By Megan Blaney (Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise)
Fitchburg - The world of shopping malls and miniature cars stuck in traffic jams seemed far away as I cruised along at 3,500 feet early Tuesday morning, looking at the low-flying clouds rushing by and whirring propeller blades.
I flew a plane for the first time on Tuesday, thanks to the Be A Pilot program run through the FCA Flight Center at the Fitchburg Municipal Airport.
When they say they'll teach you to fly, they mean it.
Except for landing the plane, I was the pilot, with my instructor Chief Pilot Bill DeBlois sitting to my right and our photographer Roberto Santiago riding in the backseat.
Bill led me through the taxi, take-off, and flying, and although we each had a set of controls, he took over the flying only when it was time to land.
"The average person can do this," Bill said. "We've got a whole range of people from 9-year-olds on up learning to fly."
I hoped I did at least as well as the 9-year-old.
Before take-off, we went through a pre-flight check of the plane, and Bill showed me how even minute movements of the rudder, flaps and trim could affect the plane's flight.
We climbed into the plane, a single-engine Cessna Skyhawk, and Bill explained the instrument panel and gauges.
As we began taxiing, my first instinct was to steer with the yoke, which looks similar to the steering wheel of a car but does not steer the plane when it's on the ground. Instead, the pedals operate the nose-to-wheel steering.
This was a hard habit to break, having driven a car for 10 years.
"Ahh, you're one of those," said DeBlois as I tried to turn the plane using the yoke for the third time. He had me place my hands on the dashboard, compelling me to use the correct instruments - my feet and the pedals - to turn onto the taxi-way.
My nerves had been surprisingly dormant during the pre-flight check, but kicked in while we were taxiing down the runway.
My initial fumblings with the yoke were making me doubt my ability to fly the thing.
"I can't get it right and we're not even in the air yet," I thought, slightly frantically.
We were going faster and faster down the runway and Bill said, "Now it's time to pull."
I pulled back on the yoke and the plane lifted right off the ground, moving in a straight line toward the clouds that were streaked across the sky.
After take-off, we climbed straight out to 3,000 feet, adjusted the trim and leveled the plane off.
"Just keep the clouds in the same place and you'll be fine," said Bill.
"Good," I thought to myself, "because I can't see over the dashboard."
There was no noticeable turbulence for about the first half hour and I cruised at a steady pace of 110 knots (about 120 miles per hour) toward Mount Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire.
I climbed to 3,500 feet as we approached the mountain, the peak of which reaches 3,100 feet.
I practiced turning left and right and did a 360 degree turn in the air before veering off to the left of Mount Monadnock.
Guided by Bill, I flew over Winchendon, Gardner. I saw the seven lakes of Ashburnham and green, hilly areas of New Hampshire.
Our photographer, Roberto, who had no headset, and therefore no idea what I was about to do, remained surprisingly calm as we practiced pulling the plane out of a power-off stall and did a few "roller-coaster" tricks. These were steep dips caused by pushing in the yoke very quickly, which causes the plane's nose to drop sharply. We were able to make my reporter's notebook weightless for a split second during one of these dips, and the sight of my notebook floating through the air into the backseat would have been amazing if I had not been preoccupied with righting the plane.
The tricks and maneuvers, while heart-stopping, actually reassured me of the stability of the plane and the experience of my instructor.
His ability to pull us out of what seemed like a downward spiral showed me that many of my fears were groundless.
Even as some of the gusts of wind rolling off the hills around Mount Monadnock shook the plane, I easily steadied it with a light touch on the yoke.
Although the most exhilarating part of the flying was the control I had over the plane - turning and rising and dropping - the ease with which the small craft moved through the air was relaxing.