THE FREAKIEST THING happened when I was flying past the Space Needle on a slightly cloudy (“high overcast,” in aviation-speak) afternoon last summer. Twenty minutes earlier, my copilot for this flight, Jeremy Wilson, and I had climbed into the cockpit of our twin-engine airplane at Boeing Field. We ran our preflight checklist, and when I flipped on the electrical master switch the plane began to hum and I nearly passed out from excitement. (Note to self: This is something that I need to work on if I’m going to continue on the path to becoming a licensed pilot.) The navigation screens lit up, the pedals pushed against my feet, and we yelled, “Clear!”
We taxied out onto a long ribbon of asphalt. As we raced down the runway, Wilson called out our airspeed: “Forty knots…50 knots…” At 60, he said, “Rotate,” and I pulled back on the joystick, feeling the plane lift from the ground while at the same time wondering if it had been such a good idea to eat the big barbecue sandwich from Pecos Pit for lunch.
I forced myself to concentrate. We ascended at 950 feet per minute over Elliott Bay, with the Space Needle just off to our right side, and had nearly reached our maximum airspace altitude of 3,000 feet when Wilson said, “Watch what we can do with this.” He pushed a button on the control panel, and we froze in midair. Dead stop. No sound, no movement. “In this, I can pause the flight,” he said. “I can show you what I want, or I can change the conditions. Let’s add pouring rain. Let’s add lightning.”
Hey, let’s not. Wilson wasn’t God; in fact, he wasn’t even an instructor. He was the sales and marketing guy for Galvin Flying, which has been teaching people how to fly at Boeing Field for 75 years now. Thanks in large part to the Diamond DA42 TwinStar Flight Training Device in which we were sitting—on the ground in Galvin’s training school—it continues to be one of the best places in the country to learn to fly. Which, let’s face it, is a distinctly Seattle thing to know how to do.
Back in his office, Wilson explained that the $350,000 simulator is the only one of its kind in North America. With a panoramic projection screen, precise simulations of the ground environment (including the Space Needle), and a flight deck that is an exact replica of a Diamond DA42 TwinStar’s cockpit, it’s the best videogame I’ve ever played.
“It used to be that flight training started with sitting you down and telling you all about carburetor heat and the way engines worked,” Wilson said. “But now it has completely changed to scenario-based training. I don’t need to tell you about the principles of flight.” In other words, it’s like learning how to play a videogame until the routines are so ingrained that you’re ready to take them airborne. I can do that.
So then we flew for real. Wilson took me out to the tarmac of Boeing Field and we conducted a lengthy preflight checklist of a real Diamond DA40 DiamondStar aircraft, with a single propeller, plush leather seats, and a Plexiglas bubble canopy. Flying these planes is an odd and exhilarating combination of simple, mechanical tasks, like untying the airplane from its moorings and removing the rubber sleeve on the pitot airspeed device, and complicated evaluations of the vectors and navigation components that pop up on the electronic Garmin screens in the cockpit.
We yelled, “Clear,” and this time the propeller really turned. We taxied and talked to the tower. With Wilson at the helm, we got to 60 knots and rotated, and then we were -really flying. A thousand feet up, the plane did something that the simulator didn’t: It shook from a small pocket of turbulence. I shook, too, and politely declined to take the controls when Wilson offered them. There was just so much to remember, and I was enjoying the views too much. We flew over Bainbridge Island, landed at Paine Field in Everett, and took off again. And then I did take the joystick and flew us over Lake Washington. It was simple and harrowing and thrilling all at the same time: I found that I really did want to know the principles of flying, what made it go up and, even more importantly, what bonehead move I could make that would cause it to suddenly go down. Wilson took the controls back and landed us. Ma, that really was me flying. If I had a few thousand bucks to burn, I could learn to enjoy this. Mr. Boeing, Mr. Wright, the other Mr. Wright: I dip my wings in symbolic tribute to your astonishing ingenuity.