When I got to the annual Kent State Aeronautics Festival on Saturday, the Precision Flight Team was still offering rides with flight instructors in the small piper planes they used for learning to fly.
The last time I was on an airplane, I was about 10 years old and heading to vacation. It was a passenger jet, huge and quiet on the inside, with almost no turbulence and rows of cramped seats that reminded me of a movie theater. I could never understand, exactly, why people would proclaim that they loved flying.
I’m not a nervous flyer, so there wasn’t any undercurrent of fear when they told me I could go up in one of them. I was hoping, at most, for a scenic picture from the apex of the flight, and an overall pleasant experience.
Just getting into the plane was difficult for me, the most obvious newbie ever – I needed help with everything from finding the seat buckle to closing the passenger’s side window.
Inside the cockpit, where I was sitting shotgun, the windshield sat on top of a huge black and orange-blinking switchboard, like something out of a Sci-Fi ’80’s movie; with so many dials, levers and indicators that — just looking at them — made me dizzy.
Zach Bates, a senior aeronautics major and the instructor who would be taking me up in the plane, seemed to know the aricraft like the back of his hand.
He told me he would most likely be flying passenger like me all day, but somehow, he didn’t seem to mind.
“I started flying my freshman year,” Bates said. “This is my first year doing rides. I’m one of the newest (certified flight instructors).”
As he went through the flight checklist, making sure each component of the plane worked properly — that the pedals moved the wheels, and different levers controlled flaps on the back of the wings and moved the rudder — he assured me flying was going to be an experience.
“As soon as you lift off the ground, it’s like you’re in a whole (different) world. It’s freedom,” Bates said as the plane started up, guiding it toward the landing strip with pedals on the floor.
I still wasn’t convinced. But then the engine grew louder, almost shaking us in our seats like some kind of enormous thunderbird, and we started lifting up and into the sky.
Just like that, we were flying. Somehow the ground was getting further and further away, and the other planes on the runway were getting smaller and smaller.
What had previously been vast was now tiny. A river snaked through the green and yellow quilt below us like a rivulet of rain. Houses were dots, and pools were irregular circles in the overwhelming sea of trees and fields below us.
Bates was listening to his radio in one ear and fielding my questions in the other, multitasking like a pro, calm even though we were more than 2,000 miles up in the air.
The wheel that was on my side of the cockpit, he explained, was where the flight instructor normally sat to teach the student how to direct the plane.
The clouds looked like they were going faster because we were flying in the opposite direction to them. At night, they called dark areas “black holes” because it was hard to determine whether they were fields or lakes —and when you’re crash landing, outside of an airport, you always go for fields.
We passed over campus, just a miniature array of red walkways and the tops of buildings. I spent so much of my life there in the past year, and it was just a speck.
“It’s just pretty cool to see things from a different perspective,” Bates said. “I mean, you’ve never seen this before.”
It was true, I hadn’t. And as we headed back toward the Kent State airport, making a sharp turn that threw one of the wings skyward, I looked out the window again.
The clouds were piled up against the skyline, blue and hazy. Bad for visibility, Bates had told me, but they were like mountains on some alien planet, stacked against the purple-blue, and I realized they had always looked like this. I just never saw them this way.
Bates, the other flight instructors and the student volunteers that had helped me into the plane —this was something they saw almost every day. Night flying, the cities like yellow dots on a black landscape, sunset, when the colors must run together like a canvas; flying was a part of their lives.
We were coasting on the wind as we landed, using the wind resistance as an aid, almost floating back to the airport.
“It’s really rewarding. All the studying and the flying,” Bates said. “I love it. I love taking little kids up, making them smile — it’s a great feeling, just being able to make their day. (Especially) If you get (that) one person (who loves) it, and they want to do it someday too. It’s kind of like a dying love. Not many people are doing it nowadays.”
I might not ever fly a plane. I might not even be able to get back into a small plane for a very long time. I think, though, that I now understand why people like Bates love to fly.
When you’re up in the air, looking down at everything you’ve only ever seen from one angle, it’s mesmerizing. Not more complicated, although the landscape is more patchy.
In a way, it’s more simple. Everything is so small. There’s an entirely different sphere of the world up there; one with ozone and cloudy mountains, and pilots are living in it.
Cameron Gorman is a diversity reporter, contact her at [email protected]