A Flight of Fancy
The primary objective is to poke as much fun at gravity as possible
I’m 1,000 metres above the ground. It doesn’t sound like a lot, until you realise there’s nothing but a little carbon fibre and a lot of thin air between you and a big splat. My eyes are flickering about and my mind is taking none of it in. I think I’m smiling, but then again my face might have just defaulted to that expression because it doesn’t know how to process thoughts that involve symbols in random combinations like ‘#*@£!?’ and ‘&%?*#!’
Somewhere within the cacophony of white noise melting my ears a voice tells me to take the controls. Some of those symbols fall out of my mouth. I place my hand tightly around the joystick between my thighs and the plane shakes nervously, responding to my apprehension. I focus, doubting I’ll ever get chance to do this again. Besides, I’d hate my picture to be in tomorrow’s papers beneath the headline ‘Gruesome End for Clumsy British Man’.
Suddenly I’m nine years old, sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor and playing on a games console. No, I’m Maverick, tearing through the skies with Goose at my side, thinking about what a libertine I must look right now. No, I’m upside down, drunk on adrenalin and totally disorientated. How did I get here?
It’d be generous to say I don’t know much about aeroplanes. I know how to sit in one, how easy it is to get cramp on one, and how the effect of alcohol is magically enhanced when you step across one of those great, curved thresholds. I’ve even developed a way to make people think I’m not afraid of being suspended in a place God never intended me to be, looking down on a drop God never intended me to survive. But that’s where my knowledge ends.
How is it possible to get a ginormous box made of metal and full of people, bags and fear into the sky, and keep it there for a few hours before casually drifting back towards solid ground? How do they make sure the wings are on tight enough? What happens if a hot air balloon gets in the way? Why do they present things they’re trying to sell so vivaciously, yet the safety instructions with such apathy? Why do pilots always sound so cocksure? When the oxygen masks drop down, does that mean I’m going to die?
Any hopes I’d had of answering – or even remembering – these questions while looking down on rural Russia from the heavens above were futile, not least because I was preoccupied with the sensation of being trapped inside a tumble dryer mid-cycle.
Aerobatic flying is different to normal flying. There are no hostesses, no claustrophobic toilets, and no complimentary drinks to disguise your nerves. The primary objective is to poke as much fun at gravity as possible, while making the plane do everything it was never meant to do. The secondary objective is to reproduce that morning’s breakfast onto the aircraft’s transparent roof.
A pause. A chance to breathe. I take a look at the blurred earth below, a painter’s palette of emerald, apple, spruce and jade, British racing, olive and mint, an assortment of greens that look as delicious as a pack of crayons. It is beautiful, of course. The only trace of industry sits far away on the horizon, where the land blends with a brilliant sapphire sky, fading in an unperceivable haze.
I am blinded by the brilliant white shimmer of an idle river, feeling its way between odd-shaped fields that yield to groves of trees. From here, they look like bunches of broccoli. In a few months, they’ll be dishevelled and haggard, shivering beneath a blanket of white snow. I wonder how long it goes on like this; pretty, flat, plain. There’s a lot of Russia for it to go on into.
‘I turn engine off now’, Mikhail calls forward jovially. ‘People on ground think we crash. Is no problem. Don’t panic.’
He’s being serious.
* * *
Mikhail Maksimenko is a thoroughly likeable man. He’s got healthy, tanned skin, happy hair, and an altogether easy demeanour. He’s confident yet relaxed, and seems content with life, which is just the way you want someone who’s going to have your own life in their hands to be. He’s only been flying for 10 years, but in that time has managed to establish himself as a highly respected pilot and instructor, and now rubs shoulders with some of the most reputable names in the business.
His company, Aerobatica, is located at an airfield 100 kilometres outside of Moscow, far enough to feel tranquil and isolated, but close enough to be easily accessed from the city. The sky overhead is splattered with the colourful canopies of parachutists ambling lazily to earth, where the flatulent sounds of idling aircrafts drift around on a gentle breeze, creating a feeling of laidback bustle. Mikhail’s company is fairly young – they’re still putting the finishing touches to a voluminous hanger – but they’re already establishing themselves as an outstanding name in the aviation business, and the first choice for anyone wishing to have a go at aerobatic flying.
I’m staring down at a worn tarmac runway. I’m shaking. Everything is shaking. The plane is alive, a monster straining against its leash, growling, panting, scratching at the earth. My heart thumps desperately against my chest, pleading to be let out so that it can spectate from the ground. The suspense is electric and unbearable, menacing in its secrecy.
Finally we begin rolling forward, grasping at patches of concrete in a hunched gallop, devouring metres and dragging our surroundings into impressionist streaks. The engine presses me irresistibly back into my chair, replacing its impatient hum with an urgent howl. I do the same. Every muscle in my body is taut, braced for aviation’s silent grip.
We lift imperceptibly, a seamless transition from soil to sky. The plane feels appeased, self-assured and safe, prodding my mouth into a broad grin that lies somewhere between enjoyment and relief. I let out the breath I’d been unconsciously holding in, and allow my muscles to ease. The ground shrinks below us, and with it my fear.
* * *