gamut (2006-42)

So, You Wanna Be a Pilot?

The idea here seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment—and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite—and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God. —Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff

But I’m no fighter pilot. Hell, I’ve never been inside a cockpit before. I once lived with a guy who majored in aerospace engineering. Saw him launch a rocket powered by beeswax one evening in the spring of 2005. I’ve ridden coach, been through some turbulence, and watched a few in-flight movies. Flicks like Top Gun and The Right Stuff —if nothing else—taught me that there’s some kind of ineffable quality that’ll make a pilot out of a man. Son, your ego’s writing checks your body can’t cash —— The hatch just BLEW. It was a GLITCH. It was a- a TECHNICAL MALFUNCTION —— You’re everyone’s problem. That’s because every time you go up in the air, you’re unsafe. I don’t like you because you’re dangerous —— Request permission to relieve bladder —— In case some of you are wondering who the best is, they are up here on this plaque ….

Do you think your name will be on that plaque?

The Naval Academy rejected my application years ago. If there is the right stuff , surely I don’t have it, because this is where years of training and primal instincts decide who lives and who dies, right? I don’t think I need to be thousands of feet in the air, pretending that I’ve got enough moxie to fill a pilot’s ego.

I’m standing at Island Home Airport, barely three miles from downtown. It’s an uncontrolled field, which may be best described as leisurely chaos, with an average of about 300 takeoffs and landings a day. No problem. The old, WWII-era tower is vacant. It shut down years ago, the result of an asbestos quarantine. There’s always talk about demolishing the tower and building a new one, but the portable flight control center on site—about the size of a fortune teller’s booth—gets the job done on game days, when air traffic is at its thickest around Island Home.

The wind’s strong today, not the conditions I had hoped to have for my first flight lesson. It’s exciting, but also powerfully unnerving. Yesterday Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle’s plane crashed into an apartment building in New York’s Upper East Side.

But things around here seem to be working just fine. A plane buzzes by, carrying a banner that reads: “Abortion Kills.”

“Once we get up in the air—” says Brandon Hughett, director of flight operations at Knoxville Flight Training Center—“It’s a little windy down low today, so I’m gonna do the takeoff and the landing. On a calm day, you would be taking off, and I would be helping you to land.

“We’re gonna get you up in the air, and you’re gonna be flying. I’ll be with you, but you’ll be flying. It’s that simple. It really is. It’s gonna be a little bumpy, but it’s not that bad.”

We check the aircraft thoroughly. All electronics are good. There’s fuel in the tank. The tires are tip-top. It’s a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. “Do you got me?” Hughett asks to check the headsets.

“I’m here.”

We taxi out towards the main runway, and stop. Two planes radio that they’re landing in front of us. Hughett’s as calm as a man waiting at a traffic light. He’s not the instructor I was expecting. I had pictured a maverick, someone who plays by no one’s rules but his own. A man who, dammit, gets the job done, even if it’s not always by the book. I thought all pilots were dangerous.

Thank goodness yahoos don’t make good flight instructors, because I think I’m freaking out.

“You need to look out the windshield, look at where you’re going. And don’t tense up. That’s going to be the hardest thing,” Hughett says. “You got to relax, because if you fight the yoke and grip real tight, you’re going to make corrections that you don’t need to make.”

With all of the instructions, only one thing goes through my head as we sit on the runway with the engine running: You’re gonna be flying the airplane .

And if you screw up just this much, you’ll be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong! —James “Stinger” Tolkan, Top Gun

My fingers dig into the yoke.

“You’re not going to put the airplane upside down,” Hughett says. “It just doesn’t happen that fast.”

I can feel the wind trying to guide us along its own path. “Let’s turn to the left… See that? It’s a good day for flying.” The Appalachians are beautiful, rising out on the horizons. It’s strangely clear today. “Try using one hand to guide the steering.” I’m turning left, leaning toward a couple thousand feet of freefall.

“Believe me,” Hughett goes on. “It’s not that bad. You’ll think that, because you push down on the yoke and the nose goes down or the nose comes up severely, that everything is just going to end, but it’s not. It’s not that bad of a situation. We’ve got plenty of altitude below us. The airplane’s not going to suddenly go into a barrel roll or anything like that.”

My hands are still glued to the yoke, but I can finally enjoy the view. Guess I’m relaxing, although I probably don’t look like it. Downtown Knoxville is so small up here. Kingston Pike looks skinnier than I had imagined it would from above, as it stretches westward. The river sparkles—for once it seems, well, clean.

“Pull out the throttle slowly, I’ll tell you when to stop. We’re going into a climb.”

The nose goes up; engine roars triumphantly. I know I’m just in the kiddy pool as far as flight instruction goes, but it’s still thrilling. The movies, they’ve portrayed airplanes so poorly. If there’s even a slight mechanical problem onscreen, the airplane immediately goes into a spiraling dive straight toward the ground. Cue the screams. In the real world, it just doesn’t happen that fast.

In 1902, Wilbur Wright said, “What is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery.” But if I can fly, then things have drastically changed in the last 100 years. Top ace studs no longer have a monopoly on the pilot’s seat.

In a calm sea every man is a pilot. —John Ray

“I like the freedom,” Hughett tells me. “I like to go up in the air and look at things from above, get a whole different perspective. One of my favorite things to do is to go fly in the mountains. On a pretty day, light winds, go over the Smokey Mountains. It’s just so beautiful. It’s my way to get away from the world. You start to put everything into perspective. The world is not that big.

“That’s basically it….”

We come in for the landing, and Hughett throttles way down. I can no longer hear the engine roar, and the wind takes over, trying to push us off target. The silence is eerie, until the wheels touchdown. I don’t think Hughett thought twice about it. No problem.

So, You Wanna Be a Pilot? Brandon Hughett, the Director of Flight Operations at the Knoxville Flight Training Center, spends most of his time behind a desk these days. He doesn’t get in the air as often as he used to, but he’s still a pilot. They may not describe him as having ice water in his veins, but when he’s flying, he’s about as cool as they come.

“I had about 12 hours of flight training when I first soloed an aircraft,” Hughett says. “I remember as I started down the runway and pulled the yoke back and lifted off, I looked down at the ground and said, ‘I really got to do this now.’

“I was a little nervous, because it was something new. Anything new, you’re scared to death. I kept getting relaxed and more comfortable with it.”

Hughett has been teaching aviation newbies for six years now. It was a dream that began in the seventh grade, when his history teacher told the class about his recent flying lessons. It’s an image that stuck with Hughett all through high school, until he became a certified private pilot in 1997.

“The first thing we do is sit down and look at the curriculum, to find out what we’re going to accomplish,” he says of the program offered at Knoxville Flight Training Center. “I also ask the students what their goals are with flying…. Many times their goals are just for pleasure. Sometimes it’s for business. Some of the goals might be for a career change. You might be looking to go to the airlines to fly professionally. We have to instruct with the students’ goals in mind.”

Some important points to keep in mind beforehand: 1) There’s a minimum of 40 hours flight time before you can get certified. The average person flies one or two times a week, about an hour at a time. 2) Ten of those hours must be done solo. 3) It averages $130 an hour to work toward a pilot’s license. 4) It’ll cost between six and seven thousand dollars to get a pilot’s license.

Visit or . —K.C.