It's 3:30 PM and the school day has just ended. A herd of adolescent boys are meandering their way out through the gymnasium doors, still licking wounds and applying ice packs from another infamous dodgeball beatdown courtesy of Mr. Gabe. My end-of-day routine over the past few years of teaching has not changed: gather up the scattered equipment, turn off the lights, shut the windows, and retreat to my office to plan the next day's events. Today, however, is different: I've got an appointment at a nearby flight school to take my first flying lesson, a discovery flight with a real flight instructor in a real airplane. I've been planning this day for a few months now, and in thinking that it's finally here has relegated the other events of today to the Land of Forgotten Priorities. It's a miracle I even remembered to show up to school today, much less teach lessons effectively. In just a few minutes, I'll be at the controls of a Cessna 172, the first step in what I hope to be an incredible journey. The entire day has been consumed with my head in the clouds as I anticipate the things to come. What will it be like? I can hardly wait. The minutes on my stopwatch tick ever slower once the afternoon comes, almost as though it were taunting me. Three times in the past week I'd made similar appointments with this pilot, only to be denied once because of weather and twice because of work commitments. If it doesn't happen today, I'm not sure what I'll do. I only know one thing: I cannot wait to find out what it's like to fly.
I sprint to my car and make it out of the parking lot ahead of the school buses, much to the dismay of my principal, who knows nothing of my ambitions to fly airplanes and even less about dodgeball. No matter; the lure of the skies is real, and I've got an appointment to keep. Each stoplight along the way is an eternity, each soccer-Mom minivan seems to go 5 MPH slower than the previous one. I'm driving in quicksand today. That's what it feels like.
With my Mapquest directions printout riding shotgun, I navigate closer to the airstrip and a few moments later I step out of my car and gaze out upon the runway. For some, airports hold the same level of appeal as pumpkin pie. To me, they've always had a certain mystique to them, like a forbidden world full of hope and excitement. Airports are, for the most part, a happy place: people are excited for vacations, for honeymoons, to visit family, or to see an old friend. Airports connect people. Who doesn't love that? Even disgruntled businessmen love airports and airplanes, if for nothing else than an excuse to guzzle scotch at 30,000 feet.
A few moments later, I step into the main offices and meet Eric, the pilot who I'm entrusting the next sixty minutes of my life to. I sign some paperwork, a formality really, saying that my family cannot sue his family if we somehow crash and become a flaming rubble. It wouldn't have mattered what the document said; the airplane's sitting just a few feet away, ready for us to climb in and takeoff. I would have signed over my life savings at that point, I would have signed over my allegiance to the Green Bay Packers-anything to get inside that plane and off this ground.
I don't remember much from that first flight. It was like being in a dream. Just a few moments after the landing gear lifted off, the instructor gave me the flight controls. Me. Flying an airplane. How are you supposed to act the first time you experience a dream come true? I did my best to stay composed, but inside I was busting. It was the best feeling I'd ever experienced. The entire hour was surreal.
In the weeks that followed, I began to detach myself to the elementary school and became more absorbed in the pursuit of my dream to fly. Soon I was bringing in pilot textbooks and reading them during my prep periods. Once I'd tasted flight, everything else became insignificant. I had to fly again.
This past week marked exactly one year ago that I decided to embark on what's been the wildest journey of my life. I would have never guessed it would turn out the way it has. I'm often asked if I have regrets. Would I, if given the chance, turn back the clock to last April and tell myself to forget about flying? Listen closely: there is something, inside each of us, that yearns for greatness. Lying dormant in some perhaps, but it's there. And had I let my fears or reservations about taking on this challenge dissuade me from diving in, I would have never discovered the drive that lay within me. No matter what happens from this point forward, I'm cool with my decision with no regrets. I've been incredibly lucky to have made it this far. I've still got light years to go, but I'm closer now than I was a year ago. By the end of this month, I'll have accumulated more than 500 flight hours and a lifetime's worth of memories from the skies. I'm a pilot now, but most importantly, I am living my dream.
Tomorrow, at 5:30 PM, I'm scheduled to conduct an intro flight for a prospective student. We'll take off and I'll hand over the controls a few moments later, vectoring us around to see the local sights. He'll get a taste of what it's like to fly an airplane. Forgive me if I get a bit nostalgic as I look across the cockpit and see ambitions come to life for the first time. Happy Anniversary...