More than 20 years ago, my husband, John, had been casually talking to his friend, Taylor, when the conversation drifted to airplanes and general aviation. Taylor, who owned a vintage twin engine Cessna 310, invited John to see his airplane, which was kept at the Eglin Air Force Base in Valparaiso, Florida.
John had been an aviation fan since his college days at Purdue University where he often hung out at the airport and watched airplanes take off and land. When he told me about Taylor’s invitation to see his airplane, I didn’t share his enthusiasm. Aviation wasn’t my thing, so immediately, my mind fogged with questions. What kind of pilot was this guy? How safe was the airplane? I was torn between my overblown fear and not wanting to ruin his potential experience. I had heard more than a few negative stories about small planes.
I knew John wanted to see Taylor’s airplane and was looking to me for approval. I silently told myself that if he went to see the plane and went for a ride, it would most likely be just a one-time adventure, so I nodded, and off he went. After returning from spending several hours with Taylor and his airplane, John didn’t even need to say one word. I knew he was hooked and wanted more. What could I do other than be supportive?
Before I knew what that meant, John had joined the Civil Air Patrol and garnered access to the base and the Eglin Aero Club. After that, he signed up to begin flying lessons. I watched John prepare for those weekly lessons with intense study, logical thinking and research. His passion and drive began to slightly chip away slightly at my fear of his flying
He soloed and continued to work toward his private pilot certificate in between his full-time job. Being a part of the aero club meant that once he had earned his license, he could rent Cessna 172s for personal use. After obtaining his private ticket and taking a half-dozen solo trips to work on his skills, he approached me about taking a trip. He wanted to go to South Carolina with our young sons to visit some friends. I was hesitant. Over time and for no apparent reason that I could determine, I had developed claustrophobia, making me uncomfortable in small spaces and a nervous flyer. There was nothing logical about it. Even travel on commercial aircraft meant I had my own preflight routine – secure an aisle seat, board near the end, then bury my head in a good book or a movie to relieve anxiety.
I wanted to be able to take that trip to South Carolina as a family and it was something I convinced myself I could do. As we sat in the rented four-seater on the tarmac of Eglin Air Force Base with the engine blaring noisily, John did his preflight checks while I sat frozen, my face blanched with terror. I had a panic attack and was too frightened to close the door. At that moment, John moved his face within inches of mine and softly encouraged me to breathe, relax and enjoy the experience. I looked at him, then turned to see our young kids happily sitting in the back seat, and the panic started to diminish. I could feel my muscles begin to loosen. I closed the door, put on my headset and wiped the sweat off my brow. I was embarrassed, but John was kind and loving, and minutes later, we were airborne. I watched as the clouds floated by in gentle wisps of white against the deep blue sky. That day, I wasn’t a right-seater, co-pilot or partner-in-command; I was just a scared passenger who eventually fell asleep to the droning sound of the engine. The return trip and subsequent trips in that rented Cessna were better as I found I was able to relax more and more. Then, a few months later, John made another declaration.
“I want to get my instrument rating,” he announced and gave me a laundry list of why he felt that was the next logical step. I nodded my approval. He quickly found a qualified instructor at a local airport outside the base and began an intensive course to earn his IFR rating. Once he obtained his instrument rating, he found it was becoming more challenging to juggle flying, his career and our two sons’ obligations in multiple sports, marching band and school. Reluctantly, John put his love of flying on hiatus. I knew that that decision was so difficult for him. Still, he kept saying that if he never flew again, at least he had taken the opportunity to pursue this passion.
Once our sons were out of college and on their own, I wondered if aviation’s pull had faded for him, as it had been many years since he had secured his license and rating. It hadn’t. John set his sights on a flight simulator, believing it was the only way to feel like he was in a cockpit. He seemed content to spend hours on that simulator, remotely flying to locations around the country. Through it all John began dreaming of owning his own airplane, and knowing my anxiety, he set his sights on a Cirrus SR22. While we were at Sun ’n Fun, he showed me the Cirrus and had me sit in it. Then he wanted to know what I thought.
Again, frenzied nervousness took over. There were so many reasons not to get a plane. The only way to be sure and make an informed decision, he said, was to take a demo ride once we were home. Within days, he had arranged the ride with Charlie Hood, the Cirrus sales representative in Florida, to see what I thought. I anticipated the demo with the same enthusiasm I had with his initial flying lessons. I didn’t know why but I was scared. As I approached the Cirrus on the tarmac, it seemed different – it had bigger windows, comfortable seats, air conditioning, an updated cockpit and modern features. I sat in the front seat, headset in place, while John sat in the back. Charlie calmly explained everything I was looking at and what he would do. We were soon airborne for a 15-minute flight, flying over Destin’s beautiful emerald-green waters. It was far better than I had anticipated.
At one time, John jokingly believed that his only extravagant ride could be his rusted Schwinn cruiser bike with large balloon tires. Not anymore! Now, his ride (and mine) will be a Cirrus SR22. We ordered the plane in November 2021 and hope to get it in the first quarter of 2023. It means no TSA lines, baggage fees and vast airports to navigate.
Nearly a year after deciding to purchase that new Cirrus, we headed to the COPA Migration last October at Amelia Island. I had yet to learn what a “migration” even was. While there, I was surrounded by the friendliest people, many of whom voiced the same concerns, especially about safety, that I had. They were eager to converse about it, which I would never have anticipated before going. At Migration, I sat in for the free “Partner in Command” course taught by Mike Radomsky. It covered the safety features of the Cirrus, the parachute and actions to take if the pilot became incapacitated. I realized I didn’t need to be a pilot to be an active participant. Radomsky also offered to the audience participants a free simulated CAPS pull at his training facility if we were ever in Las Vegas. As it turns out, my brother had just moved to Las Vegas, so I have already made an appointment to do just that.
Although I know my fears may not seem logical to others, I found the camaraderie at Migration comforting. Knowing the parachute was there has certainly helped. I didn’t want to be the kind of right-seat partner that knows nothing or is intimidated by what is in front of me. I want to conquer the fears I have with education. That’s why I wanted to create and contribute to this magazine for COPA.
Look for this column bimonthly, and you will see topics that many of us rightseaters share. It will help us understand aviation’s pull and passion for our partners and allow us to get more enjoyment out of the whole experience.