Three nights ago I was plagued by nightmares.
In the first one my engine caught fire. In the second I lost my radio. In the third the door popped open and a rush of wind carried my sectional and navigation log out of the plane. In the fourth I lost my elevator.
I haven’t had aviation-related nightmares before. Truly, they didn’t begin until my CFI turned to me after three lovely cross-country flights and said, “you’ll be on your own for the next one.”
The nightmares continued the next night.
In the first my engine died and I executed an emergency landing on a freeway and killed a van full of children. In the second I was lost and nothing on my sectional looked anything like what I saw on the ground. In the third a gust of wind threw me into my first spin.
They continued the next night too. I saw the aftermath of my husband as a widow.
On the third morning I lied awake in the wee hours of the morning, bathed in sweat from the nightmares hours before, when it occurred to me: I had already had flights by myself where things had gone wrong and survived. What I should be afraid of was not an in flight emergency but losing my head. That was the real danger.
In all of the nightmares I lost my head. I couldn’t concentrate. I went hysterical. But in real life, though I wouldn’t say I kept my calm the whole time, I did exactly what I was trained to do and things turned out fine.
I have been trained in emergency landings, engine failures, engine fires and radio failure. My Cessna manual has an entire chapter on emergency procedures, including a section on what to do in the event of an elevator failure.
It might sound silly, but in all of my training no one has yet handed me a tiny pill and said “if all else fails, it’s swift and painless.” I will interpret that to mean as long as I keep my wits, this flight is going to be fine.
But better yet, it is foolish to say “it’ll be fine.” Why would it be?! I’m tremendously nervous and this will be my first time unsupervised more than three nautical miles from my home airport. So to prepare, I will plan for things to go wrong.
I will expect the climb out to be awkward and frighteningly fast because the plane will weigh less. I will expect to have to change my course for unpredictable weather. I will expect a gremlin to do something to my airplane. I will expect to not hit my checkpoints on time, maybe even miss a few. I will expect to bounce the first landing. I will expect to bounce the second. And I will practice my solo landings until I don’t bounce before I return back to home base (or my fuel allowance runs out). And when I get there, I will expect (as usual) to not be able to find the airport among the neighborhoods and factories and stadiums everyone else uses to guide them effortlessly to the tower. And when I get on the tower’s frequency (and ask them where the hell they are because my heading isn’t doing the trick), I will expect to have no idea what they are saying because it didn’t so much come at me as mumble as it ran past. I will expect them to change the runway on me.
And then, when ANY of these things goes right (or I deal with them without losing my cool because I saw them coming), bit by bit, I will gain the confidence I lack. And after my flight tomorrow, I will know what I don’t know tonight as I try to find peaceful sleep: that I can be a pilot, come what may.