Being back in Sacramento feels surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because this town isn’t easily adapted to. The pace is different from most places I’ve been: Sacramento is “The City of Trees,” not “The City That Never Sleeps.” It’s refreshing to be on my own time and geographically closer to the airport too. Bed acquired, I take a job at a local bike shop and resume flight training.
Flight #1 of 2015 is on January 25. Doug writes “beautiful air -- lot’s of birds” in my logbook. Had I been making the entry, I might’ve written “reduced to sniveling wussy, not sure I can do this; terrifying.” Every movement causes panic, I grip the bar for dear life, the wind causes the noise of the engine to oscillate wildly, and my eyes scramble along the ground for somewhere to land. An impish creature dances around in my head, chanting a playground taunt: “your engine’s gonna dieeeee, you’re not ready for thissss, what the $#%@ are you doingggg, Doug can see right through youuuuu…” and I don’t have much to say back. The imp giggles.
I return home defeated, too shaken to bring myself to open the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (which I lovingly refer to as PHAK!), down a few beers, watch a film, and go to bed bleary-eyed. This is the highlight of my week for a couple of weeks.
After two or three tangos with the imp, I know something has to change. It’s funny, but writing this now, I can’t pinpoint when exactly anything did. I only remember the Walter Mitty Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.
I’ve been avoiding the inevitable comparison with W.M. (in our press release I will beg journalists not to use the phrase “Walter Mitty moment”) but this soundtrack got to me. The film is pretty great too. The first track is “Step Out” by José González. It leads very quickly into a rush of heady power chords and full-voiced chorus. Go ahead. Press play below. I started playing the first couple of tracks before heading to the airport; I got myself worked up until I started verbally combatting the imp which, to any observer, would make me look like a complete psychopath.
Imp (in my head): “Your engine’s gonna die and you’re gonna crash!”
Me (out loud): “Shut up! Shut the *&%$ up! If my engine dies I’ll bring it down safely and land it because I am trained for this and I can handle it.”
Imp: “You’re not ready for this!”
Me: “Yes I am! I’ve been training for almost a year, I’ve pulled off an engine-out without panicking, I’m a good pilot, and I will only get better from here!”
Imp: “Your wing’s gonna snap!”
Me: “I have a BRS chute; if that happens, I’ll pull it! I can do this. I can do this! I CAN DO THIS. COME ON. LET’S GO!”
Time to step outside, time to step outside
Time to step out, time to step out
Time to step outside, time to step outside
Time to step outside you
I’m in my “cabin,” the blinds are pulled, and I’m yelling out loud and pulling on two pairs of socks (it gets chilly up there). Whatever it takes. I’m not exaggerating. Two months later, I’m chatting with Sharon, my roommate Kelsey’s mother. She smiles and says “you were dealing with PTSD and you didn’t even know it.” Oh Imp, you.
The imp vanishes. Well, fades at least. Doug and I start cross-country training, where I plan a route to distant airports that I’ve never been to, locate landmarks for pilotage, make calculations, and fly the route with Doug. This is the most exciting thing I’ve done in my trike.
One day, Doug reaches forward and turns off my GPS. “Oh nooo!” he says. I still find my way back to Lodi (K1O3, for all you pilots). On another, we take the trike up to 2,500 feet and fly into the Amador County foothills. It is stunning. So beautiful that I get lost after takeoff and earn a lecture about being home before sundown.
A few weeks later, a Bald Eagle shoots 200 feet underneath us. Doug takes the wing, unable to restrain his inner ornithology geek, and we circle around looking for it. It vanishes before we even started the turn. In this moment I feel a distinct reverence for the craft I am learning; that I have the privilege to occupy the same airspace as a bald eagle.
Everything is wonderful, until a new imp waddles into plain view, a scoundrel whose name is spoken in hushed tones in hangars the world over: Mr. Shakey. A darkness descends over everything...