Several years ago, when I was walking the winding road of time-building to become a professional pilot, some of us who were already licensed would find reward for our dedication by flying as a safety pilot for others. Sometimes flight schools in the US (where I did my flight training) would require to some of its pupils to fly certain hours with another student, mostly because of technical English proficiency issues or because it is simply allowed by regulations.
Some other times, the academy would ask their pilots to fly sick airplanes to nearby airports to have their radios checked or to receive a new coat of paint. The most exciting of all the opportunities came when taking prospective students for introductory flights which, for a lower fee, had the purpose of drugging them with the narcotic smell of aviation gas, the music of the engine, and the overall precision and romance of flight.
Whatever the situation was, those were excellent opportunities to have somebody else to pay for a few flight hours, especially when they were so expensive and our bank accounts where thinner than today’s celebrities.
One beautiful April morning, a young guy of about 18 came to the school’s office, having just arrived from Mexico City a couple hours before. He was accompanied by his father in search of aviation academies. The kid was all excited and showed a fascination for the posters on the wall and the old, broken flight instruments that in a vintage fashion decorated the lobby. He explained to his dad what they were for and how to read them while waiting for Jeannette, our receptionist.
My school was famous in San Antonio for being one of the few that had the governmental approval to recruit foreign students and issue immigration permits or student visas. At one time, out of the perhaps 100 students, 50 of us were from Mexico, 30 from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Saudi Arabia, and the remainder from a bunch of other countries. It was like a little United Nations there, quite complicated to understand each other and to accommodate for religious diet restrictions on the barbeques we would often cook.
As I was doing nothing I kind of toured our visitors and chit-chatted with the kid about his inbound flight, of how bad he wanted to become an airline pilot, of how beautiful the Airbuses were and how much he was going to miss the sound of the DC-9s. A few minutes later Jeannette arrived, and after a small briefing and $50 in the register I was elected to go take him for an introductory flight. I swear that on the way to the hangar others could see us almost leaping, one for the excitement of what was about to happen and the other for the “free” flight hour to write in the logbook.
I remember asking him if he had ever flown in a general aviation airplane before. He said no, his family had avocado fields and although the business was good (we all know how expensive avocados are) he had never ridden in a Cessna. His interest in aviation was there since he was a little kid and grew stronger with him, almost to the point of obsession. He finished high school with great grades so that his family would allow him to become a pilot… Or at least try to.
We did the preflight inspection and I explained a little about checklists, fastening the seat belt, and what to do if something were to go wrong. He got everything in a snap and I realized this guy was really serious about his knowledge, asking tricky questions I wasn’t even ready to answer and putting in evidence his hundreds of hours in Microsoft Flight Simulator. We started the engine, talked on the radio, and a few minutes later we taxied and sped up along the runway.
Just then, the kid who wouldn’t stop asking technical questions went silent; the only noise out of him was his breathing over the headset. He turned pale and wiped his permanent smile off of his face. He leaned his head back and after a while could just mumble that he was okay and that he was just feeling a little nervous.
He leaned forward again and, thinking about getting relief, looked outside. I guess someone from the observatory of the Tower of the Americas clearly saw his face, realizing that looking out had been a bad idea. The flight—a short circuit over the city, land at a small nearby airport, and back to base—was nothing but the opposite of enjoyable for him.
Perhaps he needed to control the cascade of his emotions, I thought, so I told him to grab the yoke with me and feel empowered by the illusion of being “a pilot.” It didn’t work. He kept saying “no mames, no mames” (sorry, no proper translation for that) and “no puedo, no puedo” (I can’t, I can’t).
For a moment he got a grip, when we started our descent into Stinson Field. Knowing that the experience was time-limited made him calm, but when we were in short final, you know when the airplane is slow yet the little houses below kept getting bigger and bigger and running quickly past us, he went back to his state of agitation, nervousness, and fright—like a scared chihuahua.
We landed and parked the airplane. We got out and went to the small café facing the runways, where I bought two Cokes. Sipping his drink and talking quietly, aware of the other students and instructors around us, he told me that he didn’t like it, that he was scared, and that felt fragile and minuscule. If I would have pinched his nose he would have burst into tears. His eyes were stuck on the table, and it made me realize that for him, the romantic eclipse of passion and profession was in another moon.
On the flight back to base we barely talked. I tried to give him the best ride that my meager experience back then could offer. Even though I was the pilot, I was more like a passenger—exactly in the purest meaning of the that word. I was transitory, part of a temporary moment; I was a piece of a teenage dream that, for him, was not going to become a reality.