Wednesday, July 16, 2008

First day of school

In Hawaii, it doesn't just rain. The sky collapses in a torrent of great fat drops the size of worlds, the whole multitude of them crashing at once into tin roofs, banana leaves, and the canvas top of my jeep. It's a miracle, and when it's over, the air is left as pure and fresh as the whisper of a child.

Today was my first day of school -- two hours of one-on-one ground school and two hours of helicopter time. The amount of information to process, particularly in flight training, is astonishing. The number of things a helicopter pilot has to do, simultaneously and in rapid sequence, is overwhelming.

If I didn't know that thousands of people before me have learned this, I would believe it's impossible. There is a lesson there, which I will come back to often: The only difference between impossible and possible is belief. Nothing else.

We flew, both of us, our hands and feet on the controls. Each time I said, "Ok, you do it," my instructor Lee (pictured), said, "We'll do it together."

We flew straight, we turned left, we turned right. The latter could have been harrowing; I was sitting on the right side of a helicopter with no door, so that looking to my right during a right turn (and bank) meant staring straight down, with nothing but a thousand feet of freefall between me and the lush, green floor.

I say could have been harrowing, because my brain was too busy franticly sorting and seizing information about how to fly to be very scared. In the one moment that was too much, Lee had me focus on my sight line past the cockpit compass to the horizon, and soon the turn was done.

(By the way, my left hand was on the collective, a handle that looks like an automobile parking brake but controls the up-and-down in a helicopter. I'm glad I was able to fight off the urge to yank up on that handle to keep myself from falling out the door. That could have gotten unpleasant.)

We also practiced hovering, this from a more reasonable but still potentially fatal altitude of about five feet. Hovering is the most difficult basic skill. It's an extreme balancing act, something like a one-arm handstand or riding a unicycle. My first hover lasted literally two seconds before Lee had to take over and save us from a violent death of high octane flames and splintering steel.

My longest hover was six seconds. Lee says six seconds is pretty good for the first day. Six seconds seems pretty useless compared to five minutes or fifteen minutes or forever.

But it's true that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Today, I began with impossible...and finished six seconds closer to possible.

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