Friday, 5 July 2013

Fly me to the moon...

Can't keep my eyes from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted; just an earthbound misfit, I

Last Sunday I strapped one of these to my back and, for the first time since 2004, finally (if temporarily) became a little less earthbound.

I ought to warn you that there's a danger that I might come across a little evangelical here. It's hard to explain quite what it feels like for me to leave the ground. The feeling of release and relaxation as soon as the wheels lift up. There's a peace up at 2,000 feet that I've never quite managed to find on the surface. The closest I've come to it is up in a high building, that feeling you get when you look out over a city through heavily insulated glass, surrounded by silence and with a true horizon for your eyes to relax to. A feeling of quiet, of release, of escape. But that's still nothing like being truly free of the earth.

It's almost like a weight being lifted. Breathing is easier. Calm descends. The muscles relax. Whatever problems lurk down there, they can't get to you up here. It's a feeling I've yearned for ever since I can remember - certainly, I'm sure, since I first looked up and saw an aircraft fly overhead.

I can heartily recommend it. Even for those of you who might be a tad phobic about the whole thing, it’s surprising how much more relaxed about flying you become after you’ve tried it in something smaller than a 737. If you’ve only ever seen the world from a tiny little window at row 27, believe me when I tell you that it all looks rather different from the front end.

I don't have a pilot's licence, not yet. I got close, back in 2004. Very very close. Some 60 hours under my belt, 10 of them solo, I'd done the qualifying cross country (during which I got utterly lost, an entire other story), I'd sat and passed five of the required seven written exams. Two more, and the flight test, that's all I needed to get my licence.... and then life got in the way. La Child was born, money became tight, time ever more precious. And I choked. Faced with the possibility of finally achieving a dream I'd held for as long as I could remember, I stepped back inexplicably from the glorious abyss.

Maybe it was a fear that I wasn't quite ready. I'd been flying nearly 10 years on and off, sometimes once a month, sometimes once a week, an hour here, two there. Two hours to get to the airfield, two to get back, a lovely instructor who operated from a portacabin on an unlicensed airfield borrowed from a farmer, sometimes he was there on time, sometimes he wasn't, sometimes we flew, sometimes we spent the afternoon discussing his tea chart. It was relaxed, but chaotic, and took up a lot of time. And while I'd learned enough to be able to get in an aircraft and happily fly it somewhere, there were gaps. I didn't feel at all comfortable taking the test. So there, in the back of my mind, was the seed of my downfall. Yes, money was tight, yes time was precious, but really? I hit a wall I couldn’t get past. I choked.

Of course I've hated myself for it ever since. This isn't just a nice hobby, something I'd like to do, something to tell friends about. Something to get me out of the house at the weekend. Flying is an obsession. Flying is the all. If breathing is my yin, then flying is my yang. So why wait so ridiculously long before doing something about it then? I waited 23 years for my first flight, to wait 8 more until my flight last Sunday was a ridiculous torture, all the more so since it was entirely self inflicted. Partly money, I suppose; flying's an expensive business. Partly fear, what if it doesn't all work out? But all sloth, laziness, lack of oomph. Every day I look up and imagine myself up there. Every day I watch those puddle jumpers pass by and think 'why am I down here?'. Every day I hear the roar of jets overhead as they climb out of Gatwick or descend towards Heathrow and quietly curse the bastards whose office is up at the front end. And yet for 8 years that’s all I did, I just looked up.

I've justified it all these years on the basis that it was the right thing to do; I needed to earn a good wage to put La Child through school, I needed to pay the mortgage, make sure that the cars were taxed, our trips out to nice restaurants protected. Going slightly mad sitting behind my desk watching aircraft bank over the Thames and head into Heathrow or City and knowing I was doing absolutely nothing about it. But even my wife now tells me that getting my licence is something I need to do. And I do. I should have done years ago.

When I was 17 I had a choice. I could go to university, or I could sign up to British Airways’ cadetship scheme: go and live at Heathrow for 18 months, be taught to fly by BA, get a commercial licence and a guaranteed five year contract with BA flying 757s between Heathrow and Edinburgh. Of course you needed to be accepted on to the scheme, but I tell everyone that I would have had no chance; my eyesight would have failed me. That's utter nonsense, of course. I didn't even apply. I chickened out. It wasn't the sensible thing to do. University was sensible. Getting a degree was sensible. Getting a good job in the City earning lots was sensible. I could always satisfy the flying urge afterwards, couldn’t I? My parents didn't force me down the university route, it was always my 'choice', but I knew the rules well enough. Sensible was right, sensible was good, a degree was expected. The alternative would have been supported, but disappointing. So I went and did a law degree, got a good job, rose up through a glorious career, and became a miserable, grumpy sod.

Follow your dreams, kiddies, or it all ends up getting a little bit black and unpleasant.

Time to finish what I started. New life starts here.