Reading, Writing, Walking
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
FLYING ON MORE THAN WINGS AND A PRAYER
"You only live once. Make it count, learn to fly."
Fighting words indeed, I thought. It was a sunny Sunday morning, and I was standing inside the Angeles City Flying Club (ACFC) premises with my friends Theo and Heston, browsing through their brochure.
First, a bit of background. Theo, apparently finding his medical studies not taxing enough and pursuing his lifelong dream to be an aviator, had taken the Sports Pilot certification course offered by the ACFC, and had actually been a licensed pilot for the past few years.
The club claims to be the only full-service ultra-light aviation facility in the country. Tucked away in Sitio Talimundok, Sta. Maria, Magalang, Pampanga, our drive from Metro Manila this morning was a breeze, taking a mere 90 minutes.
This would be the first flight for Heston and I. As we waited for our plane to become available, we spent quite a bit of time roaming around the hangar, looking over the various plane models parked there as well as watching other aircraft take off or land. Truth be told, getting up the air seemed a daunting prospect, as I was a certified world-class acrophobe. My mind was working overtime concocting all sorts of nightmare scenarios. Like, what if a 747 runs us over? Or the gas tank springs a leak?
My initial apprehensions turned into a veritable tsunami of trepidation as I caught sight of our aircraft of choice. It was called the Quicksilver MXL II, and quite contrary to my expectation of a small aircraft wherein the pilot climbs into the cockpit in front and his passenger sits at the back seat, this was an OPEN cockpit two-seater. Essentially, the pilot and passenger sit side-by-side, equipped only with an instrument panel, joystick and pedals for steering and braking. Literally and figuratively, there is almost nothing between you and the great blue sky. Yikes!
Heston had volunteered to be Theo's first passenger. Theo and the ACFC personnel assiduously went through the routine pre-flight check-up to ensure everything was in top condition. Heston was securely buckled up onto his seat, and given goggles and helmet to wear. The pilot and passenger can communicate with each other up in the air, as their helmets have built-in radio transmission. (No barf bags though) In the very remote event that the engine fails and they need to bail out, pulling a lever releases a rocket-propelled parachute, enabling the plane to make a soft landing.
Theo further assured me that the mechanics make a complete disassembly and inspection of each aircraft every 25 hours of flying time. They are cleared for take-off, and disappear into the horizon. After what seems like ages, they re-appear and gradually loom larger and larger until touchdown.
I half-ran over to them. Heston looked a bit dazed, although none the worse for wear. "Not scary," he assured me, while giving a thumbs-up sign. "The flat fields make it hard to judge how high up you are, anyway." But then, Heston has never been one to be easily scared. I mean, he can watch Dracula or Nightmare on Elm St. movies with nary a flinch, while eating fried chicken.
Showtime. It was now my turn.
"Can't we just hover 50 feet above the ground?" I half-pleaded plaintively, as we went through pre-flight routine once more. Unfortunately, my brilliant suggestion was met with resounding indifference.
The control tower cleared us for take-off. Despite all the reassuring safety measures, I was sweating bullets as we gathered speed along the 450-meter grass runway. We were off! The ground below grows increasingly farther away as we steadily climb until reaching an altitude of about 500 feet. Rather disconcertingly, when you are up in the air, you feel as though you are hardly moving.
Top Gun this isn't. Not even Iron Eagle, for that matter.
But this is actually a positive thing. There is time to savor the hot sun and feel the rush of cold wind blowing at our faces and marvel at the verdant expanse of rice fields with an odd carabao or two grazing contentedly in the mud. We head towards the direction of Mt. Arayat, where thankfully some forest cover still remains.
Strong winds buffet the plane, but it remains surprisingly stable. The air is now quite chilly, and I wish I had anticipated the cold and worn a jacket. While my nerves are mostly calm now, I still maintain a vise-like grip on one of the support beams. Theo puts on his best bedside manner (the guy is, after all, a neurosurgeon) and provides droll commentary on the various points of interest we were flying over. Banking sharply away from Mt. Arayat, we fly over more rice fields and farms, and eventually follow the path of the Pampanga River.
At this point, it dawned on me that ultra-light flying is actually very safe. With maximum altitudes of 800 feet and top speeds at 55-60 kph, my wild fears earlier were all but unfounded.
Besides, once you are up in the air with such a great birds' eye-view of Philippine countryside, you just can't help but wonder at nature's grandeur all around you, and time seems to move unhurriedly. For an ephemeral period, I felt totally free of any cares.
Theo offered to let me try manning the controls for a second, but sadly, I reverted back to my usual acrophobic self and failed to rise to the occasion. Soon, it was time to go back to the airfield.
We steadily reduced altitude and started preparing for landing. I couldn't figure out where the airfield was, and wondered aloud to Theo how pilots of these ultra-light planes could tell direction. "I mean, North is what is in front of me, right?" He shot me a you're-bloody-useless-with-a-compass-look and concentrated on the task at hand. He expertly maneuvered the plane towards the runway at high speed and made a semi-steep dive towards it. Whew!
Back to the safe familiar confines of terra firma, I felt a mixture of relief and accomplishment. True, this plane ride ranked among the scariest and longest 30 minutes of my life, but it was definitely among the most exhilarating 30 minutes as well! I would like to think I faced my fears head-on and came out a winner.
As we were driving along North Expressway back to Manila, I vowed to myself that I should come back someday for another round of open cockpit flying. . .and perhaps take the controls next time? Hah!