It has been eighteen days since my first flight.
As a kid I learned to play the piano, played parts in various musicals, and at one point joined a ballet troupe. That feeling -- the momentum of jumbling thoughts and backstage anxiety -- was replicated at six o’clock in the morning behind the wheel of Stephen’s car (affectionately named Sheila), streaming down the hills of Lancaster, PA (my hometown). We were driving to meet a man named John D. Williams, a pilot who had agreed to give us our first experience with trike flight. What I was experiencing was the strangest kind of fear, and also the most potent: the fear of the unknown.
Last week I was sitting with a friend on Sixth Avenue, at a little place called French Roast. I’d been in a funk ever since that Tuesday, which was my last day at the job I’ve had for the last two years. As ever with this particular friend, the conversation meandered and we turned, at one point, onto a conversation about fear. It was in that moment, my baguette still digesting, that I realized the precise odor of the funk I’d been in: I’m really terrified about what’s about to happen.
I had the exact same feeling that morning, tearing through traffic on the way to Williamsburg, VA. We finally pulled into a cul de sac. John, our gatekeeper to the world of trikes, was standing on his front step waiting for us. As Stephen loaded in our gear we stood in his living room, watching the water and talking about exactly what would take place. John seemed to be having a dilemma about whether or not to “take it easy” on me, since it was my first time even seeing a trike. I told John not to spare any expenses: if I was going to fly a trike I wanted to know exactly what I was getting myself into.
When we got to the airport, I remember going to pee behind the hangar and then standing there trying to, um, get my shit together. From the moment the hangar door rose up, revealing John’s white trike with agonizing slowness, I knew that it was going to happen. It was really going to happen. I’d been talking about doing this for months and months, and now I was going to actually do it. The border between my pipe dream and the actual reality of sitting in a padded chair, strapping myself to a flying lawnmower, and being rocketed into the air, had just been decimated.
And then I was sitting in it, the smell of the gasoline tank (since it was right behind me) filling my nostrils. My heart beat away inside my very quiet helmet. Quiet, of course, until John roared “clear prop!” and the thrum of the engine shook my entire body. We were taxiing onto the runway. Static-y communications were being issued over the radio and I had no idea what any of them meant. I wondered for a moment if this would be the last time I’d see the ground. And then I felt centrifugal force gluing me to my seat as we zoomed down the runway, our wheels were a foot up and climbing faster than I could count, and… I was smiling.
The world shifted into miniature, trees and roads fading miles away. All I could hear was the wind and I could smell the river below us. Within a minute of being in the air my thoughts were the kind of thoughts I’ve only ever had in love: Life is beautiful, I was thinking. Life is absolutely beautiful and this earth is an absolute miracle. The next time I saw Stephen, it was 1,000 feet above the ground, speeding along next to us in a yellow plane and pressing his DSLR up against the window. It was surreal, crystal clear, and wholly freeing. We banked so hard that my body was almost parallel with the ground, and “crank and banked” until we were tearing along the shoreline of the river just feet over the water (John would later comment on the “funny noises” that he heard in his headset). When we landed there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that A) I was capable of accomplishing this trip and B) whatever daydreams I’d had leading up to the flight had found a firm hold in reality.
The next time I went up in the trike I was in the pilot seat. John talked me through everything, I breathed through the anxiety, and suddenly I was thrust into that same aboveground world again. John was able to control everything except the brakes without my help, sure, but it didn’t change the fact that I had control of the trike, as was quickly apparent by the fact that John would allow the machine to turn or to fall in altitude.
I was turning without wanting to. John roared “now, why are we turning?” My best response as a fledgling pilot was “I don’t know! How do I turn? What do I do? I don’t know what I’m doing!” John interrupted my babble: “David! If there is a problem, CORRECT IT.” I later found out that John had coached football and what I needed in that moment was a football coach: “Hey! Remember your brain? I’m still here: listen to me!” Suddenly, I was calm again.
On Sunday, John put me in the pilot seat again and I flew through light turbulence from Williamsburg, VA, to West Point, VA. To be clear, flying with John’s hands guiding me via the instructor’s controls is a far cry from being anywhere remotely close to being ready to solo. But there was a good deal of time when he let his hands drop.
But here I am, eighteen days later. I’m gainfully unemployed, and in less than a month I’ll start formal lessons with Doug Donaldson in Lodi, CA. I should be electrified, but I’m afraid again. I’ve just cut my umbilical cord, so to speak, and my eyes are as wide as a newborn's.
Fear of the unknown is the common element in all fears. Whether I’m moving to the west coast via Mardi Gras and a cross-country road trip, getting in the trike to solo for the first time, or (eventually) asking the woman I love to marry me, I know that common element will be bound to me. I know nothing except what I see and what has passed before. Every upcoming moment is the unknown. Here comes one now… and now… and just then.
This is the first life-trajectory decision that I’ve ever truly made on my own. Every other decision is like being introduced to a new food: you can try it if you want, but you don’t have to keep eating it. This time, I’m like a caveman discovering uncharted territory. I’m pointing at strange fruit and saying “hey guys, look! Let’s go find out if that tastes good or if it’ll kill me.”