DESTINATION AUSTRALIA Plane sailing
Debra Solomon takes to the skies over the NSW south coast
ISPEND most of my first flying lesson screeching: Warren, Warren, take hold of those controls!’’ Perhaps my flight instructor will have the foresight to change his name so I can’t call and book another lesson with him.
In 40 years of flying, Warren Gengos claims he’s never met anyone who screams quite as much as me. But he didn’t hear me the time I came flying off a motorbike on a cliff top in Greece. Now that was a scream. Or when a wave hurled me off a surfboard in Hawaii. But when Warren takes his hands off the (dual) control column after five minutes of instruction, it is definitely just a screech.
I am not all that nervous about taking my first flying lesson at Illawarra regional airport in Albion Park, just off the Princes Highway, 20 minutes south of Wollongong. My drive down the coast from Sydney is marked by exuberant singing along to the radio, and the friendly staff in the NSW Air office are here to greet me, as is a red-and-white two-seater Cessna 152.
These little aircraft have trained more pilots worldwide than any other kind of plane. Warren and I are soon giving it a thorough safety check, as is the rule before any flight. No insects in the external speedo (check), plenty of air in the tyres (check), enough pure fuel (check), wing flaps free to do their thing (check). Warren’s methodical external checks are matched by a list of internal ones once we are strapped into our seats.
It takes about 10 minutes but gives me great confidence in the plane and in Warren’s professionalism.
We discuss the efficiency and purpose of each instrument on the panel in the tiny cockpit. Warren is calm and patient answering my myriad questions. A moment of panic sets in when, by the time we reach the dials on the right-hand side of the panel, I’ve forgotten what the ones on the left-hand side do. But then I remember this is merely a taste-and-see half-hour; it’s not my job to know if we are nose-diving or being blown out to sea. Details, details.
Headsets on, engine on, we’re off. The scenery around Shellharbour is spectacular: the escarpment at 3 o’clock, the green pastures at 12 o’clock, sparkling sea at 9 o’clock. But this isn’t just a joy flight, and Warren takes his hands off the controls, instructing me to turn left.
My hands freeze; let the screeching begin. I plead for Warren to put his hands back on the controls. He makes the turn for us. Not one to be discouraged, Warren again takes his hands off the column once I have quietened down, and instructs me to straighten the plane and hold it steady. This I do until a gust of wind hits us and screeching begins again.
My sensitivity to the movement is not unfounded; a Cessna 152 weighs in at 500kg and can take about 15 knots crosswind before it becomes unstable. Despite that, there are only about 10 days of the year when this little aircraft is earthbound. It takes several of these gusts for me to adapt to being buffeted around without so much as a yelp.
We head out to sea and I’m glad I haven’t worn my coat; I’m so tense I’m sweating. Warren takes his hands off the controls and this time tells me to do the same. No one flying the plane? Definitely a screech-worthy moment.
Eventually I am calm enough to take my eyes off the horizon and look at the gorgeous scenery, views that Warren says he never tires of. We fly over the water for a while before we have to turn the plane right and head for home.
Approaching the runway, we reduce the speed and pull the nose up slightly when we’re parallel with the ground. The landing is incredibly smooth and I’m almost disappointed the lesson is over.
Back in the office, Warren tells me about his passion for flying and of passing on his skills to others. The cockpit is his office, the stunning coastal scenery his daily outlook. Apart from joy flights, charter flights and introductory instructional flights, NSW Air trains pilots to airline standard.
Of those who try flying once, about 50 per cent return to improve their skills. Then there are people like me, apparently. And how high did we get? Firsttimers get up to just over 1000m, but only if they don’t scream. That must have been me; I only screeched. Debra Solomon was a guest of Shellharbour Tourism and NSW Air.
Wings and a prayer: Warren Gengos, Air NSW flying instructor