There’s something almost mystical about those early hours of the morning, between day and night, when the sun gently rises above the horizon, its warm glow casting long shadows as it slowly shakes the day from its slumber.
There’s a tranquility and serenity I don’t find at any other time of the day. I am alone as I open the hangar doors and notice the low sun reflecting on my plane as it patiently awaits me. I roll it out, prepare it for a dawn flight and taxi to the runway. It is uncharacteristically quiet on the radio, and ATC nonchalantly authorises me to line up in front of a British Airways Airbus – unheard of at any other time of the day. I take off in a south-westerly direction, bank left over a sleepy Geneva, and spare a little thought to all those still tucked in their warm beds as I overfly the city. The air is calm, the engine is humming, all instruments in the green and visibility to infinity; the airplane is keen to fly. I head south towards the Alps and the ascending sun warms the cockpit as I climb to the top of Europe, struck with awe at the stunning scenery of snow peaked mountains ahead and Lake Geneva to my left.
Science, freedom, beauty, adventure, Charles Lindbergh summed it well; flying checked all the right boxes for me. Flying opened my world. It taught me geography. I started noticing how rivers meandered their way down the valleys, how they crossed towns, how roads and railroad tracks crisscrossed the countryside. I learnt to identify characteristics of valleys, tried to identify mountain peaks by their distinctive shapes. I learned to navigate using the cardinal points, whereas before I used to simply follow signposts to whichever direction they pointed, not caring whether that was North or East. I discovered the beauty and diversity of Nature as we flew from Geneva to Croatia, over the Alps at 9000 ft, across the lakes of northern Italy, skirting Venice jutting majestically from the sea, and over the crystalline turquoise waters of the Adriatic sprinkled with islands and sailing boats.
The view from above accentuates the feeling of awe at how small we are in the grand scheme of things. As I fly over towns, I often wonder what is happening inside each house. Are they having lunch? Are they reading the paper, having a discussion, or working on email perhaps, a coffee to their side? Everything seems so small from 2000 ft. It’s hard to believe there is life in these matchbox houses.
Flying took me one step closer to Nature by teaching me to interpret the weather, not on a computer screen, but outside the window. I am very much a beginner in this, but I admire the beauty — as well as the science — behind clouds. Cloud reading is the closest thing we have to reading the future — much more reliable than palm reading. Those who can read the clouds can tell you if it will rain in the next hour, or perhaps will it be sunny, stormy or windy. You learn to befriend the puffy cumulus clouds that are omens of fair weather, but be careful if they burgeon into towering cumulus, and avoid them at all costs if they become cumulonimbus. For beautiful and graceful these might appear, they belie a staggering violence inside. Look up at the sky, and there are stories being told, if only we could read them. As pilots we share our space with clouds, and we need to understand and respect them, for it is we the intruders.
Literally and metaphorically, flying helps me “escape from it all”. My trials and tribulations on the surface of the Earth seem far as I contemplate these small matchbox houses below me. Flying requires concentration, taking up the space in your brain needed to focus on the task at hand. In so doing, it pushes everything else out: there is simply no room for anything else. As a pilot of a small plane, you are in fact wearing four hats: the Pilot (manoeuvring the plane), the Navigator (finding your way from A to B – watching out for special airspace), the Radio Operator (interacting with Air Traffic Control and following their instructions), and The Engineer (ensuring all is well with the plane and engine). There is always something to do.
Flying taught me to be disciplined. Always use a checklist, hammered into me my instructor. Even if this is the hundredth time you are starting the engine, use a checklist. Always walk around the plane to do the pre-flight check, even if you’ve done this so many times before and found nothing untoward and it’s just oh so tempting to skip it this time around. You must fight Routine, for its first cousin is Complacency, a real and pernicious danger to flying, and its byproduct is Overconfidence. Flying teaches me that humility is the best weapon for survival. For it is not the hours in your logbook that count. It is the next hour.
I learnt how to set myself an objective (the destination), define a strategy (how to get there), set up a tactical plan (flight plan), and implement it (fly), always measuring my progress according to plan and keeping a Plan B at every step of the way. I still find it satisfying (and, yes, a little fascinating) that you can take off from a small point on the face of the Earth, head in a certain direction, and find that other small point that is your destination. Even more so, when it is a small island on the sea. It’s like picking a needle in a haystack.
Your plane is your faithful partner in this adventure. You are conscious of the sounds it makes, sensitive to anything out of tune, constantly watching over the instruments as they speak to you a diagnosis of its general well-being. Treat it well and it will respond in kind. Feel the way it flies. It will respond to your inputs, so be careful what you ask of it. Know what it likes and doesn’t like. Sometimes you have to fight against the wind, and you need to remind it who is Master on board. But it can also reward you for a job well done. There is no denying the satisfaction you feel when you land after battling a strong crosswind, simultaneously playing the stick, the rudder, and the throttle in a ballet of movements constantly aware of the change in wind direction and speed — all the while the surface of the Earth is quickly rising up to meet you. There is no better sound, no sweeter sound, than the “squeak, squeak” of the tyres as they kiss the tarmac and the plane becomes a land vehicle once again. It is sometimes an elusive sound, reminding you it is a sound that needs to be earned, but it is one that will induce an internal smile to the most jaded of us.
Flying is a good school. Much of what I learned in that school, I apply to my daily life.
But the best part about flying? It is to share my passion with family and friends. The highlight of my year is my week of flying with my children, a tradition that goes back 15 years and one that I always treasure. I am privileged to have these moments together, the bonding, the sharing, and quite simply my pride in watching them grow.
That is why I fly.