In the spring of 2001, I watched the clean-living-Americans-go-to-outer-space movie “The Right Stuff” and decided what I needed was to learn how to pilot a plane. Do you remember that movie? A half-dozen test pilots cracking jokes into their headsets rattle and blast out of the Earth’s atmosphere in Air Force jets: Which macho man will be the first to make it to the Moon? Which macho man will blow his cool? I watched “The Right Stuff” twice on DVD and decided that learning to fly was the key to a more meaningful life.
I’ve always been susceptible to Hollywood fantasies. Learning to fly meant that I could quit my job at Vogue and find a more honorable one in sub-Saharan Africa, piloting transport planes for a humanitarian organization or ferrying emergency rations of bulgur wheat.
I arrived at East Hampton Airport on a Friday morning in May when the thermometer on the patio read 93 degrees. My new flight instructor, Bert, wore Dockers and handed me the key to a Cessna, a small tin key like you would use to unlock a little girl’s diary.
The airport in those days was used mainly by prop planes coming in from Teterboro or Nantucket, and the charter jets that carried commuters from Wall Street. They would roar in overhead and roll to a soft stop near the terminal, and the money men would step out into the heat to meet their wives, who carried blond babies on their hips and wore sarongs that summer, and leather flip-flops with silver seashells over the big toe.
It was awkward climbing into the airplane at the start, that first big step off the tarmac, but it was pleasant inside the Cessna, a maroon-and-cream interior, like a vintage car. We put on our headsets; I felt like a jackass, a poseur. I turned the key, the engine started, and the plane shook on its wheels.
Taking off was easy. You steered out onto the center of the runway, plunged the power knob all the way in with your palm, and, gathering speed, left the ground lightly.
Bert had me practice S-curves over the ocean beach, sewing stitches up the coastline. The turn had to be smooth. You had to fly the plane with liquid confidence, like pouring honey from a jar.
One of the most exciting moments during flying lessons was when Bert would say, his voice high and laconic, out of the clear blue sky, the words “Total engine failure.” He’d say “Total engine failure,” and reach over and draw the accelerator knob back out all the way, cutting off the fuel supply to the engine. You had no thrust. But if you kept your nose titled at the right angle, you achieved what they called “maximum-glide speed,” the speed at which your plane will glide the longest — 10 or 12 minutes between you and the unforgiving ground.
“Flying off the instruments” involved a pair of blinder goggles, which you put on like sunglasses. They blocked your peripheral vision, so all you could see was the control panel: dials indicating angle of wings, R.P.M.s, heading, whether you were gaining or losing altitude, and how fast. I was not a natural pilot — not at all — but it turned out I had a peculiar talent for flying blind. I could do anything with the plane, as long as I was blinkered and couldn’t see outside. I could hold the plane perfectly to its course, turn it while rising, turn it while falling, with the elastic motion of a taffy pull. Bert expressed puzzlement. It was like discovering I could balance a basketball on the end of a broomstick.
Without the blinder goggles, my tendency was to monitor the instrument panel too closely (rather than flying by feeling alone, which was easier and better). I gripped the yoke in my hands like I was gripping a wildcat, adjusting my position every half-second and then overreacting every other second on the counter adjustment.
“Death spiral,” Bert would say. “Joking.”
Landing always made me nervous, even when Bert was in the plane.
Airplanes land into the wind. The wind pushes against you, slowing you, you ride it home. You fly right down toward the ground, with the runway — the deadly concrete — filling the windscreen. It all happens in slow motion, like a car crash or winning an Oscar.
The nose isn’t pointed down, but is tilted up in the air at an uneasy angle, so that the flats of the wings press against the onrushing wind. If you’ve done it right, you roll for a few yards on the rear wheels and then the wheel under the nose touches. You brake gently with both feet.
Let me tell you about my landing style. I could bring the Cessna down calm and easy over Stephen Hand’s Path and slide over the Wainscott gravel pit at the correct speed; I could glide nicely over the big painted numbers at the end of the runway, and point the nose down the center line just like I’d been taught. But then, in the last seconds, I did something inexplicable. Just at the last five seconds, instead of holding it off, instead of coasting along, holding it just inches off the runway, I would let it drop like a brick.
“You have a good grasp on the whole thing, over all,” Bert would say. “You’re so close to a beautiful landing,” he said. “But then you just give up. Why is that?”
I bought myself a book called “Better Landings.”
The first time you fly alone is called “to solo.” We had been practicing lazy touch-and-go’s one day in August — landing, taking off immediately, and landing again — when Bert asked me if I felt confident enough to take the Cessna up alone. I said, “Yes, I’m ready.”
He climbed out of the passenger seat and stood on the dry grass. “Talk to me if you get yourself into trouble,” he said. It was a clear afternoon, the wind was steady out of the west at 10 knots.
I held my thumb down on the radio button: “Cessna Two Two Nine Six Four Hotel departing runway two eight East Hampton.” Like I said, taking off is easy. You give it everything you’ve got, and make sure you don’t hold your nose too high as you climb. Up over the scrubby oaks and white pines, climbing to 1,000 feet, and announcing a left-hand turn.
I was holding level at 1,000 feet and Georgica Pond was on my right when the voice of another pilot came into my headset. He said, nonchalantly, that the wind had changed direction. The wind was now blowing, low but steady, out of the east.
The other pilot was stating his intention to change the landing pattern. In order to land into the wind, this other pilot — and I, behind him — would have to come in from the opposite end of the runway. It was a very simple equation, but my brain hiccuped, trying to figure out what to do. I wandered away from the airport on the downwind leg, giving myself time to think.
I didn’t die on landing, that first time, but I did bring the plane down with a wallop, and then I did pull back up too abruptly, making the Cessna perform a bright Nijinski leap, and then down again with another thud, then, boing, back up. Finally, with a short sharp skid, I brought the Cessna back under control and rolled off the runway.
“Well, that wasn’t the most elegant landing I’ve ever seen,” said Bert. “What happened there?”
“They changed the pattern while I was in the middle of turning downwind,” I said, ashamed.
“You had the porpoise going out there,” Bert said.
“What’s the porpoise?” I said.
Bert swam his hand through the air in front of my face like a porpoise breaking the waves then diving, repeatedly, in an undulating rhythm.
That was maybe two weeks before 9/11. The Twin Towers came down, and small-aircraft traffic was grounded on the Eastern Seaboard for months. That certainly broke the spell of my Hollywood fantasy. I never went back to flying and, obviously, never became a bush pilot. I’m no John Glenn. But I did like being up there above the Earth. Not everyone knows it, but when you are up there, in the blue, your thoughts dissipate, are scattered, among the clouds.