Snap Shot #48: Flying High

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It’s the Groupon deal too good to resist – a helicopter lesson for under $300! I’ve had a fascination with choppers for years but have yet to ride in one. So this is perfect – not only do I get my first ever ride – but I actually get to fly the whirlybird! I decide that it will be the perfect birthday pressie to myself and book my lesson to lift off on my fifty-third birthday. But the weather has other ideas and it’s postponed thanks to tempestuous conditions. Fine by me. Am so not interested in attempting to fly in crap weather. So three days later I drive out to Bankstown airport where I’m greeted by a slightly jaded instructor – a man around my age who most likely would rather be doing a good many other things than putting his life in the hands of yet another heli-newbie. We begin with a half hour class room lesson where I’m introduced to a variety of foreign terms and instruments: the collective, the cyclic and yaw. I do a lot of nodding, this being my first lesson since a term of Italian classes nearly twenty years earlier. It’s all strange yet exciting. Finally, the time comes for us to walk out to the chopper. There are a few there, a couple that look quite impressive. But we walk past those until we are standing next to their dwarf cousin – like someone has plopped a propeller on top of my Barina hatchback. Will both of us even fit in there? We manage to do so and proceed to go through the take off protocols I had been introduced to minutes earlier and have already forgotten. The pilot then revs up the engine, pulls on either the collective or cyclic or both and we have lift off. Adrenaline pumps through my veins – I’m finally flying in a chopper! We gain altitude, the rooftops of Bankstown below us. He does a few maneuvers, talking me through each via our headsets. And then – crunch time. The pilot will hand over one of the controls to me – I’m to keep us flying at the same altitude – he’ll do the rest. Alright then… here we go. Immediately we dive down towards someone’s backyard. “Pull it up, pull it up.” I do so. “Not that much!” He takes over before I complete a backward somersault which would soon have us in a death spiral. The instructor tells me not to worry about it but it’s hard to hear him over the pounding of my heart. He then lets me try another control – I just need to keep it straight. And soon we veer off to the left and then to the right and back to the left again. “Check your instruments.” I check the instruments. “But look where you’re going.” Say what? How can I do both? After a couple more brief attempts at flying solo, the pilot finally tells me to relax and he takes over completely. I sigh with relief. But he’s not quite finished with me. He takes the chopper down to the airport but instead of landing, flies about a metre above a yellow line that seems to go on forever. He then tells me that I’m to take over the pedals, using them to keep us straight. Of course I soon have us zigzagging across the line like a drunken dragonfly. The pilot take over yet again and we are as straight as Hugh Hefner. He then casually spins us around and we continue to fly directly over the line – but backwards! I am impressed and terrified in equal measure. This thing has no rear view mirrors. How soon before we slam into a parked plane or the side of a hangar? But of course Captain Competent turns us around just in time and gently lands us on the spot from which we took off. We head back to the class room, my feet so thankful to be in contact with the planet once more. In order for me to finish my first lesson, I must answer a questionnaire. But I have completely lost the ability to recall a single thing he taught me less than an hour earlier. He finally manages to not so subtly gesture to the whiteboard behind him. All the answers are there. So I’m able to answer his questions and pass my test. He tells me my memory lapse is not unusual, that most people are so full of adrenaline that they are unable to recall anything. He even claims that one person couldn’t even remember their last name – but this sounds a little ludicrous. Anyway, he congratulates me for surviving and quite possibly silently thanking me for not killing him. I get back into my propeller free Barina, amazed at how easy it is to drive. As I hit the western suburban traffic, I become aware that I am buzzing. I feel amazing. I construct a Facebook post in my head, anxious to tell the world of my achievement: “Imagine having your first ever driving lesson – except that you’ve never been in a car before and have no idea how it works. Then, instead of driving on the road, you are 300 metres above it. So if you mess up – you die. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it’s like having your first helicopter lesson.”

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