Home on the Range – A former New Yorker's guide to the Texas adjustment

I like several of my compatriots, have the glorious fantasy that maybe, just maybe, some day I will be on a transcontinental flight in which the entire crew systematically falls ill to food poisoning and the flight can only be saved when a stewardess asks if any of the passengers know how to fly a plane.

“Surely, you can’t be serious,” a passenger would bark. “I am serious, and stop calling me Shirley,” the stewardess would reply. Just like Airplane!

On Saturday, January 27, at 11:55 a.m., I bolted into the wild blue yonder from the San Antonio International Airport in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, a four-seat, single-propeller craft that drives like a Honda. This, my first flying lesson with Alpha Tango Flight School, led by Ramone Ortiz, a 47-year-old environmental engineer who’s been in the sky for the past decade, was a giveaway, an enticement to write about the school that I couldn’t pass up.

Outside of the sheer joy and wondrous beauty that is flying over the Hill Country, Ramone mixes his love of flying with his day gig: observing the environment from a topographical point of view. But today, Ramone is playing the role of mentor on my virgin voyage as a sky captain.

During the preparation for take-off, the gravitas became apparent. While looking at maps of Texas, I am distracted only for a moment by an autographed picture on the faux-wood-grain wall of Michael Jackson holding a black panther. Where are we going fly? You can cover a mess of ground in a plane, in very little time. We do not have clearance to fly over Crawford. It takes me a moment to realize why, then the severity of the situation hits me. The Cessna is a small tube of metal and fuel moving at great speed. As excited as I am, it is clear that this is not a toy.

Before you leave the ground, you have to review a gaggle of points on various safety checklists. Check the fuel, check the radio — check just about everything that you can place your fingers on, because the last place you want to have airplane issues is hundreds upon hundreds of feet above La Cantera. Once the checklists are traversed, you need to get consent from the radio tower to taxi the aircraft towards the runway, which involves driving with one’s legs upon the rudder pedals. For a single, solitary moment, with the sun to my back, my nerves fade and I realize that I am about to rifle at remarkable speed to a point of elevation, and it is my job not to kill anyone in the process. I wish we had Leslie Nielsen on this flight.

You grow guts at hurricane speed once you actually leave the ground. In fact, the anxiety melts almost instantaneously once you’re in the air. The Cessna can very nearly pilot itself. The actuality of flying is easy; a child with head trauma could do it. And, at the first flash of comfort in the cockpit, I am disappointed. I was expecting an incident, an encounter with the sky that would change the way I see and view the world. We see Canyon Lake, houses, creeks, trees, and several fires in the distance. A hawk flies by the windshield, but it is nothing grand for me. Something’s missing.

And then we turn back towards San Antonio. We turn toward the sun. A corona of sunlight splashes across the Hill Country, and with the help of shadows I can see the details for the first time. The depth of the hills and trees. The slopes of the trails. The drinks of water that dot the country. The world becomes smaller, personal, and flying becomes a gift. With a simple turn of the plane, we are at the floor of the sky, headed back home. And I don’t want to land.

We fly over Rolling Oaks Mall. Past children playing soccer. Above cars on the 1604 Loop. We land safely, and with ease. I thank Ramone.

It takes a minimum of 40 hours to get a pilot license and I am considering calling him for another visit to the sky. Now, I can’t tell a panic-stricken stewardess that I can really fly a plane. Yet. But, if the stewardess asks, I do speak Jive. 

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