March 11, 2011

Photo Essay: Taking Flight

I knew I wanted to visit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park sometime this spring so I could catch the wildflowers, since my last visit was at the tail end of summer, the brown, dusty low season that makes the park feel dead and barren (though no less magical). I took the opportunity to capitalize on my approach from the north (LA) instead of the south (San Diego) and decided to use Warner Springs, CA as my basecamp.

I'd first read about Warner Springs as an up-and-coming wine country, to give nearby Temecula and Julian a run for their money. But then I discovered there's a lot more to do here, including flying planes.

When I arrived at Sky Sailing today, I had no intention on actually flying a plane myself. I wanted someone to fly me, and I would go along for the ride. But when they offered- and kept offering - I couldn't turn the opportunity down.

I asked for the most basic plane, with the most basic package, at the shortest time frame available. No acrobatics. Just for beginners, the gentlest experience possible.

The cockpit was a two-seater, with me in front, gauges and controls on my dashboard and between my legs.

"I don't think I want to fly," I said. It wasn't that I didn't want to get in the plane. It's just that I didn't want to have any responsibility.

"OK well we'll see when we get up there," Keith, my pilot and soon-to-be flight instructor, said.

At first, we were being towed by another plane, the tow line tight between us.

But soon, the tow plane was ready to release us.

And then we were on our own.

And soon I was on my own, my pilot urging me again, "You sure you don't want to fly?" at which point I responded, "OK, yeah, sure."

I couldn't turn it down.

Flying a sailplane like this one (also known as a glider), you have a kind of joystick between your legs, and a pedal beneath each foot. Adjust the joystick to the right, step down on the right pedal, and the plane turns right. But the incredible part is that it actually takes very little adjustment, very little pressure, very little movement to steer the plane dramatically to one side or another. And with a little nudge, a little guidance, the plane can completely change direction.

Left in that position, the plane will continue to circle, tighter and tighter in the same direction. You can't just turn left. At some point, you have to turn right to straighten the plane out.

I remember when I was learning to drive, changing lanes was a huge challenge, because intellectually, I thought you'd have to turn the wheel in the same way as when you're turning off onto another street. But in truth, to change lanes, it's better if you just make the slightest, most subtle adjustment, and almost lean into the direction in which you'd like to go.

Now I change lanes with ease, zipping in and out of traffic almost like a snake in the sand, gliding from side to side.

Sometimes the smallest changes make the biggest difference.


Related Reading
Elegy for the Flightless Bird

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