George cut a sharp right onto the runway. Left hand on the throttle, right hand on the stick. He was ready.
With a slow, deliberate motion, he pushed the throttle home. The engine raced and my heart pounded. Speed built quickly as we started the take-off roll.
Fifty-six miles per hour. George pulled back gently on the stick and the Cessna 150 leapt from the ground.
Eleven hundred feet. George eased the engine down to cruise speed and, for the first time that morning, I relaxed.
Below us, the southern Maryland countryside glistened in the first rays of dawn. Every detail was visible. Brick-red barns dotted the land. Cows lazed beneath leafless trees. Car-trapped commuters clogged the roads; windshields, like tiny mirrors, reflected the sun. Five miles east of Hyde Airpark, the orange hats of three hunters glared conspicuously from the barren winter woods.
It was my first flight in a small plane. George's cool, confident manner dispelled any apprehensions I had about flying. Cruising over Clinton at 100 miles an hour, I knew right away he would be a good instructor.
Dreams of flight have filled man's soul since the beginning of time. Icarus, waxenwinged, straining toward the sun; the fantastic flying machines that fill da Vinci's notebooks; Robert Goddard's first rocket, little more than a fueled spear.
In 1927 Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic and a few years later Amelia Earhart flew the Pacific. John Glenn entered the heavens in 1962 and took the world for a ride. In 1978 I soloed.
A lot of preparation and training took me from that first day, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with George, to the moment when I faced the horizon alone. This time there was no comforting shoulder rubbing against my own, no calm words of reassurance, and no one to take the controls if anything went wrong.
It took about ten hours of flight time and scores of shared landings before George said I was ready for my solo. Then the weather became an enemy. Half a dozen times the solo was on again, off again. It wasn't until a month after George first suggested I was ready that I had my chance. Late one Friday evening he called. "Tomorrow you fly alone."
I arrived at the field the next morning at 8. My parents were ready for the big day, standing by their car near the runway. In my father's arms was a bottle of champagne, in my mother's a homemade flying scarf. They waved as George and I taxied past and watched us land several times. Once again luck wasn't with me: A trainee flying ahead of us was making erratic landing approaches, and George called the solo off.
The champagne remained corked.
The following Saturday I had another chance. Morning dawned clear, blue and windless. The conditions were perfect. We made three practice landings and I was flying like a champ. As we rumbled toward another take-off, George asked for my student permit. My moment had come. I stopped the plane and George hopped to the ground.He leaned back in to shake hands and then he waved me on. Alone.
Lift-off was easy. A sharp left at 650 feet, another at 900. I climbed to pattern altitude and leveled off.On the downwind leg, cruising parallel to the runway, I thought of George, 1,100 feet below, craning his neck to the sky. I wondered if he was worried. I wasn't.
My mind seemed to be speaking in George's voice, guiding me from one task to another. I pulled back on the throttle and the plane eased down to 80 miles an hour. "Give us 10 degrees of flaps," George would always say. So I gave him 10 degrees. The nose buoyed upward and I pushed down on the stick to maintain my descent. Sharp left into the base leg and a last sharp left into my final approach.
Altitude, airspeed, distance to the runway. Check. It looked and felt like a textbook landing. The runway loomed ahead and below me and I cut the power.
Traveling at 65 miles per hour and dropping at 500 feet a minute, I barely caught sight of George driving up to the end of the runway to witness my premier touchdown.
I couldn't think of him now. With the black asphalt runway just a few feet below, I pulled back on the stick to drain off some speed and keep the nose up. If the front wheel touched ground before the back ones did, the strut could buckle and that would be it.
A dull thud. A small jolt. The landing was as smooth as silk.
I felt like Superman. I could do it. And, even better, I was still alive. Two more good landings and George signaled me to call it a day. On the ground again, I knew that it wouldn't be long before I got my license. I had finally conquered the sky.
Now I was as comfortable in the Cessna as I was in my Bug.
With George at my side, the student set of controls in the dual-control plane became second nature to me. My hands became familiar with two contact points: the stick on the left and the throttle on the right. My feet got used to their stations: two metal pedals that help to steer the plane. At first it was hard to coordinate all four limbs -- a simple case of the left hand not knowing what the right foot was doing. But after a lot of practice, I finally got it down.
Don't get the impression that it all ended when I soloed. There's still a lot to learn before I can get my license.
A couple of weeks ago I went night flying for the first time. We took off at dusk, the last remnants of daylight lingering in the sky. The horizon, still visible when we started, became less and less distinct as we practiced take-offs and landings. Finally, surrounded by total darkness, our eyes were glued to the instruments, our only guide in the winter darkness. At night the runway isn't part of the landscape below, it is the landscape. There's only a long stream of white lights -- bordered by blackness.
And there's cross-country flying, first assisted and then solo; before I can get my license I have to log 300 miles between three airports on a single day. We also have to practice landings at a major airport, probably Dulles. Before George hands me over to the FAA examiner for that final solo that means my license, he's going to be sure that I can handle myself in any situation.