Wild blue yonder

For the centennial of aviation, a neophyte takes to the skies.

By: Rick Sinding
   As inventions go, the airplane may have been the last of its kind.
   Consider some of the other notable discoveries of the 20th century:
   When the U.S. government wanted to harness the power of the atom, it recruited and bankrolled an assemblage of the finest minds in the world, who took years to complete the Manhattan Project.
   When the Radio Corporation of America decided the time had come to branch out into video, teams of researchers, electricians, designers and engineers worked tirelessly to develop the commercial television set.
   When scientists realized it was possible to identify and interpret the chemical DNA that directs the activities of all living cells, scores of highly trained and brilliant researchers worked feverishly in government and university laboratories on the Human Genome Project.
   When efficiency experts saw how electronic storage of programming information and data could revolutionize American business, they got together with technicians, engineers and large corporate interests to develop the ENIAC, the EDVAC, the UNIVAC and successive generations of computers.
   But when Wilbur and Orville Wright, who repaired and manufactured bicycles for a living, set out to prove that a machine carrying a man could raise itself by its own power into the air, they built themselves a flying machine, rolled it out on a sand dune in North Carolina and sent it airborne at precisely 10:35 a.m. on Dec. 17, 1903.
   No collaborators. No big corporation. No government subsidies or endorsements. Just a couple of high school dropouts from Ohio out to prove a point: Man could, indeed, fly.
   Orville proved it first, staying aloft for 12 seconds and covering a distance of 120 feet. Wilbur followed, then Orville again, and finally Wilbur for the final flight of that historic day a century ago — a breathtaking 852 feet in 59 seconds.
   For people who understand such things, what the Wright Brothers did was to translate the mathematical theories posited by such visionaries as Jacob Bernoulli and Sir Isaac Newton into the reality of manned flight. By calculating the intricate interaction of lift, drag, weight and thrust that it takes to propel a conveyance that’s heavier than air into the sky and keep it there for some meaningful period of time, they proved the basic principles of aerodynamics.
   For the rest of us, to whom such calculations might as well be written in Greek, getting into a machine and flying through the air was, is, and always will be a miracle.
   Lindbergh soloing across the Atlantic in 1927 was a miracle. Wiley Post flying around the world six years later was a miracle. Looking out the window of the Concorde and seeing the curvature of the earth was a miracle. Wide-body jets that can carry over 400 passengers are a miracle.
   Gagarin, Shepard and Glenn rocketing off into space was a miracle. Armstrong walking on the moon was a miracle. All those astronauts and cosmonauts and what-nauts hooking up in their space stations is a miracle.
   Getting on a plane in Newark and landing five hours later in Los Angeles, where the clocks say it’s only two hours later, is a miracle. Even better, getting on a plane in Tokyo at 6 o’clock at night, and getting off in San Francisco at 10 in the morning the same day — eight hours before you left — now that’s a miracle.
   All this is running through my mind as I sit in the cockpit of a Cessna 172 — 3,000 feet over Princeton — my hands gripped to the thingamajig and my feet firmly planted on the whatchamacallit. I know about as much about flying a plane as Scott Harris, my flight instructor from the Raritan Valley Flying School at Princeton Airport in Montgomery, knows about the Associated Press Stylebook entry on the use of the semicolon, or how to fit a 36-point Helvetica Condensed Bold headline over a four-column story on Page 7A.
   And he has just told me the plane is mine.
   The plane is mine?
   The "Wright Flyer" that Orville and Wilbur piloted 100 years ago may have been a rudimentary contraption compared to the Cessna 172 — but at least those guys knew what they were doing. I’m up here looking at an instrument panel that features about a half-dozen dials, buttons and controls I vaguely understand (air speed, altimeter, fuel quantity, ignition switch, microphone, clock) and about a zillion I don’t. I find myself staring at the "Directional Indicator," wondering if this means I have to signal before making a turn. What’s this "Elevator Trim System" all about? This plane has an elevator? Does the "Attitude Indicator" — no, not altitude, attitude — measure the temperament of the pilot? The instructor? The terrified photographer in the back seat?
   Remarkably, the Cessna senses none of my apprehension. It just keeps flying along, straight as an arrow. I check the air speed: steady. I check the altimeter: steady. I check the fuel quantity: full. Hey, that’s good enough for me. If there’s any problem with the elevator or the attitude, I’ll let Scott handle it. And if anything else goes wrong, I’ll just tell him the plane is his.
   Which, when you come right down to it, is what a first flying lesson is all about. You watch what the pilot does — and you mimic it. You listen to what the pilot says — and you do it. You familiarize yourself with the sensation, the feel, the first adrenaline rush (and the first anxiety attack) of piloting a small plane.
   And, on a crisp, clear autumn afternoon, you take a few moments to enjoy a glorious bird’s-eye view of the Princeton area, easily picking out all the familiar sights: Princeton Stadium, Jadwin Gym, the Woodrow Wilson School, Fine Tower, Lake Carnegie, Sarnoff, Forrestal, the Harrison Street bridge, Princeton High School, the Y, the Medical Center, the Packet, the Taj-ma-Township Hall and, finally, the Princeton North Shopping Center, Research Park and Route 206 as we gently descend to the tarmac, our one-hour lesson complete.
   By this time, of course, Scott is back in full command of the aircraft. It will be many, many more lessons before he relinquishes the controls for a maneuver as sophisticated as landing — which is quite a bit trickier, I am told, than taking off. I’ll need to grasp lots of highly technical information about lift, drag, weight and thrust before I even begin to understand what makes the plane take off and land, much less take off or land it myself.
   Will I do it? To get a private pilot’s license, one has to fly a minimum of 40 hours — 20 with an instructor, 10 solo and 10 optional. Then there’s two hours of dual cross-country flying (50 nautical miles), three hours of instrument flying (no outside references), three hours of night flying and three hours of preparation for the FAA flight test.
   At the Raritan Valley Flying School, it takes an average of about 60 air hours (plus several more on the ground) to get a private pilot’s license. An hour with an instructor in a Cessna 172 costs $111.80, a solo hour $84.80. (The smaller Cessna 152 is about $15 an hour less.) So figure the total cost at somewhere in the range of $6,500 to $7,500.
   And I think to myself: I’m going to do this on a journalist’s salary?
   But then I recall those gorgeous views from 3,000 feet. And the thrill of having control of an airplane, even if only fleetingly, in my own hands. And the satisfaction of learning what all those instruments are all about. And the intellectual challenge of studying and absorbing the principles of aerodynamics.
   My father, who was an accomplished engineer but somehow left this particular son at the other end of the gene pool, would have been proud. And the Wright Brothers, whose invention has made mind-numbing advances — from Kitty Hawk to the moon and beyond — would no doubt be thrilled to know that Princeton Airport, which opened just eight years after their first flight and has operated continuously ever since, brings the magic and joy of flying even to the most technically challenged would-be pilot.
   Now, if I can just get the boss to give me about a two-year salary advance …