And we have liftoff.
I flew an airplane for the first time ever today. A Cessna 172R NAV III airplane, Garmin G1000 glass cockpit equipped, tail number VT-CAH. Victor Tango-Charlie Alpha Hotel. It's not something I'll forget for a long long time, if ever.
The announcement came through yesterday afternoon, that our initial familiarization flight would be advanced and would happen today, in a bid to break the monotony of ground school. The moment the chief sardar uttered the magic words, i think i leapt outta my chair. it all seems like a blur now. we were asked to get our headsets along for the flight. the only unknown factor was weather. and having had a good spell with meteorology, i knew there was nothing we could do about it, so i asked friends who are the praying type to pray. i needed good weather today, no stone was to be left unturned.
Morning greeted us with clear skies. Visibility could've been better, but it was above the required minima. All in all, it looked like a great day for flying. I walked out of the guest house with a smile which was to remain pasted on my face for most of the day. I'd made a playlist for the commute, instead of the usual practise of listening to random songs, and was listening to five handpicked songs to go with the high spirits the day required. We were to fly right after breakfast, so I half heartedly dug at some cutlets and an omelette, willing time to move faster even though we were harldy half an hour away from flight. After breakfast, we waited in the classroom for the instructors to come brief us.
They walked in, and I've noticed they have this swagger about them when they walk in a group. They came in and quickly announced the agenda, which was that we weren't expected to learn anything from this flight and were to treat it as fun since this was a familiarization flight. They made it a point to remind us that from the next flight on, this will not hold true and that the fun ends here. They then announced who was flying with whom, and as luck would have it, I was to go first. And in a bit of extra luck, i was flying with the flight chief i described in the previous post.
We walked up to the airplane, and he asked me to sit in the left seat while he sat right. That was unexpected, since I thought I would be in the right seat for this flight, and thought that this would be little more than a demo. How wrong I was, i didn't have an inkling then. The chief ran through the startup checklist in haste, he seemed determined to outpace my ability to follow what he was doing. I was doggedly with him, making mental notes of everything he did. He startled me with his 'Props Clear' call to the ground staff, in what was to be a habit for the day. I had my headphones on, and five minutes later he startled me with the first radio check call to the tower. I didnt realize that these things come with the volume set to maximum, and i hastily reached for the volume knobs to spare my ears from permanent damage. We taxied out to the holding point short of the runway. The southerly runway was in use, and since there were taxiway entrances to the runway only at the southern end, we would have to backtrack down the runway to the north end and then turn around and take off.
H continued with the pre-takeoff checklist, and at one point set the heading bug to 171 degrees, which is more or less the runway heading, but read it out as 117. For a second I thought about asking him if there was a mistake. As part of work, I have read a lot of crash reports, and I was reminded of cases where a timid first offer failing to question the captains mistake led to a crash. Well, not on my watch, so I asked him if it was correct. He read it back correctly this time, and I was satisfied, so we asked the tower for line up clearance. Once we backtracked, turned around and lined up for a runway 17 departure, he radioed for clearance and we received clearance to take off, turn left and climb to 4500 feet. He did the take off checks, throttled up, and as we began rolling he said, 'The aircraft is yours now'.
I was stunned, and was wondering whether he had no instinct of self preservation at all in having asked a wet-behind-the-ears novice to handle the airplane so early. He must have sensed that, so he said just follow my instructions and you'll be fine. My mind was racing to adjust to the situation, and the engine noise and increasing speed did not help one bit. At 45 knots, he said to wait for 55 and pull back on the control column gently. I watched the numbers on the digital speed tape climb to 54 and at 55, gently pulled it towards me. What followed was probably the single most beautiful moment in my life so far. The Cessna 172 responded effortlessly and i knew we were off. Airborne, in a culmination of effort over so many years. I could not believe it, and I was hoping that the CFI didn't notice that I had slightly teared up with joy.
He pointed out a hill ahead and said there's a temple there that we could go check out. En route the hill, he pointed out the various military establishments scattered around Sagar town, and then asked me to make a gentle right turn. This was followed by instructions to turn left, and as I banked for the turn, he pointed out the temple constructed on top of the hill, and wondered how they constructed it and who visits it since there was no pathway visible leading up to it. For most of the ride, he was more tour guide than instructor, unobtrusively helping out with things like fuel mixture which I haven't yet been taught how to handle. He told me i could relax a bit and let go of one hand from the column, and that's when it really hit me that I was indeed flying. This was no game, this was no book, this was no simulator, it was the real damn deal. I could feel what the airplane was doing, and its responses to the minutest of my inputs. We were still climbing. At 4500, he said i could go a bit further if i want since there was no traffic above us, only two other academy cessnas with my wide eyed colleagues below.
We leveled off at 4800 on a northerly heading, and he pointed out the airfield below to my left and said we should head there. I did as told, and soon we were vertically above the airfield. He asked me to do a tight circle, and while we banked, i could see the layout of the airfield looking out from the window to my left. Coupla circles later, it was time to head north again, and we flew 5 nautical miles north of the airfield parallel to the very same highway we used to commute to the airfield that morning. Seeing the sights that we see on the ride from above was incredible. We even saw the guest house where we stay at, and all of Sagar town was visible in the distance. Huge herds of cattle grazing below made my day. I had once seen cattle from above when i went parasailing, but this was something else entirely. We were encouraged not to take photographs and focus on flying since it is the first time, else I would've clicked it. Later, maybe.
Once the sightseeing was done, I was asked to turn and line up for approach. He pointed to the moving map display that would guide me for it. I lined up pretty well even if i say so myself, and once I confirmed that I had the airfield in sight, he let me continue with the approach. About midway through it, i started questioning his self preservation instinct again, now that it looked like he was gonna let me land the damn kite. I nervously continued the approach, making small corrections to stay on centre, when somewhere between 100 and 50 feet above ground level, i felt inputs from the right side controls. Never once having asked me to relinquish the controls, he made corrective inputs to my flying and led us in to a smooth landing, perfectly timing the deceleration so that we made the first turnout without having to backtrack.
I was amazed at the level of confidence he placed in me, and was in a daze and don't remember one bit of the checklists at the end. I had flown for the first time ever, and in my mind i could now justifiably call myself a pilot, kinda, the license is a matter of legal endorsement :P It's probably the happiest day in my life. As we exited the airplane after signing the flight log, the flight chief told me "Isn't this so much better than driving? There you have all the bloody traffic and cows and you have to keep honking your horn.. " I nodded in agreement, wondering what it would have been like if the Cessna had a horn. The chief has a habit of honking like mad to get cattle to move from the road; i imagine he would honk at the clouds if the cessna were equipped for it.
There was a flurry of phone calls to be made, and after one of the conversation in which a friend asked what i planned to do now since my dream has more or less come true, I was a bit stumped. I guess its a fleeting thing, now that i've caught one, more will show themselves ahead. When I had started working in aviation, friends had told me I got my dream job. At that point, I was in a state where I was so close to the dream, yet so far. With characteristic flight geekiness, I had explained it away using the space shuttle as a metaphor. It was like the shuttle approaching the international space station. When I started this line of work, I was in the vicinity. From the earth, it would look like the shuttle had docked. But docking was a process that required effort and fine tuning to close the gap between the shuttle and the station with utmost precision. I guess that's what i've been doing all this while. Today, it's closed in a bit more. There is so much more distance left, though.
There are so many people I have to thank for putting up with this nonsense of mine over the years :)