I'm sitting in my car outside Van Nuys Airport battling the impulse just to drive away. Just go. Drive into the sunset. Never look back, the small but logical-sounding voice in my mind keeps repeating.
I turn off my car and step out.
My relationship with flying is a complicated one. My dad is an aviation enthusiast who had an amateur pilot's license and used to build model planes in our basement. My great-grandfather, Cash Chamberlain — a name that pretty much requires you to be either an ace reporter or a pilot — flew for a commercial airline in the 1930s, and his son, my grandfather, worked for Northwest Airlines his entire adult life.
I grew up obsessed with planes. My favorite outfit at age 4 was a plane-covered T-shirt and pants combo. I had a plastic toy plane that I tied a shoelace to and dragged around like a sad pet. My dad, excited to share his enthusiasm for flying with me, took me up in a small plane for my fifth birthday. We drove up to the Billings, Montana, airport. I, wearing a very smart winter coat over my plane outfit and shoes that looked like ducks, climbed into the tiny two-seater plane, and my dad took off over the city...and then I freaked the heck out. I spent the entire flight curled up into a ball on the seat refusing to look out the window. The truth was I didn't want to be a pilot; I wanted to be a plane.
I also come from a long line of terrified fliers. Cash Chamberlain was killed in a plane crash while my great-grandmother was listening in on a flight scanner. My mother hasn't flown since 1969 when, as a teenager, she had a dream she died in a crash. Her travel is now limited to North America or anywhere reachable by cruise ship.
Having lived on both the east and west coasts, flying has become a necessary evil (emphasis on evil). On more than one occasion, I've been startled out of sleep by turbulence and screamed at my fellow passengers, "WE'RE GOING TO DIE." While I've overcome my crippling fear of flying, I worry that I'm one bad dream away from swearing it off entirely.
So when the opportunity arose to take a flight lesson, I was surprised at my own enthusiasm. I studiously read the pilot's handbook that my flight school, Rotor FX, had emailed me. I researched the type of plane we'd be flying — a Grumman Tiger, which is such a cool name for a plane — and read through the school's glowing online reviews.
On the day of the lesson, I called to confirm the details. “Is there anything specific I need to wear?” I asked, picturing myself casually walking out to the plane, pulling my aviators out of my flight suit pocket, hair blowing behind me. "Oh no, wear something comfortable," they said. I paused for a moment. "You guys don't have flight suits or anything?" The girl on the phone laughed. "Nope, no need for a flight suit." This wasn't a question of need, but luckily, I already owned a flight suit from a Halloween spent as Ellen Ripley. I mentally noted that I should wash some of the fake blood out of it.
I was pleasantly surprised by how calmly I was approaching the lesson — that is, until my husband sent me a text wishing me good luck on my flight. It finally sunk in: I actually had to fly a plane.
I arrived at the flight school and was introduced to my instructor, Mark, who took one look at me in my flight suit and raised his eyebrows. "Well, you came prepared." After signing the requisite waivers, we went to a small office where Mark began the first part of the lesson. I would love to repeat to you what I learned there, but I was too busy trying to figure out the quickest avenue of escape. I quietly resented my photographer, Dan, whose seat was blocking my only exit. I was debating how easily I could knock Dan over when Mark asked, "Does all of this make sense?"
I nodded slowly. He laughed. "You'll do great! Come on. Let's get flying."
Mark showed me how to climb into the plane. There was a narrow black strip I had to walk on, otherwise I'd risk damaging the wing. I gingerly crept up to the cockpit, terrified that any false move could catastrophically destroy the plane, leading it to plummet from the sky after takeoff.
Once we were seated, Mark explained the long, complicated process of turning the plane on. It involved a specific order of cranking things, turning knobs, and throwing switches; it was basically a mad scientist's lab. As the engine roared to life, I cinched my seatbelt tighter and Mark navigated the plane out to the runway. Our headphones suddenly filled with the chatter of other pilots and the control towers. Their conversations were almost entirely in the NATO phonetic alphabet: A for alpha, B for bravo, C for Charlie, etc. It sounded like they were speaking a foreign language, except the words themselves were understandable. "Four India Delta Five Lima frequency change," one would say. "Roger Four India Delta Five Lima frequency change approved," said another. "This is really distracting," I said to Mark. He assured me that after flying as long as he has, it makes perfect sense; he's even learned to tune the unnecessary parts out.
"Why don't we do the extended tour!" Mark said jovially. I squeaked in response as he called in the request to Air Traffic Control. We began accelerating, the plane reached 60 mph, and Mark instructed me to pull back on the yoke, which I obediently did. Suddenly, we were airborne. I screamed and immediately jerked my hands up. Mark laughed and steadied us. "You know it's a lot like driving a car. Only in planes, you control the hills." We headed out over the valley toward Hollywood.
My two biggest fears during this experience were that we would 1) crash into a mountain and 2) crash into another aircraft...which might sound irrational, except the Los Angeles skies are constantly full of aircraft. In addition to the four airports in the area, the skies are literally filled with helicopters. At any point during any given day, there are at least seven helicopters hovering above my house alone. Mark reassured me that they fly a lot lower than planes, so this wouldn't be an issue, but that didn't stop me from obsessively hunting the sky for potential trouble.
We passed over the Hollywood sign and began to head toward Santa Monica. Mark mused at the gridlock traffic on the 101. "Flying isn't dangerous. It's more dangerous for us to drive to work every day." And he definitely had a point. Air travel would be an excellent way to get around Los Angeles...until the gridlock moved to the sky and we all had to deal with "air rage."
As the ocean came into view, I suddenly felt a lot calmer. "That's because the air smoothed out," Mark said. I absurdly replied, "This is a lot like driving a boat," even though I've never driven a boat or even sat in the driver's seat of a boat. I worried that Mark would want to hear more about my boat-driving experience, but he just agreed. "Yeah," he said, "turbulence is just like waves on the water — just in a plane, you can't see them." I've heard this before. This is a thing that people who like to fly love telling people who hate to fly. But coming from Mark, it was reassuring.
He pointed out the Playboy Mansion as we flew over Beverly Hills. Dan, who'd been quietly photographing from the back, finally piped up. "Hey, isn't that where Harrison Ford crashed?" Not helpful, Dan. Mark, who apparently knows every pilot, giddily corrected him, pointing. "Oh, no. Harrison crashed over there after taking off from Santa Monica."
We soared over the ocean and looped around to snap photos of the Santa Monica Pier. Mark offered to take a photo of me flying, so I handed him my phone. As he took the photo, I suddenly realized I was the only one flying. I mentally screamed at him to put his hands back on the yoke. As soon as he did, he tilted the plane to a 45-degree angle so Dan could get a good shot.
We headed back over the city. Mark explained that the flight path to land is basically a square. I noticed quite a few other planes heading to Van Nuys to land (like I said, I was keeping an eye on them). I finally admitted that I'd been nervous about the other planes and worried that we'd run into one. "Air Traffic Control keeps track of everything," Mark said. I briefly thought about it and asked, "Do we think we can trust them?"
Then, the idea of landing the plane began to fill me with dread. I contemplated the possibility of just staying in the sky forever to avoid ever having to land when Mark suddenly began to decelerate. "So, as we come in, we'll gradually slow until finally you touch down. You'll be going 60 again," he explained. I started to panic a bit. "You're going to help, right?" I asked, and Mark insisted he would. As we came for the approach, the tower operator informed us that a jet was trying to land behind us and we'd need to clear the tarmac quickly. "Should we wait—" I began, but then I realized we were only feet off the ground. I screamed in surprise and threw my hands in the air. I may have also yelled "NOPE," but I can't be sure.
After we taxied back to the hangar, I climbed out of the plane, relieved to be back on the ground. I resisted the urge to dramatically drop down and kiss it. Mark gave me my first flight certificate and presented me with my Pilot Logbook, an item I remember my dad having when I was a kid. It's a way of tracking your pilot hours during the process of acquiring your license. "Well, maybe you'll fill in the rest," Mark said, handing it to me. And I thought, Maybe I will.
Don't let your fear control you. Be bold and live boldly with Toyota Camry.
Photographs by Dan Dealy / © BuzzFeed 2016