Since I'd left work early on Friday, I spent my Saturday morning catching up on emails. I also tidied up a project summary report for my boss. It was rather . . . brief. I left for the airport at 1:30pm.
I sat in the lounge sipping on a cup of coffee and reviewing the weather. I saw her enter just before 2:00.
"Hey there!" she said, coming and sitting across from me at the table.
"Howdy," I replied, easily smiling at her infectious happiness.
Good-for-freaking-lord, even in super-casual attire, she was an absolute stunner.
She was dressed in snug jeans which highlighted her delightful form. She wore a slightly-snug sweater that complemented her slender build. I could immediately see why the guys she worked around would want to, well, get a little closer.
As for me, I wore casual shorts and an OSU hoodie.
"Oklahoma State? BOO!" she laughed with a thumbs-down gesture.
"Give me a break, Sooner," I mocked playfully. "You ready to get to work?"
"Work?" she said with cinched brows.
"Of course. You're going to work for your ride. You should have the entire experience."
"Okay, sure!" she agreed.
"Awesome. Let's get out there," I said.
I grabbed from the floor my flight bag and the extra headset I'd brought. We walked the four-hundred yards to my hangar and I opened its doors.
I showed her how to mount the red tow-bar to the nose gear and how to safely hand-tow the plane without damaging the prop by pulling too far down the blade.
I pushed against the wing strut just enough to break the inertia and get the bird rolling. I wanted her to discover that the plane was easy to move as she continued to draw it forward, with only a little help from me. Even though she was tiny, she was able to move the plane across the level concrete apron.
"The tail's clear. Start turning," I said.
She did, and positioned my plane only about six inches off the yellow guide-line which I considered quite adequate. I removed the tow-bar and returned it to the hangar.
I pulled the fuel sampler from the cargo pocket and the laminated checklist from my bag. I handed her the latter.
"Checklists are a bible. I do everything on it for the first flight of each day, and portions of it for every flight within that day. No exceptions. I'll guide you through it."
We started with the visual checks by doing a thorough walk-around.
I checked for fuel contamination by draining the sumps myself because I didn't want her to get gas all over her hands the same way I did in my early training. Then, I had her climb up to visually check the fuel level and security of the fuel cap.
When she did, her lovely little rump tightened and clutched at the seam of her jeans when she balanced her weight with one foot on the cowl step. I was glad she was paying attention to what she was doing, otherwise she probably would've seen me studying her perfectly shaped denim-covered butt, thigh, and calf.
My word. There's really nothing much more beautiful than an attractive woman wearing perfectly-fitting jeans on a perfectly-shaped body. Leah put loveliness to shame. Despite her petite stature, her proportions were just, quite simply . . . perfect.
She told me she saw fuel almost to the top.
After she did the same check on the other tank, which resulted in an equally pleasant show, I double-checked her assessment and ensured the caps were secure. "Trust but verify" is a motto I live by, particularly when it comes to the fuel quantity.
She performed dozens of other tasks under my supervision to complete the exterior details.
"Ready to board?" I asked her.
"Absolutely!" she answered, and walked toward the starboard side.
"No," I said, "you're sitting in the pilot's seat," I said with a broad grin.
"Why? I can't fly."
"I can do everything from the right side. I want you to see what I see," I encouraged. "I need to warn you that it's a bit close inside, and I may have to reach across you for some things. I'm just giving you a bit of a personal space warning, because I don't want to make you feel uncomfortable, okay?"
"I won't mind," she said with the cutest smile. I wasn't sure if I blushed a bit.
She climbed in, and I showed her how to adjust her seat and secure her door. I walked Leah through the startup of the engine and avionics, and then checked the remaining systems.
"I'll taxi us out of the alley," I said.
I started us moving just beyond the hangars to a point where the tower could see us. I set the radio for the ASOS, and jotted down the information we heard. Winds were calm. I showed her how to set the primary and secondary altimeters based on the reported number.
"Alright, Leah. This should be right up your alley. Tune to ground and request our clearance. Ask for a VFR departure to the south. The transmit button is right there," I said, pointing out the button on her yoke.
"I don't know how to set it," she said.
I selected the correct frequency, and also set the tower frequency into the standby.
"There you go," I said.
"Um, McKinney Ground, uh . . . skylane three four eight lima mike at the northwest hangars. Uh, request taxi to the active . . . VFR departing south . . we have the weather."
I couldn't help but smile at her awkwardness. Sure, she was used to receiving and understanding such calls, but not making them herself.
"Skylane eight lima mike, taxi to runway one eight via left on alpha, alpha one, bravo, bravo one."
She looked over at me with panic in her eyes. Her reaction didn't surprise me at all.
I responded for her.
"Holy crap! That all came so fast!" she laughed. "I'll speak slower from now on!"
"Don't. Your delivery is perfect for pilots that know what's coming next. If they're confused or inexperienced, just be patient if they ask you to repeat. Just like anything, it comes with practice."
"Gotcha," she said. "That's good to know."
I nudged the throttle and removed my feet from the brakes.
"Just follow the yellow line to the left," I said.
Even though I'd shown her how the differential brakes and rudder were used to steer before we started moving, I watched and chuckled as she tried to steer the plane with her hands, like a car. It does take getting used to.
"Feel me moving the pedals?" I asked, adjusting the nose back to the proper direction.
"Oh, hell, this is so weird!" she said.
"The winds are calm, so take your hands off the yoke. Feet only. I've got your back, okay?"
"Yeah," she said with a nervous exhalation.
As I expected, she was a little aggressive on the rudder. She made wide s-curves along the yellow center line, exactly like I did the first few times I taxied a Cessna 172.
"If you hear me say, 'my controls,' that means I'm taking over and you should stop everything you're doing. You respond with 'your controls' to let me know you've heard me. I'll say 'my controls' again, which means I've heard your agreement to relinquish. Copy?"
"Good. My controls," I stated as we neared the run-up area. It required a little more finesse to maneuver the tighter turns than she was prepared to handle.
"Your controls," she responded, visibly taking her hands and feet from the yoke and pedals.
"My controls. Perfect," I praised.
I taxied us into the pad, guided her through the final run-up engine checks, then taxied us to the hold-short line.
"Okee-dokee. Push this frequency transfer button and give the tower the call."
"Yep," she said. She pressed the button.
"McKinney tower, skylane three four eight lima mike, uh . . . holding short of one eight, um . . . ready for departure to the south."
"Skylane eight lima mike, runway one eight, cleared for takeoff," we heard Brad Hart reply.
"Cleared for takeoff one eight, eight lima mike," she answered a little more confidently.
I performed a number of tasks and cross-checks without describing them. Leah already had enough on her plate and I didn't want to overwhelm her.
"Your controls. Put us on the center line," I encouraged.
"Your controls," I repeated.
She aligned the plane, though hesitantly, pretty close to center line.
"Great. Now, put your right hand here," I said, taking her hand and placing it on the throttle.
"When you apply the throttle, the plane is going to want to turn left on its own. Expect it, and be ready with your right foot. Now count through five as you push the throttle all the way forward to the stop."
I heard her take a deep breath as she did as I instructed. I held my hand on hers to ensure the throttle was and remained fully opened. I also kept my feet near the rudder pedals in case I needed to immediately adjust.
Taking off in calm winds is the easiest part of flying a light aircraft. If trimmed correctly, it'll take off and fly on its own. All the pilot needs to do is keep the nose pointed down the center of the runway and the plane will launch when it reaches speed.
"Niiice," I encouraged as the plane gained velocity. "Almost there. Let the nose come up on its own. Just keep the yoke straight and light in your hand."
The plane took to the air, and Leah squealed in delight.
"Your controls!" she laughed, taking her hands and feet back.
"My controls. Nice job. You just did your very first take-off! Now, let's go see some sights!"
I trimmed the airplane and climbed to 3,500 feet, which would place us underneath the shelf of the airspace we approached.
I watched Leah. She wore a wide grin and was furiously snapping pictures with her iPhone. I removed my own phone from my pocket and started capturing video of her happy, giddy behavior. When she turned to her right to take pictures toward the west, she saw what I was doing. She comically vogued and took a picture of me taking video of her.
Her behavior was so uninhibited and playful. I couldn't help but laugh and vicariously enjoy it myself. I'd enjoyed the same first-time experience myself decades earlier and I still remember it vividly.
As we approached a checkpoint, I called in for the special clearance.
"Dallas approach, skylane eight lima mike is two north of the Lake Ray Hubbard dam, level, three-thousand five-hundred. Request clearance into your bravo for a few orbits around downtown."
"Eight lima mike, do you have central district in sight?"
"Affirmative, eight lima mike," I replied.
"Eight lima mike, turn right heading two niner zero. Maintain VFR, descend now two thousand, and proceed to city center, then left orbits. You are cleared into the class bravo airspace."
"Cleared to enter the class bravo, out of three thousand five hundred for two thousand," I acknowledged and trimmed the plane nose-down to shed altitude.
I turned us in that direction, and the skyscrapers of the city drew closer in the windshield.
"Oh my gosh, Lance! It's so beautiful," Leah gasped, wide-eyed, still snapping photos.
I just smiled and gave her a nice easy view of the urban landscape.
Leah pointed out the Dallas zoo and Fair Park which I hadn't yet taken the opportunity to explore on the ground.
We made three circles in about fifteen minutes.
"Where do you live?" I asked Leah. "If you'd like, we might be able to fly over your neighborhood."
"Oh, awesome! In Wylie, near highway 78 and 544. Woodbridge West, if you know it?"
I knew the area well.
"Dallas, eight lima mike. Request a bravo exit heading of zero six zero."
"Eight lima mike, proceed as requested."
"Eight lima mike."
I pointed my plane toward the northeast.
About ten minutes later, I heard, "Eight lima mike, you are clear of the class bravo. Radar services terminated. Squawk VFR."
"Eight lima mike, wilco, and thanks for your help!"
"You bet. Have a good one."
I set the transponder to 1200 and aimed more precisely toward Leah's neighborhood.
"I can see my house!" she laughed when we were near.
Without fail, every single person I've taken for a flight near their home said almost those exact words. Even with ubiquitous satellite and aerial photography websites, there's something simply magical seeing with one's own eyes a familiar but three-dimensional territory as a bird would.
After circling her neighborhood a few times, I flew us over Lake Lavon, then a little further east, and gave her the controls so she could fly, experiment, and have fun. She didn't do anything nutty, or anything even approaching it. I let her set her own pace and just enjoy herself.
It generally took at least thirty minutes for folks to whom I offered flights to become amateur-comfortable in the very basics of maneuvering the airplane. But, with Leah? No. She had it figured out in less than fifteen, so when I decided it was time to head back to the airport, I let her fly us there.
"Alright, we're two miles from the delta boundary. Do your thing," I said.
She made the radio call to the tower, and continued to fly into the final leg.
"Your controls," she said when she completed the turn.
"Keep going, you're doing fine."
"I'm NOT going to land this thing!" she argued.
"Right, but your approach is looking good."
I adjusted the trim and set the flaps as we made the approach, then took over during the final mile. I didn't want to spoil Leah's experience with a sloppy landing, and was happy I didn't.
Brad actually gave us clear and concise taxi instructions, and Leah, once again, helped me stow the plane, with the weather being the polar opposite of the prior time.
I offered to take a few pictures of her next to the plane using her phone. She, again, modeled quite cutely. When she lifted her arms in a victory stance, her flat tummy was bared, which made me catch my breath.
"Well? What did you think?" I asked as we started walking toward the parking lot.
"Wow. Just . . . WOW! That was an absolute blast! I don't know how to thank you."
"I'm glad you enjoyed it," I smiled. "I had fun, too. I enjoy giving people the experience. Airliners are one thing. They're like buses. But sitting in the front of a light plane is more like driving a go-kart because you can see everything."
"I think you've ruined me for flying commercial if I ever do."
"Yeah, there is that," I laughed.
"It all looks so crowded from above it all. How did you know where we were going? Everything looks so different from up there, and I don't think I saw you using the navaids."
"No, I didn't need them. From above, things do look different, at first. But once you get past the newness of it, it really starts to look like the map.
"Roads and landmarks become as familiar as the ones you use on the ground. You just get to them a lot quicker. You were pointing out places, too, like the zoo and the fairgrounds. You pretty quickly spotted your own house, right?"
"Oh! I guess I did!" she laughed.
We walked a few dozen more yards and she asked, "I'm thirsty. You thirsty?"
"Yeah, I could definitely go for a Doctor Pepper. Let me buy you something in the FBO."
"That's not what I meant. How's an ice-cold beer sound? You gave me a fantastic afternoon, so I'd like it to be my treat."
"I wouldn't mind that one bit," I answered.
We agreed to meet at a sports bar which was situated roughly between our respective houses. Since the weather was perfect in every sense, we requested seats on their patio.
Leah ordered a bucket of Shiner Bock. After we'd each cracked open a bottle and taken the first drink from the long-necks, I answered the dozens of questions Leah asked about what it's like to pilot a plane. I asked her similar questions about her experiences as an air traffic controller.
"What was it like the very first time you flew all by yourself?" she asked.
"My first solo?"
"Yeah. I see students doing them, and I've always wondered if they're terrified, excited, or . . . what."
"I can tell you, for me, it was both.
"That day, I flew with my instructor for an hour doing like a half-dozen touch-and-goes, then a few full-stop with taxi-backs. After those, he told me to taxi to the ramp to drop him off. He endorsed my stuff, then told me to do three full-stops, then taxi back to the ramp each time to talk to him, and, quote, 'Don't break the plane.'"
She smiled genuinely as I recounted my experience. The warmth of her smile was . . . Yeah. It was very . . . comforting.
"So Kevin, my instructor, gets out and stands in the non-movement area with a handheld radio.
"I do the same thing I'd done dozens and dozens of times and called ground, got my clearance to taxi to the active, then got cleared for takeoff, and off I go.
"Even though he told me to anticipate it, lacking his big butt in the right seat made the plane accelerate faster, take off a lot sooner, and climb more quickly.
"So I'm in the pattern and I went to do the look-out-the-windows thing to ensure there's no conflicting traffic, and that's when I realized I was all by myself because his big hulking mass wasn't between me and the right window. I was so totally freaking alone!
"I wouldn't say I was terrified, exactly, but that was when I was suddenly hyper-aware of my situation. The realization really hit home right at that moment, and I almost screwed everything up. I'd already fought the difference in climb rates, and I was scared to death I wasn't going to set up for the descent and approach for the same reason."
"And what happened?"
"I did. I screwed it up. On my first landing, I was way too high, and I overflew the touchdown point by like probably fifteen hundred feet. It was a nine-thousand foot runway, so I had plenty of room and landed anyway, but my performance was still unimpressive.
"I taxied back to the ramp and stopped. Kevin debriefed me for a couple of minutes, then he sent me off again.
"My second one was better, but I was so focused on not screwing up the takeoff and landing again that I . . ."
"What?" Leah asked, having sensed my hesitation.
"It's embarrassing, especially considering who I'm talking to."
"You forgot to contact ground, didn't you," she said with the cutest little wry grin.
"Yeah. How'd you guess?"
"Because it happens. Can't tell you how many times I've been on the other side. At least fifty or sixty," she nodded.
"The second one was better. I taxied back to the ramp again, but that time, Kevin just waved me on without stopping. I even remembered to use the radio.
"The third time was the charm. The wheels touched right where I wanted them. And THAT was when the the satisfaction and exhilaration hit me. Especially when the controllers congratulated me."
"Yeah, it's always nice to be able to do that. Half the time, I don't think we're even aware that's what's happening. But sometimes the student or instructor will tell us it's a first solo. It's not a requirement, but we always appreciate it. We can help them out, especially if the pattern is crowded. We can give them more separation so they don't feel rushed, and it kind of lets us enjoy it with them. And, of course, any other plane on the frequency is also witnessing the whole thing."
"Exactly! I always get that warm fuzzy feeling when I hear someone completing that milestone," I said.
"That day must have been so exhilarating."
"It very much was. And that's why I keep doing it. Flying is something one never masters. You're always learning.
"When I bought the Skylane, I needed a couple of hours of transition training before I was ready to fly it by myself. Even then, I made my friend fly it back here with me since he has the same plane and knows it inside and out."
"Have you ever been scared?" she asked.
"That's a tough question. I can't say I've ever been, like, 'Oh my god, I'm going to die,' scared, but I've been very . . . concerned before."
"Oh? What happened?"
"Kevin and I were doing a cross-country to finish my night requirements. We were planning on flying west to Stafford out in Weatherford. Do you know where that is?"