. My agent had been gently nagging me to get some new headshots done. She wanted something a little edgier, a trifle tougher in nature so that they could send me out for more cop roles … more prison guard parts …the occasional bad ass PTA mom. I wore a long-sleeved dark blue shirt to the shoot. Because nobody f&*&cks with anyone in a long-sleeved dark blue shirt. This photo was the surliest shot the photographer was able to capture. And I was trying to emulate the surly look he had on his face at that point. My agent was euphoric.
“Are you kidding me? Reshoot. Tomorrow.”
“I can’t. Because I’m actually DOING something pretty bad ass, tomorrow. I’m taking a flying lesson.”
“Really? That’s great!! Can we add stunt flying to your special skills?”
“Um … I guess so … I mean, how hard can it be, right? Only, don’t submit me for anything until after the lesson, okay?”
I took the ferry over to Toronto Island to the small commuter airport they have there. The airport is named after World War I flying ace, Billy Bishop. Bishop was an adventurous maniac who was awarded the Victoria Cross and officially credited with 72 victories. Unfortunately at least a few of these were self-professed and uncorroborated and so his record had always been subject to a tad of controversy. Personally I am rather a big fan of hyperbole. And the life expectancy of a pilot back then was 11 days. So let the man have his plaque. He was more than sufficiently bad ass.
Bishop’s very first flight was in a cardboard box off the roof of his house when he was 15. Bad ass. Mine was going to be in a Cessna 150 … built in 1978. Yeah. When I disembarked from the ferry, I could see a cluster of pilots sitting in front of the flight school at picnic tables. As I got closer I realized they were all Indian teenagers in epaulets who seemed to be on some sort of student exchange program. They were all very animated – talking about their flight training using such phrases as, “Most excellent” and “I shit you not”. There were no women. I went inside. Several instructors were lounging about. There were no women. I met my instructor. And I asked him:
“Are there any female instructors here?”
“It’s about 90% male. Give or take.”
“So, how many female instructors do you have?”
“Right now, none.”
“But that’s not 90 – never mind.”
My instructor was actually a very nice guy. But he had extremely long fingernails on his right hand. I assumed he wasn’t a vampire because they generally don’t need access to a 35-year- old plane. So that meant one of two things … he was either a guitarist or a coke head. I went for the more likely.
“So, do you do a lot of coke?”
“What?! No! I’m a classical guitarist.”
“Oh cool. How do you find time to fly?”
He just laughed.
When we got in the plane – which was orange and brown – I fought off a fairly immediate panic attack. It was so bloody small and claustrophobic. There were enigmatic dials and anachronistic knobs everywhere. The only thing I recognized was the cigarette lighter. The dashboard – it’s called a glare shield – the dashboard sat so high that I couldn’t see over it. And no matter how vehemently I tried to scrunch myself against the door, the entire right side of my body was pressed up against the entire left side of his body.
“I don’t think I can do this.”
Is what I was saying in my head. Out loud I said:
“Really excited to do this.”
As we taxied out to the runway, I started to come to terms with the instrument panel and my own mortality. Then we took off.
That little plane got tossed around like a piece of popcorn. In a volcano. After my head had slammed against the roof for the third time, my instructor said: “Good thing it’s not too bumpy today.” After we reached altitude, he asked me if I’d like to work the controls. He showed me how to pitch up and down and bank the plane right and left. I touched the yoke like it was a rattlesnake … pushed it half an inch in, pulled it half an inch out and turned it a quarter inch to the right.
“Whee. That was fun. Your controls.”
“Yup. I’m good.”
After we flew over my house, my boat and my agent’s office I decided I’d better distract my gurgling stomach with some small talk.
“So how long have you been a flight instructor?”
“Everybody asks me that. I’m older than I look.”
“No, that’s not what I … never mind. Do you like being a flight instructor?”
“Oh god no. It’s a horrible job. Why? You’re not thinking of flying professionally are you?”
“No, I mean I …”
“Because you shouldn’t. You can’t make a living at it. The training is incredibly expensive. And then you don’t have enough flight hours to apply for any real pilot jobs. So you have to flight instruct – which pays really badly and is sporadic at best. Plus it’s stressful as hell. And dangerous.” I had no interest in “flying professionally” … until this conversation took place.
“Is this some kind of reverse psychology sales technique?”
“No – honestly – this business is really shitty.”
“That sounds like a challenge.”
“You’re not listening.”
“Sign me up.”
“Look, you seem like a nice lady. Just take some time to think about it, okay? Don’t do anything rash.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not an impetuous person.”
“Would you like to help me land the plane?”
A week later – after my photo reshoot – I phoned the flight school to sign up for lessons. The number was disconnected – they had gone out of business.
I was hooked.