The flying agoraphobic

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It’s been difficult to make the decision to write this, but I figure if it helps anyone else then it’s well worth it. If it puts any customers off then it’s probably for the best. I have never let one of my customers down in over 7 years of trading, and frankly I’m getting too old to live my life behind a veil of secrecy!

Those who know me fairly well, will probably be aware that I have suffered from generalised anxiety for over a decade. It started in my mid twenties after the break-up of my parents, followed by me working away from home all week for 3 years or so, drinking too much, and working too many hours. One day I simply couldn’t carry on, and felt so ill I thought I would die. It turned out it was typical burn out, but it left me with an over active anxiety response, which has in turn over the years caused chronic fatigue syndrome and ultimately a touch of agoraphobia.

Although this doesn’t generally affect my work life, it has deeply affected my personal life, and I can only express my gratitude to my wife and family who tolerate my restricted social life and do their very best to understand me. The inability to perform normal social functions like going on holiday, going out for meals, theatre, concerts etc. – in fact all those things I used to enjoy in my earlier years – is a crippling burdon to one’s morale, and anyone else in this situation will understand how desperately unhappy this can make you feel.

Agoraphobia is totally misunderstood by most people. I don’t freak out when I’m in the middle of an empty field… In fact I love wide open spaces. That’s my comfort zone. No people, no pressure. Put me in a suit and tell me to attend a wedding and you’ll see me turn from a coherent, intelligent and outwardly confident person into a withdrawn and distant personality who seems to be distracted by something awful loitering in the room. Everyone has a different experience of agoraphobia, but the common threads that bind sufferers are:

  • It creeps upon you insidiously so you don’t even notice things getting worse
  • You have you comfort zones – places or situations where you feel safe
  • The thought of steeping outside your comfort zone, is enough to bring on anxiety and even panic

In at the deep end

So… after seeing shrink after shrink, a hypnotist, and having consumed various anxiolytics and antidepressants in an effort to correct what is essentially a crippling lack of self confidence, I have taken the decision to tackle things head on by doing something I have always wanted to do, but have never had the courage to pursue – Learn to fly an aircraft!

Me and the Ikarus C42

Me and the Ikarus C42

I had 3 lessons in a Cessna about 15 years ago – but that was a long time ago, and nothing really stuck in my mind because I was actually going through my initial breakdown! Being totally overwhelmed by life and job streses is not the best frame of mind to learn to fly a plane!

Since then I have spent many hours playing on flight simulators which are networked on the internet via something called IVAO. It’s a kind of online air traffic control network where you can see all the other aircraft and talk to real people who are acting as ATC. All very anorak, but also very useful as a learning aid. I also took up radio controlled model flying a few years back, and this has also given me a good understanding of flight controls and their effects,

The first flight

My first experience in a real plane was on 11 August 2009, a few days ago in fact. I had booked an hour experience flight with Hadair at Wolverhampton Halfpenny Green (EGBO). It was a beautiful morning, and my instructor, Les, welcomed me at the office, and interviewed me briefly to gain some understanding of my level of knowledge and what I hoped to achieve. He probably guessed from my icy cold handshake that I was “bricking it” and skilfully put my mind at rest by assuring my that we would be returning to the ground without delay if I started to feel crap in the air.

After a briefing describing what would happen in quite some detail, we walked out to the plane, in this case an Ikarus C42 microlight. We did an external check of the aircraft, looking at all the linkages and hinges, flight surfaces, leading edges, landing gear, engine fluid levels, fuel etc. and then climbed aboard to run through the pre-start checks. Once we were strapped in, and completed the pre-start checks, I shouted “CLEAR PROP” as instructed, and Les started the engine. The noise is the first thing that gets you. It’s a big fan bolted to the front, and planes don’t have a lot of soundproofing, so it’s a bit like starting a 1950’s car. Once we were sure that everything sounded right, we popped our headphones on and switched on the radio and called up the tower for taxi and current information.

The Ikarus Cockpit

The Ikarus Cockpit

Golf India Yankee taxi to hold Alpha Five for 34 left hand, QNH 1015

Les read the information back to the tower, I set the pressure setting on the altimeter, and then he told me to steer us out onto the taxiway with the rudder pedals. This is it… If you’re going to throw a wobbler it’s going to be now. But I didn’t. It was so absorbing I just got on with the job at hand – keeping the nose wheel just to one side of the centreline lights to prevent the thud thud thud. Before I knew it we were arriving at the holding point Alpha Five. so we turned into wind, and did the pre-take off checks – full movement of the controls again, power up and chop the magnetos to make sure each one is working on it’s own, check the fuel pump and fuel valve is on – a final check to make sure the doors are closed tight and everything is tucked away in pockets.

Les announced to the Tower, “Golf India Yankee ready for departure runway 34”

The Tower responded, “Golf India Yankee no traffic on finals runway 34 take off at your discretion winds variable, less than 5”

First flight

First flight

Les replied with our callsign, and then told me to taxi out and line up on runway 34… Ceerrapp!!! This is it… I mean REALLY IT!

So, a little bit of throttle and I trundled out onto the runway like a shy debutant at a nudist beech – I really had no clue whatsoever how this plane was going to perform. The next few seconds were a haze of acceleration, shimmying on the main gear, and suddenly the ground rushed away as I sank into my seat and swallowed hard as I try to stop myself shouting WOOHOOOOOO into the intercom. Les guided us off the ground, but at about 100 feet he told me to maintain a climb attitude, so I did what I was told! then we put away the flaps, which caused the nose to drop a bit, but I soon got it up again (oooerr), and trimmed out the back pressure until we were in a nice steady 70knott climb at several hundred feet per minute.

The fields were steadily falling away beneath, and the view was just beautiful. Les was pointing out local landmarks, and asked me how I felt – All I could say was “Wow”… so he guessed I was ok so far! We flew to Bridgnorth, and then turned south to follow the river Severn down to the Wyre Forest. Clouds were getting close at 2000 feet, and as they were pretty scattered we aimed for a big hole and climbed up to around 3000, above them. The air was much, much smoother above the clouds, and the view was just breathtaking. The rest of the hour was spent with Les asking me how I felt about trying this or that, and me generally grinning like an idiot and having a go at anything. I even managed to get my camera out for a minute to record the moment for posterity.

After 40 minutes of lolling around the shropshire countryside we headed back to the field to do three touch and go circuits, which was great fun, and really demanded a great deal of concentration, but only because I wanted to do as much as Les would let me. In the end I managed to carry out the final landing under Les’ direction in a round about way, and I’m sure with a bit of help from Les I managed to get back onto the runway in one piece…

I taxied off 34 onto 28, and then onto Taxiway Charlie (Grass), over the tarmac apron just east of the tower, and back to the hanger – bringing the plane to a full stop into wind, doing a final mag check, and then switching off the radio and strobes before killing the engine. I opened the clamshell door, and took a breath before undoing my harness, and taking off my headset. I had really enjoyed the experience, but had no idea how must adrenalin I must have been riding on, as when I climbed out my legs were a bit wobbly and I kind of floated over the apron back to the office as though on some kind of hovershoes… Still, I had done it…

Thanks Les!

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