Last weekend I went up in my dad’s Cherokee (him flying, not me). My dad has a hangar at the little aeroclub just outside Blenheim, where he keeps his plane, which is named SNE. He’s a hobbyist, not a commercial pilot, and he’s flown for as long as I’ve known him. Here he is towing SNE out of its hangar.
It’s a single-engined Piper Cherokee with two little seats up the front, two at the back. The control yokes, which remind me a bit of a Nintendo 64 console, thrust out above your knees when they activate. Here are the controls, and my knees.
The seats are covered in raggedy fake sheepskin – it’s a bit like clambering into a dubious motorcycle sidecar that looks like it might detach along the ride. The only things missing are goggles and leather gloves. My dad is scrupulous about keeping SNE in good condition, though; before we went up, he talked at length – you must understand, at great, great length – about all the repairs he’d had done on the bits that had corroded away underneath the wings.
The safety signage on SNE is meant to be reassuring. To the outsider, it’s not really.
When you get on board a plane like SNE, you realise that safety is spoken in a different kind of language. It’s the language of faded labels and hairy seatbelts and parachutes congealing under your seat. It’s the language of the pilot’s squinty, sun-watery eyes. But, apart from a couple of times as a young kid, I’ve never felt unsafe in a Cherokee.
From the little aeroclub just outside Blenheim – and, one day I will write a whole series of essays about aeroclubs: the small talk, the smell of vinyl and sweat and aftershave, the long pauses, the constant squinting at the sky, the instant coffee – we flew out to the White Cliffs, circled around above the water, and wandered slowly back. (Not shown in the photo below, but it always surprises me, when you fly over a town or a city, just how many swimming pools there are, each one an alien blue.)
The last time I’d been flying in the Cherokee, before this, was five years ago. My dad flew with my brother JP and I from Wellington to Oamaru, for my granddad’s funeral. We landed on a beach near Cape Campbell partway down, where I proceeded to vomit everywhere. We went back up. I vomited everywhere again. I’d lost my airplane stomach and have never quite gained it back.
After the funeral, when we arrived back in Wellington, we circled low above Westpac Stadium, where a big rugby game was going on. It felt strangely voyeuristic, and also a little bit smug. A bit like that dream you might have had as a kid: you wake up to find that you can fly, so you fly above your school and all your classmates are pointing and gaping at you angrily. ‘That’s right,’ you say, ‘I’m flying,’ as if this is the ultimate triumph over them.
But this weekend was the first time I’ve really liked going flying. Maybe it was because we didn’t actually need to get anywhere: we were just skulking around, looking at things, and the things were beautiful. Apropos of the ‘skulking around, looking at things’ attitude to flying, here’s my dad and a flying cronie, a few years ago. You can see, in their body language, that the plane – the freedom it gives them – is a source of pride. The plane is like a faithful horse; here it even appears to be nuzzling them. Growing up, as a constant passenger in the very small planes my dad flew, I was mystified by men’s affection for their planes, and by what I saw as their slight distrust of anyone who couldn’t fly.
I was mystified by the affection because I mostly hated flying. A word I dreaded was ‘turbulence’. Dad turning from the cockpit to report: ‘We might be going into a bit of turbulence here.’ My mother – I’d be sitting on her knee, usually – also hated it, but my two brothers were usually unfazed (but were occasionally betrayed by their vomiting), even when the plane, ricocheting off the wind, was lurching up and down as if it were a rag in a giant window-washer’s hand. I would stare at the back of my dad’s neck, and at the headphones clamped over his ears – or, if headphones were in short supply, lawnmower ear mufflers – and grip the back of his seat. It wasn’t that I had complete faith that he would get us landed safely. It was more that it just never entered my head that it was possible we could crash and die. My dad had known pilots who had crashed and died. But that would never happen to us.
Watching him manoeuvre a landing was always impressive: there was something triumphant in it – and, when emerging from difficult flights, something almost maniacal in the focus on it, like Batman bearing down on a villain in his batmobile. He’d begin to guide the plane towards the runway, flicking various switches and twiddling various knobs, and burbling into a radio. At some point he’d reach a hand up and crank the lever on the ceiling that controlled the plane’s nose, the movement a bit like spinning a lasso.
I loved watching the trees and grass stretching up to meet us, then the feeling of solid ground rushing under our wheels, and then opening the door and clambering stiffly out on to the gritty wing and into fresh air. The places where we landed usually weren’t big, proper, controlled airports: they were aerodromes, or aeroclubs, where airplane hobbyists – always men – congregated to talk and to watch planes coming and going.
At the moment I’m reworking a short piece I wrote about my mother going flying. She learnt to glide (in a glider called a Lark) when she was at university, and later she met my dad – who, along with many of the other young men who lived in Te Kuiti then, had learned to fly. His first plane was EBD, another tiny Cherokee, with a red tail that we all learned to look for when he was out flying. One of Dad’s friends took EBD for a flight once and crashed into a hill. I’m not sure how it happened, exactly, but the friend survived and was OK, and the plane was repaired and we just kept on flying it. I remember looking at it carefully the first few times we took off together after the crash: the hairline cracks around in the walls and ceilings; the jagged browny-red vinyl of the seats.
Anyway, here’s an excerpt from the piece, called ‘Lark’, in which I am trying to imagine what it might have been like for my mother, learning to glide. Maybe it’s not a great idea to post work in progress, but hey. Technically this is old work that’s, um, still in progress.
The craft itself was a skinny, cigar-shaped thing – not quite a plane, not quite a kite – with a long front window and a pointed nose. It was Czech. It had no propeller, which made it seem more vulnerable than an ordinary aircraft. Its wings were so far outstretched they looked cartoonish. All the glider needed now was eyes and a goofy grin painted on. Andy, Julia’s instructor, said the wings were detachable. They could be unclipped and folded up so that the glider became like a tadpole, then it could be easily stored in a shed.
Andy was a smiling freckled man. He was soft and faded, with greying hair, crumpled shorts and polo shirt. ‘Ready?’ He opened the Lark for Julia. Its door opened way up high on its hinges.
Over the next month Andy taught her that the little half-moon on the dashboard had to always be level. He taught her to steer using the controls, which looked a bit like metal hooks on a man’s arms, and to keep straight, to glide, to not lurch about as if she were on a bike. It was cramped inside the Lark. Her legs couldn’t stretch all the way out and she was aware of the roof only a few centimetres above her hair. She was also aware of Andy in the back seat, watching carefully as she held the controls. The aircraft smelt like cracked vinyl and stale nicotine, and oil, and aftershave.
At take-off, a Tiger Moth would pull them promptly along the runway. The Lark skittered along on the end of the rope, bumping and bobbing on its hard, hoof-like wheels, as if it were galloping, and then the Tiger Moth rose up ahead of them, a silver insect in the window, and the ground came unstuck and fell away. The Lark swayed then slowly became level. Julia became aware of her weight and her eyes in a way she had never been on the ground – how every movement altered the Lark’s bearing.
She’d thought it would be silent to glide, but instead the Lark made a whining, groaning noise. It was the motor. It sounded half-hearted, as if it didn’t particularly want to be in the air, would have been more at home in a lawnmower. Despite this, Julia wasn’t scared. She was afraid of heights – even looking up at tall buildings gave her vertigo; she had to clutch onto something – but in the sky it was different because the land was too far away to trigger any fear. From this distance, land was an abstraction, like clouds were from the ground. Christchurch was carved flat, a post-operative land, sewn up in green and brown and yellow. Being apart from it was a new relief.
At about 2,000 feet she would press the lever that released the tow rope. There was a loud whoomph and then finally, as the motor cut out, there was silence. They were alone and motorless in the air. Julia would look back at Andy and he’d give her the thumbs up. His pink face was sandwiched between thick black earmuffs. Were they lawnmowing earmuffs? Julia would turn back and hold on to the controls. She was above Canterbury and gradually losing height. During this descent she would feel a mixture of dread and glee in equal measure: gravitating towards something she wasn’t sure she wanted to gravitate towards, but glad of being able to steer herself to it.
Once, the Tiger Moth ascended too quickly in front of them. The towrope whipped up and snaked in the air and then dropped straight down behind the Tiger Moth. Snap. The rope had snapped! There was silence, into which Julia screamed, and Andy insisted: ‘It’s all right, it’s all right.’ He was right – it was. They did not die. They did not crash into a mountain. Why would they? Nothing happened, just as Andy said it wouldn’t. It was a clear day. She was at 1,400 feet, high enough that she could glide back to the airbase. Down she went through the layers of the sky, towards the earth, as if her eyes themselves were shedding layers; and her heart too, slowly shedding panic and becoming calm.
To land, she had to glide very low over roads and trees. It was here that the fear began to come back, because she could see the hard angles of the earth’s surface. She could see roads and rooftops, cars and sheep, and it was all too easy to imagine falling and impaling the Lark on one of its own wings. If there were any young women cycling along the road, now was when she would now make them topple sideways. But there was never a cycling woman, or any person.
One day Andy flew straight into the side of a mountain. She heard about it days later. It was a unusually still day, thick with fog but hardly any wind, the day he died.
Years later she was in the air again but this time she was gripping on to the back of a seat, her husband’s seat – they were flying through mountains over Alexandra and there was a storm coming up to meet them. Rain was hitting the windscreen, each drop exploded like a bug – it was true that the closer you were to clouds, the bigger the rain was; when you were inside clouds the rain was obscene – and they pitched from side to side, jolted violently up and down. Their seatbelts bit into their hips, and at one point their heads bumped the ceiling and she felt her stomach leap into her mouth then fall through the floor. She started to think this could be it. They would die up there in the mountains, like in a movie. ‘Russell,’ she called, her voice bee-like in the roaring plane, but he didn’t turn around. He was holding the controls and peering through the windscreen into the white. He’d turned on the windscreen wipers. The mechanized arms butted frantically back and forth, which even in the middle of all this she thought funny, as if they were in a flying car. The back of her husband’s neck looked tense and purposeful. Also, it was speckled with worrying-looking moles she hadn’t noticed before now. A person becomes hyper-alert in a small aircraft flying between mountains in a storm. On either side of her were children, one of whom was crying, the other of whom was staring out the window at the clouds racing greedily past on either side of them. She hung on to the back of the seat and prayed. Her husband flew, and the storm towed them through the mountains.