As a child, I was notorious for wandering off, especially during travel with my family. On one of these occasions, an airline pilot saved the day. I wasn’t lost in the sky: he had invited me into the cockpit during a flight. The view that met my eyes on that trip still amazes me today. The wide expanse below us sealed the deal. I was going to be a pilot too.
Flying makes me feel like a speck in comparison to the magnificence of the clouds. It is a very humbling experience to cruise so high, floating between featherlike cirrus clouds and fluffy, voluminous altocumulus clouds, as if I were surfing in the sky.
The sky isn’t always peaceful though. There are days when she’s dark and ominous, spilling with rage, destroying anything that comes close. Moments when the sky unexpectedly becomes opaque, obscuring my view of landmarks that I use as beacons with thick, overcast clouds. It was on such a day that I had just bade terra firma goodbye and set out on my first solo navigation: a solo cross-country flight.
The journey to acquiring wings has been arduous, a seemingly unending stream of insurmountable obstacles.
“You can’t fly,” an uncle bellowed at me. “Just finish your first degree, get married, and have kids. Women shouldn’t be pilots. Who do you think you are?”
Who did I think I was?
Was I afraid? Of course the niggling feeling was a near constant as I studied for theoretical exams, repeated flying lessons due to errors caused by nervousness and even hunger, and repeatedly questioned my continued dedication to a career this demanding. But I took away an important lesson on fear: Rather than be paralyzed by fear, acknowledge it and let it act as a motivation toward your course. Commit and act. Inaction fuels fear.
The day I got lost was no ordinary day: a rare cloudless afternoon summer sky in the town of Port Alfred, off the southeastern coast of South Africa. Port Alfred’s spectacular coastline, lapped by the temperate Indian Ocean, is usually home to voluminous clouds and incessant rains in summer. But with sandy beaches, rocky coves, and towering cliffs, the town is a beauty to behold on sunny days.
I was going to travel up north and feast on umngqusho—a famous Xhosa dish made of beans and samp, and dressed with butter—while exploring the imposing Boschberg Mountains that tower over the town of Somerset East. That was the plan, and my joy knew no bounds. But Mother Nature had a completely different plan.
A slot on the air school operations board had my name and a ZS-IKJ-registered Piper PA-28 Cherokee scheduled for my first solo cross-country flight. After months of training, I was finally going to fly 96 miles beyond the environs of Port Alfred by myself! I was going to travel up north and feast on umngqusho—a famous Xhosa dish made of beans and samp, and dressed with butter—while exploring the imposing Boschberg Mountains that tower over the town of Somerset East. That was the plan, and my joy knew no bounds. But Mother Nature had a completely different plan.
My plane was lined up on the runway, and I was properly secured on the left pilot seat as I received take-off clearance from the tower. My tingling hand pushed the throttle to a full forward position, and my plane accelerated. Just as the front wheel pulled away from the grass, I knew freedom, and filled with unbridled euphoria, my heart soared.
The first leg of the flight went without a hitch as I followed the preplanned route, divided into legs. On this flight, I was using navigation techniques based on visual flight rules that required the ground to always be in sight as I relied on landmarks on my flight path. I was barely a few nautical miles into the second leg when I made a mistake. In an attempt to calculate my actual groundspeed and get an exact time of arrival, I broke a golden rule: BE VIGILANT AND DON’T FIXATE. Distracted by looking between the stopwatch strategically placed on the instrument panel and the navigation log on my lap, I had unknowingly flown over a thick blanket of clouds. Without a visual reference below me, I realized I was lost.
The pit of my stomach knotted up with fears of not being able to find my way home; plummeting to the ground; failing my instructor; my uncle’s words coming true. I used my fear to steady myself as I climbed another 2,000 feet to gain a broader view. I scanned the terrain of rolling grassland intertwined with rocky hills from a newfound vantage point. I could hear my own heart beating as I hoped to find a landmark that would match something on the map I was clutching onto. After what felt like years—but was most likely five minutes—the ground began to bear a resemblance to the map, and I could finally breathe. A dam south of the Grahamstown mast was the most obvious position pointer, and I knew I’d make it after all.
“Always fly the plane” was something reiterated by each of my instructors. Even in the most panic-inducing moments, one is taught to aviate, navigate, and then communicate. I applied this aphorism on the day I got lost and went a step further to extend it to my day-to-day life. When my mind panics about the million things that bog me down in my daily life, I focus in on aviate and navigate, and push away distractions.
No matter how shitty a day I’m having, the minute that engine roars to life and the plane inches away from the ground, I’m transported to my own nirvana. No fear can take that away from me.