Sunday, 11 July 2010

Air Traffic: The Flying Salesman

It was a Mercedes-Benz B180 Diesel, nicely equipped with black leather, parking sensors and removable front seats. It was, though, slightly less plush than her old car, another B180 Diesel. And considerably less interesting than another vehicle she has access to.

She had put over ninety thousand miles on her old car since she had bought it. She was an early adopter to the B-Class, her car was a 2005 model and had been near faultless throughout her ownership and it made sense for her to go for another. The day she had made the decision she walked straight into the showroom and approached me, I asked how I could help her.

“I'd like somebody to sell me a car”

This was my opportunity. She seemed like the dream customer and, usually facing a far harder sell, I was taken aback slightly. Nonetheless, I gathered myself together and took her straight through our sales process. She knew what she wanted and was pretty straight talking and so we decided to cut to the chase and do her a great deal on a car we had just taken in from Mercedes UK. And it really was a good deal, too. We even arranged for the COMAND nav system in her existing car to be retro-fitted into her new one.

Soon I duly delivered the car, and she was delighted. My customers are always delighted, of course. I was gradually learning more about her, I like to build up a rapport with my customers, it helps in so many ways. I learnt that she had lost her husband to ill health not too long ago, that she was planning to move house and that she took regular drives across Europe.

What I was most amazed to learn was that she was the UKs oldest female holder of a full pilots license.

This amazed me. Here was a lady, born in the 30s, who had lived a life, was approachable, engaging to speak to and had the ability to choose between driving home in her B Class or flying home in her Cessna. Aviation has long been a fascination of mine, my Grandfather served in the RCAF on Lancasters and Halifaxes as a flight engineer, and my Father was an Air Cadet instructor based at Northolt. As a child I used to jump at the chance to visit air shows,  I loved the noise, the aesthetic and the smell of aviation kerosene. Before long I had collected the full back catalogue of Observers books of Aircraft, and could spot whether a 747 was fitted with Rolls Royce RB211s or Pratt and Whitneys.

And this older (elderly seems a disrespectful term) lady shares the same passion. I received a phone call a week or so after she took delivery of her car. She was borrowing a plane from the Aero Club to build up her flying hours, and there would be a spare seat. Would I like to go up with her?

Forests are knee-deep in bear shit, the Pope has more than flirted with Catholicism and I would fervently disagree with anyone suggesting that eggs aren't what I think they are.

It was average British summer weather when I joined her at Earls Colne airfield. She was outside carrying out ground checks, I went into the the Aero Clubhouse and introduced myself. Aero Club type folk are a fascinating breed, and I rather enjoy being around them. The are all very slightly militaristic, as if being a pilot automatically imbues you with a flavour of RAFness. And they all rather assume that you're completely damp behind the ears aeronautically.

Indeed, once inside, one of the ladies in attendance asked my pilot if she intended to put me in the 5280 feet club, with a nudge and a wink. She clearly didn't expect me to intercept the joke and offer “Don't you mean the 1760 yard club?”. A pale redness formed in her cheeks.

My customer usually flies a Cessna 162, a strict two seater, and that's at a push. Today she was borrowing the clubs Cessna 172 to increase her logged hours on that particular airframe. She recruited the services of one of the club instructor to come with us for a couple of passes and after that we were on our own.  I folded myself into the rear seat and sat tight.

Earls Colne is a grass strip and I had never been in a light aeroplane before, so I was expecting a rocky take-off. It wasn't so bad, the undercarriage absorbed much of the bumpiness and soon we were heading skywards. Two touch and go's later and with a clear bill of airworthiness, any apprehension I might have had over taking to the skies with a septuagenarian at the controls, evaporated.

I squeezed myself into the co-pilots seat and donned a headset, with a bewildering array of dials presented before me. This particular aircraft was assembled in the late 70s, and aircraft are unlike cars in terms of how they can be updated over the years. A 70s Cessna, if kept updated, is essentially the same as a '90s one, and this one had a full suite of modern avionics.

The big Continental engine cleaved us skywards and, with it, a feeling I had never had before. You could appreciate the lightness of the plane, the thin aluminium shell surrounding me felt like it wasn't there. And this, she said, was a big heavy pig of a plane. The controls apparently were considerably more loose and imprecise than on her own plane, and you had much more feeling that you were working for your pleasure. I was pleased, then, that she was doing all the work, leaving me free to enjoy the view.

An experience like this was not one I had any intent on forgetting, and so I made sure I brought my best camera to record my memories. Unfortunately, the combination of airframe-borne vibrations and the speed we were moving put paid to anything that would win any photographic awards, but the photos I took, I liked.

We flew a circuit, about three quarters of an hour, from Earls Colne along the line of the A12 and over Ipswich, out over the river Orwell towards Felixstowe and over the landmark of the tower at Walton-On-The-Naze. When we reached Frinton-On-Sea I was lucky enough to be able to photograph my house from above, something I thought I would never do. From there we flew back inland towards Colchester, giving Clacton a miss to avoid the “Pain in the arse at Clacton Aero Club” .

In flight I relished every little bit of turbulence we came across, there was precious little as the day was reasonably clear, if grey. There were times, though, that she had to work quite hard at the controls. “Come back, you little bugger” was muttered on one occasion, but there was no sign whatsoever that she wasn't competent. She knew exactly what she was doing, and the plane was obeying her every command.

I had a heavy heart when we eventually landed again at Earls Colne. A perfectly judged if quickish landing was my final sensation before she throttled back, cut the magnetos and locked the prop. Visibly moved, I unbuckled my harness and lowered myself out through the flimsy co-pilots door and onto the grassy, disappointing ground. I looked mournfully back into the cockpit. I wanted to go up, badly, but our allocated flying slot was over.

I hope she was aware how grateful I was that she should have given me this experience, on the ground I was a little bit awestruck and loss for words. I did my best to express my gratitude and went back into the Aero Club, where we both had a coffee. When I left to head for home it took me fifty minutes to cover a distance we had just dispatched in about fifteen, and all the while I was desperate to pull up on the stick at 80mph and leave the A12 for the sky.

One day, maybe, I'll be able to take flying lessons myself. I would like to, I adore the freedom that flying implies, the feeling of speed and the ability to see the world from another perspective. Until then, though, my domain is the road. Flying will remain, for me, out of my league unless I can find someone willing to pick up the tab. I love cars, I really do, but the roads are full of other road users, getting in the way, driving badly, generally being offensive. For those few minutes of driving nirvana you get, there are many more minutes of congestion and frustration.

In a plane, though, I could literally get over it.

The full version of this article is featured the first edition of my journal, ROADWORK. Please e-mail me for details