I’m not sure when my fear of heights began. As a kid I was a climber- TV towers, the shed roof and any tree that was climbable. (I did have a nasty fall from a high tree after an altercation with an angry crow so maybe that did it?)
Or maybe I was always afraid but climbed anyway…..
At any rate, by adulthood I was a wuss when it came to heights.
Visits to the top of high buildings would see me stuck to the wall like a starfish.
I had to be pried off of ladders, carried down from a clock-tower and a lighthouse (most embarrassing) and ferris wheels gave me nightmares.
Just the thought of high cliffs made my knees go weak and I spent a cable car ride in Hong Kong curled up in the foetal position with my eyes closed.
I had a slight problem….
So, in my 30’s I decided to do something about it. I picked up the phone and made a call…
My last thought as I clicked the buckle on the seatbelt was “I knew I should have written that will!”
This was not what I had expected- this was not a plane. It was made from glue and sticks and fabric and….THERE WERE HOLES IN IT!!!!
I could see the tarmac under my feet.
As the little Rotax 2-stroke motor roared deafeningly into life and wafted exhaust fumes all over me (“Yes, they are just the same as a lawnmower engine,” was the reply to my incredulous question), it was all I could do not to bawl “I’ve changed my mind- let me out of here!” as we taxied down the runway.
The ultralight was airborne within metres, the little engine screaming as we bounced and bucked up through the thermals.
As the ground dropped away below us my throat was so dry I couldn’t swallow.
The instructor was explaining all of the knobs and dials, the principles of roll and tilt and yaw but my terrified selective hearing only heard key phrases like “emergency landing procedures,” engine failure” and “distress call.”
I wondered if “Mayday” would be the last word I ever heard….
Eventually we levelled out and my heart began to settle. I looked down at the patchwork of matchbox-sized paddocks below and thought. “Hmm, this is not so bad.”
Now the instructor was explaining engine stalls.
“If you lift the nose too high the engine will stall and, at that exact instant, you have to flip the nose forward- too slow and the plane will fall backwards- too quickly and without keeping the wings perfectly level and we’ll go into a death roll and spiral into the ground!” he yelled cheerily.
”Now I’ll show you how it’s done!”
Before I could open my mouth he pulled back on the joystick and we were pointing straight up. Within seconds the motor began to protest, gave a cough and a splutter….and then stopped.
There was silence.
For a brief second we hung suspended thousands of feet above the earth looking up at the endless blue void above….before he pushed the joystick and we flipped over, roller-coastered forward and plummeted headfirst toward the ground.
The engine roared back into life and so did I. (I won’t tell you the word I yelled but it was looooooooong!)
With that experience in mind I wasn’t too keen when,10 mins or so later, the pilot declared, “Your aircraft!” and handed me the controls.
My hands were still slick with sweat and I was literally shaking with fear.
It was a bit like trying to control a bucking brumby and the word “terrified” probably doesn’t come close to what I was feeling as I flew a plane for the first time.
When we finally returned to earth my legs were like jelly.
But, besides the desperate need for a very stiff drink, there was something else- a sense of pride and a determination to finish.
After only 13 hours of instruction I did my first solo flight. They said I “was a natural.” I had an audience that day- not only was I the first female pilot at the flying school, I was the only student short enough to need 3 pillows behind me to reach the rudder pedals!
That day was a turning point for me- the day when the excitement of something outweighed the fear.