- January 7, 2013 in Columnists
Skiing above the clouds — flying with fear
It was simply meant to be a Christmas present for my husband. Being a pilot, he loves to fly. It’s one of those passions your spouse has that you say, “I’m glad you love being a pilot but not me. I will stand on the ground and watch while you go up and fly around.”
But I am not married to that kind of man. He wants me to go with him, to share, to enjoy the experience with him. He wants ME up there with him. Oh brother.
So when I told him that he would be flying on a ski plane to Denali, he loved this idea. And quietly I added, I’ll be staying back at the lodge and taking pictures.
“Well I’m not going if you don’t go.”
But, but… I don’t know if I can do it. You know how I hate flying.
“Well, then I’m not going.”
When my husband says something like that I know that the steel trap door is down and that there is no way that I’m going to budge him.
So I relented. Of course. I said I would go.
We met Don Lee, owner of the plane, and an experienced bush pilot who would be flying with us, actually instructing my husband in the operation of the ski plane. Don is also the owner of a small lodge just outside of Talkeetna, Alaska, the small town where Northern Lights was filmed. And he had five planes… some of them float planes, other ones ski.
The two men met and did their pilot talk. Don seemed easy going, Thom talked about his non eventful pilot hours and I could see out of the corner of my eye that Thom and Don were giving each other their personal stamps of approval.
Don was reassuring. “We’ll have a good time, we’ll just go up and find some moose…I’ll make it safe for you.”
Now my husband had not flown a plane since 2004. So in my head I’m thinking okay, so Don will do the take off and landings. I can handle that.
I looked at the plane. Where the wheels were supposed to be there were two skis. Skis on a plane. Whatever, I thought, trying to be brave. And then I heard Don say something about no brakes, just the skis. Okay, so I didn’t need to know that.
Don opened the door for me to get into the back seat. I was the first to hop in the very small Piper 220. I heard the click of my seat belt and watched as Don handed me the headset and said, “don’t put it on yet, it’s still cold and closed my door.” Thom slid across to the left hand seat in the front (there is only one door) and began buckling up. Don peeked a look at me in the back and let me know that the survival gear was in the back, behind me. What? I so didn’t need to hear that… or did I?
I looked outside the tiny window and suddenly heard the engine buzz. It was loud so I decided now was the time to put on my headset. I could hear Don’s instructions to Thom, “just ease up on the throttle and push it forward as we taxi onto the lake.” OMG. Is Thom going to be flying this plane right now? He’s going to do the take off. I wanted to scream…do you realize he hasn’t flown a plane in years? Why doesn’t Thom say something, like… Don, you’d better do the take off. That’s clearly what I would have done. Somehow, I managed to get myself under control and not scream.
The frozen lake seemed big to me, and fully frozen with a huge layer of snow on top.
I felt reasonably comfortable as the plane moved along sluggishly through the snow. I felt us begin to lift up into the sky. The familiar, OMG I’m going to die feeling crept up. I closed my eyes, realized I was holding my breath and coached myself to breathe.
I knew we were up in the air but I didn’t want to see how far. Breathe. Relax. Let go. No, don’t let go, no LET GO… don’t hyperventilate.
I hear Don chatting away on the headset. “We’re just going to look for some moose. They’re usually in this area down around the trees.”
Moose? Who cares about the bleeping moose when we’re all about to fall to our deaths! The moose certainly don’t give a hoot.
Let the self-talk begin. I was too afraid to move in the tiny cramped seat. I kept saying to myself you can do this. You can do it. Practice what you preach about letting go. Surrender to no control. Release the fear. LET GO, DAMMIT.
And like a bolt out of the blue, I realized that I was in a tiny thin layered aircraft with two men. One that I have loved for 20 years, who would lay down his life for me. The other I had known for less than an hour. He told us he has 30 years and thousands of hours as a bush pilot. He can fly the plane no matter what. So I say to myself, relax, you can trust both of them.
I tell myself, this is what it looks like to relinquish all control, to let go, to surrender. This is it and you are doing it in this moment.
I feel more peaceful. Not exactly peaceful but calmer.
I distract myself by looking for moose but they are nowhere to be seen. The tiny black trees get smaller as we climb higher.
I look over as we fly some 40 miles north to Denali, North America’s highest mountain at 20, 320 feet. There are clouds shrouding the top of it. We are eventually at 8000 feet. So we must look up to this giant mountain.
On my right, I see rugged peaks of snow, of ice, unbelievable majestic beauty, on my left, there is a gorgeous glacier.
It truly is a moment of wonder. You cannot see it like this from the ground. These mountains are fierce. You can see Mother Earth in her glory. It is incomprehensible to think of landing here and yet planes frequently land on glaciers and people step outside and eat their lunch right on the glacier.
Meanwhile I hear Don and Thom talking in front of me. They think like pilots and they talk like pilots. They are not worried about a crash, but always looking for a place to land in case there is a need to. They are constantly surveying the weather and looking for snow, ice or high winds and other air craft.
I hear Don say to check the ice on the carburetor and once again I have to control my need to panic. Ice? Holy crap I say to myself and then I hear him say the plane can deal with ice but don’t want to have it happen. Me either.
Soon it’s time to turn back and we can see the town of Talkeetna. And the lake comes closer. It’s time to land and I try not to remember that this aircraft has no brakes. I’m still thinking about it when Don says, that was a very smooth landing, Thom. What? We’re down? Oh happy day! I didn’t even realize it. It was so smooth.
I want to shout. This is the true meaning of thrilling. It’s over and we all survived.
That day for me was more than just experiencing the wonders of Alaska. Seeing my husband in a new light, viewing him competent, composed and trusting himself, was powerful. He was a pure role model for stretching oneself. I was so focused on my own fear that I nearly missed the opportunity to see the man I journey through life with step up so big. He took on a challenge, quietly and without drama. I learned that day to trust him more and to trust myself, too.
Had I stayed on the ground that day, I would have missed this once in a lifetime experience and I would have missed learning so many things.
You know, overcoming fear is not easy. But I’m so glad I did.