I Had Wings

By ALBERT MCKEON Telegraph staff writer

I flew an airplane and didn’t crash.

Yes, I lived to write about my half-hour of piloting a single-engine craft in the skies over the Nashua area.

Sure, that’s a gloomy way to start a story about one of the more exhilarating events of my life. But I do so to mock the popular belief that flying is dangerous.

Just think: If a nearsighted journalist can guide a plane without summoning disaster crews, then there is validity to the aviation industry’s claim that flying is the safest mode of transportation.

To further prove this, my co-pilot and instructor – an experienced aviator who thankfully elevated and landed the Piper Cherokee Warrior for me – performed a simple test. Over Milford, he cut the throttle.

The plane didn’t freefall. There was no panic similar to that hilarious scene in the comedy film “Airplane.” We just floated.

“The air and wind are your friend,” pilot Joe Johnsick said after a recent Thursday morning jaunt as we relaxed in the hanger office of Harvest Aviation Services, the flight instruction business he co-owns on Nashua’s Boire Field.

Johnsick has a way of explaining the essentials of flight without seeming pedantic. For him it’s all about relaxing and viewing the plane as an extension of you.

By extension, Johnsick didn’t mean the Warrior became a steel-and-fiberglass Boston Red Sox fan with me behind the controls. Rather, he wanted me to feel how the plane obediently reacts to a pilot’s movements much as Kermit the Frog responded to Jim Henson’s hand.

For instance, Johnsick wouldn’t let me hold the yoke, a plane’s steering wheel, with two hands. I had to keep one hand placed on the seat.

Several times, when our simple mission seemed precariously close to failure – at least from my viewpoint – I instinctively drew my right hand toward the yoke. “Get that hand back there,” Johnsick would say through his microphone headset.

Steering the plane requires only a simple touch, Johnsick’s lesson showed. A pilot doesn’t need to grip the yoke tightly or make sudden, bold movements.

“There’s a lot going on up there,” he said before our flight. “But the one thing with flying is that it’s not a mechanical act. It’s an art form.”

I didn’t believe him at first. When we sat in the cockpit, a sensory overload of meters and knobs made me pause – and pause. This was no flight simulation video game.

But, of course, that’s why Johnsick came along. For the sake of humanity on terra firma, no first-time pilot can take the air without an instructor.

His experience was apparent from the get-go. Instead of having me hold a checklist and review item by item the things that need checking before takeoff, Johnsick walked me around the plane and gave a hands-on overview of the craft’s vital functions.

I folded the flap on the wing as he explained its role in providing thrust and drag, elements necessary for flight. I unscrewed the gas cap to check the fuel level.

Once in the plane, Johnsick pulled out a laminated card and said “check” to every item on the list. We had saved time, and I learned some basics of mechanized flight.

And before you could say “Amelia Earhart,” we had liftoff.

The plane rose slowly but surely. Soon, I saw an unrivaled topographical perspective of Nashua. Holman Stadium looked like a bowl of green sugar. Matchbooks scurried along a bending beige strip that on earth is the traffic mess known as Route 101A.

Now, at this point in a commercial fight, an attendant offers me a Bailey’s Irish Cream and three pretzels. Johnsick offered control of the plane. “Where’s my drink?” I nearly asked him.

I was no longer on a sightseeing tour but earning my first stripe in the pilot’s seat. But after getting over that initial shock, I realized I had a duty to watch the horizon and keep the plane leveled and straight on course. My spirit re-entered the cockpit and my body.

The plane really did become an extension of me, a jittery but ecstatic me. Johnsick would nod to a fixed point in the distance and my mostly steady left hand got us there.

OK, I felt more than jittery. My stomach nearly touched my heart when I swung the plane around on a 45-degree left turn just as we hit a pocket of turbulent air over Mont Vernon.

Suddenly, I couldn’t shake the thought that Johnsick and I would become permanent markers in the boundless spoils of Hollis’ preserved land. (From 2,500 feet in the sky, the town looks like a plate of broccoli.)

But without Johnsick’s calming influence, I definitely would have tried out for a new role, that of parachutist. Occasionally, I shot the plane a bit over the half-mile elevation marker Johnsick wanted us to fly near, but he kept gently reminding me to bring it down a notch – nothing a slight push of the yoke couldn’t remedy.

Johnsick had the patience of a pastor. Sure enough, that’s the 43-year-old’s other gig; he leads Goffstown Harvest Christian Church.

Johnsick and Scott Wharem opened Harvest Aviation nearly four years ago. They charge $88 per hour to learn in the Warrior and $94 per hour in a Piper Cherokee Arrow. Gasoline is a separate cost.

I learned of Harvest through ProjectPilot.org, a site run by the nonprofit Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association. It connects people interested in flying with flight schools across the country that offer introductory courses ranging in cost from $59 to $89, the outfit says.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires a minimum of 40 hours flight time before an individual can take the test for a private pilot’s license. Typically, it takes a person 60-70 hours to be ready for the test, Johnsick said.

A lesson usually lasts 30-45 minutes, Johnsick said. “The brain can’t take anymore. It’s assimilating a lot of things,” he said.

With more flight time, I won’t blink at those 45-degree turns and will be ready for the roller-coaster trick that I declined, he said.

“Man, do I love the smell of that kerosene,” Johnsick said as we walked off the tarmac after our flight. It was a quip reminiscent of Robert Duvall’s legendary line in “Apocalypse Now” about loving the smell of napalm in the morning.

I, too, loved that overpowering scent of airplane fuel. It meant I had returned to earth and could dream of breaking again the shackles of gravity.

Copyright, 2007, The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H. All Rights Reserved.