WHILE I WAS GROWING UP in St. Louis, my father, a former small-plane pilot, delighted in telling the story of my first airplane flight. When I was just 5 years old, he accompanied me on a commercial jetliner from St. Louis to Tennessee during a horrific summer lightning storm. While all the adults—including my father—gripped their seats in white-knuckled terror as the bright bolts lit up the cabin, I sat with my face glued to the icy window, wide-eyed at the notion that a machine could carry us so close to something so spectacular.
My father told this story as if he were proud of my fearlessness—or just amazed by my innocence. Perhaps this was because his own fear had grounded him years before. In his late 20s he’d flown single-engine Cessnas out of Fenton, Missouri, spending weekends coasting over the long, winding stretches of the Missouri River and Midwest countryside. But when a leisurely day-flight with my mother turned into a fogged-in navigation nightmare (and ended with a dicey landing), he gave up the cockpit for good.
I always lamented my father’s decision to stop flying, as I would have loved nothing more than to ride shotgun beside him in the belly of a small-craft airplane as we traversed the sky together. When he passed away in 2001, I promised myself that I would pilot a plane one day and gain a glimpse into the part of his life I had missed.
So last July, as my father’s birthday neared, I decided to search out a flight school to help me get airborne. I settled upon an outing with Willamette Aviation Service, a small aviation training center based just south of Portland. I called 57-year-old owner David Waggoner and asked if they offered demo flights for first-timers. "You bet," he replied. "When would you like to go?"
It was Saturday. "How about Tuesday?" I asked. He agreed.
Three days later, on what would have been my father’s 61st birthday, I find myself standing on the sun-warmed tarmac at Aurora State Airport, where Waggoner’s operation makes its home. Willamette Aviation is one of eight companies in the metro area that offer "discovery flights" for those who want to experience firsthand the thrill of being an aviator without having to spend close to $10,000 and log as much as 80 hours of training necessary for earning a private pilot’s license.
It’s the kind of day—sun-kissed blue skies with low winds—that I imagine would have once tempted my dad to leave the office early. "An awesome day for flying, isn’t it?" asks my 59-year-old flight instructor, Rose Milbeck, stepping out from behind the nose of a 24-foot-long, glossy white, single-engine Cessna 150. Milbeck, who sports a no-nonsense pair of dark aviator sunglasses and claims 30 years of flying experience, seems as eager to be airborne as I am.
Before we take off, though, she acquaints me with my new quarters—a 4-by-5-foot, two-seater cockpit. I knew Cessnas were small, but not this small. Milbeck and I squeeze in, shoulder-to-shoulder. Before us sits a dizzying instrument panel of switches, needled gauges and numbered levers. Thankfully, Milbeck says I only need to worry about the two pedals (called rudders) at my feet and the control yoke (similar to a steering wheel) directly in front of me.
After we don the radio headsets we’ll use to communicate, she hits the throttle and the propeller roars to life. Soon we’re barreling down the mile-long runway at 55 miles per hour, and through my headset I hear Milbeck’s voice: "You’ll be doing the takeoff!"
My head whips toward her—I will what?! I know I’m here for a lesson in flying, but I hadn’t anticipated such immediate faith in my novice skills.
Then again, I didn’t sign up for a glorified ride-along either, so I ease the control stick back and watch the nose of the plane pitch up toward the sky. Almost instantly the plane’s weight shifts from the wheels to the wings as we break gravity. The tiny Cessna’s transition is effortless and I immediately feel lighter—a physical sensation that’s dulled on large commercial jets. Spying my grin, Milbeck calls out, "This is when most students want to let out a woo-hoo!" And so I do.
As we climb to 2,000 feet, Milbeck uses her own set of controls to navigate our long, slow voyage above a pastoral landscape. Below us, the Willamette River glistens as it cuts a winding line of deep blue through yellow-and-green-hued farmer’s fields, while those four ice-capped behemoths—Mounts Jefferson, Adams, St Helens and Rainier—dominate the lesser peaks of the Cascades. I could drift serenely like this all day, but Milbeck has other plans: "Want to try some turns?" I feel a spike of adrenaline surge up from my belly.
Lucky for me, the Cessna 150, with its high-set wings, is especially easy to manage, and with Milbeck’s reassuring presence I feel comfortable taking the helm.
Milbeck explains the first guideline for turning a plane. "Use the natural horizon as your reference point for keeping the airplane level," she says. The two pedals at my feet, she continues, control the rudder on the tail wing, which allows us to turn left and right. The control yoke in front of me manipulates the flaps on the side wings to make the plane roll. In theory, if I push the pedal under my right foot while simultaneously turning the wheel to the right, the plane will bank with ease into a right turn.
"Go ahead, try it," says Milbeck encouragingly. I push in on the pedal and gingerly steer the wheel to 3 o’clock. The plane, incredibly responsive, tilts right. In a smooth but somewhat disorienting motion, the ground seems to sweep up toward the sky. We continue through the turn before I bring the plane level with the horizon again. I let out a loud woo-hoo! Now this is flying: soaring peacefully above the earth one moment, then ripping a goosebump-inducing 40-degree turn the next. Now I can understand why my father loved it so much up here behind the controls. And I’m betting he would have liked seeing me bank that turn.
Too soon, our 50-minute flight is over. As we line up the plane with the runway for our final approach, Milbeck pipes up over the headset. "I think you’ve caught the bug," she says, grinning. "Maybe flying’s in your blood."
As I soak up the sun-drenched earth beneath me, the mountains’ shadows now stretching slowly across the land, I can’t help but smile at Milbeck’s suggestion. I hope my father heard.