Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Flying Circus

So there I was, riding shotgun in the Cessna, when the Primal Scream Therapist told me to keep the wings level...

Perhaps I should start at the beginning.

A Carnegie Mellon grad student in the early 1980's, on a schedule and a budget, I needed to travel from Pittsburgh to Richmond, Virginia one weekend for a family wedding. I was rueing the cost of flying on the one hand and the time it would take to drive on the other. Buses and trains were indirect options at best.

By chance, I came across a 3x5 card posted in the student union: "Fly to Washington, D.C., any weekend, $50 round trip." Even in the era of People Express Airlines, I couldn't beat that. My parents would be driving from Washington to Richmond for the wedding and could pick me up. Terrific!

The pilot flew a rented Cessna four-seater. With my (ahem) exceptional ballast compared to the two other young passengers, it was decided I should ride in front for balance, putting me within close reach of the auxiliary steering wheel. (You're probably way ahead of me here...)

We're airborne. About halfway to Washington, the college-aged girl in the back announces, quite calmly, "I'm going to scream now." And she did: "Yyyyeeeeeeeiiiiieeeeeeghhhh!!!" I looked around. The pilot was seemingly untroubled by this outburst. Okay...

Again, as we got ready for the approach: "Yyyyeeeeeeeiiiiieeeeeeghhhh!!!" By then, I was reviewing in my mind a lengthy checklist of due diligence questions that I'd failed to ask before flying with this particular airline. Licensure? Insurance? Parachutes? Issues that never arise when one flies United. (Or never used to.)

We landed safely and taxied to General Aviation. The pilot swore under his breath as the Block Hours meter clicked once last time before shutdown, costing him an extra five bucks. We disembarked. Once more on the tarmac: "Yyyyeeeeeeeiiiiieeeeeeghhhh!!!" Naturally, heads turned from all directions: what manner of brutality had these men been inflicting on this pale, young lady in the blue skies above?

I got the full story from the pilot during the return flight. Yes, he was a therapist specializing in Primal Scream techniques, living in Pittsburgh, leading weekend group sessions in Washington. Yes, those were his patients in the back seat. Yes, he was licensed and insured. (I think.)

At the pilot/shrink's request, I held the co-pilot's wheel and tried to keep the wings level while he checked the aviation map, surely an apt metaphor for psychotherapy. Surely also an illegal act, for which the statute of limitations has hopefully expired for both of us.

In retrospect, it's probably best that we didn't know more about each other before I took the wheel. Had he known of my Driver's Ed encounter with the pigeons, he might have screamed.

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