Taking Flight with Aerobility
It had been a while since we’d done anything a bit maverick, Polly decided, so she booked me in for a flying lesson. She had stumbled upon a charity called Aerobility boasting that it offered ‘disabled people, without exception, the opportunity to fly an aeroplane’. Right, she thought, we’ll test that to destruction. So, on a sunny day in August, we set forth to Blackbushe Airport, located on the borders of Hampshire, Berkshire and Surrey.
The first hurdle to be crossed was getting me into the actual aeroplane, a Piper PA-32 Cherokee Six. This was the obstacle that worried me most about the whole venture, finding that it was physically impossible for me to be hoisted, pushed and dragged into the co-pilot’s seat, but in the event, it turned out I’ve had trickier transfers into hospital beds. The Aerobility staff stood back and allowed Polly and my two carers, Nina and Kerry to expertly hoist and manoeuvre me on board, then wedge and strap me in place.
And then, after flight checks, we were off, taxiing across the airport and onto our allocated runway. The engine noise increased to a scream and our little aircraft picked up speed, vibrating, unleashed, then suddenly we were up up and away, flying.
Flying in a tiny aeroplane is a far more visceral experience than flying in a commercial airliner. You feel the slightest turbulence and as you tilt and climb it feels almost as if you are in a car, travelling over bumpy ground, albeit in three dimensions. Mike, our pilot, talked me through the basics of controlling an aeroplane: Rolling (rotation around the front-to-back axis), Pitching (rotation around the side-to-side axis) and Yawing (rotation around the vertical axis). Then he handed me control of the plane.
Truth be told, I don’t think Mike ever completely let go of his joystick but, for a few exhilarating minutes I was at least co-piloting a real plane, an experience entirely different from any flight simulators I have messed around on and far more exciting.
We flew over a bit of Hampshire or Berkshire or maybe both, the boundaries are unclear when you are looking down on them. Reading was far off to our left and to our right Mike pointed out a secret government base that apparently doesn’t appear on maps. You could see the M3 cutting a narrow grey scar across an otherwise overwhelmingly variegated green countryside.
Eventually, we came full-circle and made our descent, Mike firmly back in control, coming in for a blessedly smooth landing.
It was a wonderful and thrilling adventure, one I will treasure. After a year of hospitals and near-death experiences, it was reassuring to do something so enlivening. As it says on the Aerobility website, “If I can fly a plane, what else can I do?”