I heard, “We’re going down!” In silence I whispered a prayer for the people I love.
I’m a walk-in-the-woods kind of girl, but I married a guy who likes things that go fast and make loud noises.
When Gary told me he’d always dreamed of getting a pilot’s license, my teeth clenched. But I knew I would support his goal. That’s what we do for each other.
Although it took some effort, when the day came, I tucked myself into the back of a four passenger airplane and plugged in the headset.
“No, they go the other way,” Gary said, taking them off my head, reversing them, and placing them over my ears again. “Now give it a test. Say something.”
Gary was just a few lessons away from testing for his license, and he wanted to get in as much practice as possible. Legally, he couldn’t’t take me for a ride unless he was with a licensed pilot, so his friend, Mike, came with us for my first flight in Gary’s new plane, a blue and white Cherokee 180. It was a big moment.
Our plan was to depart from the Petaluma airport in Northern California, fly up the coastline, and do a few practice landings at Three Rivers, a tiny airport about an hour’s flight away in Mendocino County.
“Hello,” I mumbled into my microphone. My hands were trembling and that one predictable word was all I could squeak out.
“Roger that,” my husband grinned. He gave me a thumbs up so I knew they could hear me, and I could hear them. His face had taken on the glow of the late afternoon sun which streamed in through the cockpit window. Perched there among the dials and levers, Gary looked happy and relaxed.
I needed to push past my own fears so I could enjoy this experience with him.
“It’s a perfect day for a flight,” Mike said, his finger flipping a lever.
I double checked my seat belt, grateful to be in the back where my anxiety wouldn’t show. The guys were having a great time and probably didn’t even notice my nerves.
We taxied to the runway, my husband made the appropriate radio calls, and off we went. Petaluma spread out below us and the clear blue sky opened ahead. The roof of the high school popped into view, and I followed side streets to our bungalow on the west side of town. Our magnolia tree was in bloom, and I could make out its giant white flowers on the top branches. Beautiful.
We headed west and pretty soon the Pacific Ocean splashed against its rocky shoreline.
My eyes fixed on the view, my tense nerves started easing as I marveled at the wonder. I felt my breath slow down and started to enjoy the ride.
“How’re you doing back there?” I heard over the radio. My husband was checking in.
“It’s amazing,” I replied into the microphone with more confidence than I felt. “I can see why you’re hooked.”
Right at that moment, we hit a little turbulence, and my heart raced. I clutched the seat in front of me, bracing for a crash. Mike told me that turbulence is nothing to be afraid of. “Imagine we’re on a boat,” he said. “Waves of thermals come up from the earth, and we ride over them, just like a wave in the ocean.” It was an image I could understand, and it helped me relax.
I took a deep breath and looked out the window, quieting my mind by examining the view.
After a while we turned inland, and Gary spotted the runway at Three Rivers, not another plane in sight on land or in the air.
“Go ahead and get in the landing pattern and make all your radio calls,” Mike told Gary., “it’s good practice for your test.”
Gary lined up the plane in the familiar U-shaped pattern pilots use during landings. Suddenly, Mike shouted, “Hey! We have an engine out!”
Although I didn’t know much about airplanes, I did know ours had a single engine.
I tensed up but said nothing. The guys didn’t need a panicky passenger chiming in; they needed calm thinking and clear heads.
“Mayday! Mayday!” Mike screamed into the radio. “Ready emergency landing procedures.”
Gary started to push buttons, and I knew he was focusing hard on getting the plane down in one piece.
Mike was firing instructions at him, and each time Gary repeated what Mike said and reported the status. I sat in the back seat, helpless and silent while the two guys piloted our little plane. Beneath us, giant redwoods made a dark green tapestry except for where a thin cement runway had been carved out of the forest. I wanted to touch that strip of concrete.
“We’re going down!” Mike shouted.
I could feel the plane losing altitude and could see the landscape getting clearer the lower we got. My heart was pounding, but still I said nothing, willing my husband and Mike to figure out a solution and get us down. There was nothing I could do, and in that moment I started to reflect on my life, wondering if I were experiencing my final moments.
In silence I whispered a prayer for the people I love.
I remembered an important conversation I had had with my parents, a conversation which cleared the air about issues that had troubled our relationship. Faces of my siblings and my cherished niece and nephew crystalized in my imagination, every detail sharp. I thought about my dearest friend and my in-laws with an overwhelming feeling of love.
It occurred to me in that moment that I have lived a deliberate life. I have had my necessary, painful conversations. The people I love know that I love them, and I have asked for and given forgiveness even when it’s been awkward or gut- wrenching. In the front seat of the plane sat the person I love most in the world, my husband, the love of my life.
A profound feeling of calm came over me, and I felt a remarkable sense of peace.
Before I realized it, the plane’s wheels touched the landing strip as light as a whisper, and we taxied to a stop. I looked at the still landscape, bewildered but relieved.
Mike had been giving Gary an aviation lesson. The two of them were not aware that I didn’t know it was a drill.
Shaking, I climbed out of the plane, the first ride of many I would take with my husband.
Epilogue: Nancy Brier learned to land that airplane and started a flight school with her husband a few years later. For more of her work, please visit www.NancyBrier.com
Photo: Getty Images