Flying is incredible. It’s freeing, exciting, and unlike just about any other sensation you could experience. For someone who can count their general aviation flights on one hand, it can also be terrifying.
Some background: I grew up afraid of heights and had only flown commercially a handful of times before coming to work at EAA. That was the limit of my time in the sky — stuffed into a big passenger plane and listening to podcasts while trying not to lose the armrest war to whichever stranger was next to me at the time. So being in the right seat of a Cessna 172 was just slightly different than that.
So I didn’t really know what to expect when I finally flew GA. I got my first chance to go up during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2017, when a spot was open in a photo chase plane following Young Eagles Chairman and legendary air show pilot Sean D. Tucker, EAA Lifetime 259123, and Doug Milius, EAA 190535, one of the few Young Eagles pilots to have flown Young Eagles every year since the program began in 1992.
Since I was doing a story on the flight, I got to ride in the photo plane. The other photographers didn’t really know what to think when they saw I had merely an iPhone to capture the moment, but they were all very cool about it. Anyway, takeoff was fine, and while the airplane climbed I thought, wow, this is not so bad.
Then it turned, ever so slightly, to the left. Since there was no door on the left side of the airplane, I got a really good view of what the water looks like on Lake Butte des Morts. I was shaken, to say the least. For everybody else, it was business as usual, while I was over in the corner of the aircraft thinking I’d just had a near-death experience.
Of course I wasn’t actually in any danger. I was firmly attached to my harness (I made quite sure of that) and we had an incredible pilot known as Johnny D, EAA 1196076, in the left seat. But still, in the moment, I thought my first general aviation flight was going to end with me either somehow falling out of this airplane, or losing my lunch and, subsequently, my good relationship with my fellow air-to-air photographers.
Luckily, I took a break from staring at the floor for a moment to look through my iPhone and take a few pictures. I found that working toward a goal, to take some great photos, made the trip itself a lot less terrifying for me. So I took some photos, then I took some more, then I took even more. All in all, I took 180 pictures in my attempt to avoid being terrified, but the photos weren’t the best thing I got out of the flight: I also realized that flying can be pretty dang fun, even for someone as terrified as I was.
Fast forward to a few weeks after AirVenture; a few co-workers and I were getting ready to attend a hamburger fly-in at Wild Rose airport, about 30 miles northwest of Oshkosh. Hal Bryan, EAA senior editor, was in the left seat and Sara Nisler, EAA digital managing editor, was in the back, with me in the right seat for the first time ever.
The flight there was fun, and for the most part uneventful. This particular airplane — a Cessna 172 — had its doors intact, so that definitely helped a lot with the whole fear of falling thousands of feet to my death thing. Plus some fun chatter with Hal and Sara served to lighten the mood significantly.
There was chatter — murmurs, if you will — of me handling the yoke on the way back. I dismissed them since I didn’t know how to feel about flying an airplane, even in such a completely limited capacity.
On the one hand, I had never so much as touched a yoke before. I knew a good deal about aviation due to my time surrounded by very intelligent people at EAA who were generous with their knowledge, but even on the shoulders of those giants I was nowhere near as high as I was in that Cessna.
On the other hand, here I was, a kid from Milwaukee who had flown in airliners only a few times with no plans to go into the aviation industry. How many more chances am I going to get to grab the yoke of a Cessna at 2,000 feet and have some semblance of control over an airplane? If offered the opportunity, I had to take it.
The opportunity was offered. Hal released the yoke after I grabbed it, and suddenly I was steering an airplane. Suffice it to say while it was slightly overwhelming, the feeling of flying was indescribable.
Hal informed me we needed to adjust ever so slightly to the left to be back on course for Oshkosh. I had forgotten about such silly things as turning — I was flying! Who needs to change course?
I turned the airplane to the left, until it showed the smallest sign of actually moving, when I yelped and stopped. I looked at the GPS, with the course charted, and it looked like my “turn” got us about 1/100th of a degree closer. Looks like it was time to try again.
My second attempt didn’t get us much closer, if at all. After another minute or so of straight-line flying, I offered control back to Hal so we could get home. It took him a few seconds to get the airplane back on course. I think I loosened it for him.
Even with my sad attempt at a turn, I loved every second of that flight. It’s easy to see why so many people join EAA and work to improve general aviation. There really is nothing like it. Who knows, maybe next time I’m up I’ll even pull off a real turn.