How hard could it be to pilot a plane?

Flying a single-prop Seahawk to Newport.


Two primary issues confront you when you’re on the verge of flying with a friend in her toy plane: 1) how to stop thinking about crashing in a black, twisted, smoking mess of metal, and 2) what to wear?

My fear of flying I thought had gone by the wayside a long time ago, when youth and the prospect of a fine, productive life lay ahead of me, and it all seemed like something worth holding onto. But now? Meh. I’ve stumbled into advanced middle age, have had exciting adventures, traveled to faraway places, and loved lots of people, so … I can go at any time, just not, you know, necessarily today.

On the morning of the planned joy ride — the Wednesday before last, in fact — I felt a low-key sense of doom. I thought I’d be wise to settle my affairs. Not being a millionaire or even, most times, a thousandaire, I’d never made a will. Is an emailed last will and testament even remotely legal? I sent one to my son Charlie, telling him about my planned flight. “If I go down in a black, twisted, smoking, mess of metal” (yes, I reprised that line; it’s that kind of sick sense of humor from his parents that turned Charlie into a standup comic), please contact the Writers Guild Pension Fund to see if there’s any payout to you.” I also reminded him that Jack Shea, reporter for this paper, and my third ex-husband, had volunteered to take Huxley, my Boston terrier, should something happen to me, but that Charlie could negotiate with him if he wanted the dog as a sort of souvenir.

That done, I mulled over attire. I thought I needed to look grownup and, to that end, I examined a blue and gold floral skirt and blazer. And then I flashed on one of those scenes from a movie where a mechanical failure has occurred, smoke burls in from the engine and, while the pilot wrestles with the gears, she asks her co-pilot to crawl under greasy cylinders to find a wrench. I put on thick leggings, socks, sneakers, a few layers of sweaters, and a denim jacket.

So who is this friend and pilot? Sharon Kelly, of Oak Bluffs and Hartford, Conn., beautiful, poised, with an old-school grace that puts me in mind of a Gibson girl, for years, has owned the Secret Garden gift store, midway up Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. Sharon grew up in Hartford, married her high school sweetheart John, now a semiretired insurance exec, and opened another Secret Garden in her hometown, so decades ago, to facilitate the commute, she followed through on a childhood dream of flying her own plane.

After a conscientious, full year of study, she received her license on May 20, 1977, the 50th anniversary of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight.

Well, who among us hasn’t entertained this fantasy? To sit in a cockpit and be part of the thrill of lifting off and hovering over the earth like a titanium-wrapped Peter Pan? I asked Sharon if I she could take me up, up, and away. As soon as a sunny, wind-free date presented itself, we walked across the tarmac of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, passed a passel of private jets (“fuel hogs,” Sharon sniffed), until we came to her own crisp white Seahawk, so cute and compact you could hug it.

We climbed in, ace photographer Sam Moore in the back. Sharon clamped on her set of headphones and handed me my own. Dy-no-mite! I could hear the guy in the control tower. I asked Sharon, “Can I tell him 10-4?” She replied kindly, “10-4’s not an aeronautical term. It’s old truckers’ CB-speak.” “Oh,” I said, chagrined, “what about ‘Roger’? Can I say ‘Roger’?” She said pilot protocol was to parrot whatever the fellow in the tower tells you: “To make sure you’re paying attention.”

Sharon switched on a dial on a black and silver instrument panel to pick up general airfield info before contacting Cape Air Traffic Control. She yanked a couple of throttles, and the propeller turned lazily, then disappeared into its own whirligig. Sharon said “Clear!” into her microphone. I heard a lot of cryptic convo about “requesting vectors, 35 alpha, wind 2.20 at 1.2, altimeter, sky clear point 1.3, 8-7 echo” and blah blah blah from the tower and all the pilots in the vicinity. Sharon’s voice was flat, confident, barely recognizable; she sounded like a female Buzz Aldrin; I half-expected the tower to clear her for a moon landing.

We levitated. It felt as if the Seahawk had performed a plié-relevé, then bounced into the air. Seconds later, we were truly flying high, westward over the Island, which I only half-recognized. Is Menemsha Pond really that huge? It looks like Lake Erie! And cripes! There were so many bodies of water! What I saw completely repudiated the old scientific chestnut that water matches the sky. The sky was true blue, but water surfaces were, some of them, blue, but others dingy bluish-brown, beige, green, pale turquoise, and even La Brea Tar Pits black. Was the oxygen level in the cabin making me hallucinate?

We skimmed over Vineyard Sound, zipping straight for the Elizabeth Islands, which stretched longer and farther and more enchained than they ever appear on maps. Little Cuttyhunk with its winter population of, like, 30, looked way more built-up than I’d imagined, with a splash of houses, outbuildings, wharves, and sandy coves. We skimmed over wee Penikese, which I’ve never actually visited, but I’ve written about the leper ghosts and the forlorn little cemetery.

The lower topography of the Cape gave over to the green hills and dales and sandy coves of Rhode Island. We floated over the mansions of Newport, and I realized that anything you can float over looks less intimidating than it does from the ground. So that heap of stones is the Breakers? Humph.

Midway through our flight, Sharon reached for the “yoke” (we groundlings might call it the steering wheel) over the co-pilot’s seat and placed my hands on the bars. “Sharon, don’t make me fly!” I implored, putting my hands over my eyes to show just how resistant I was to take on this mission. She laughed and reattached my hands to the controls. This wasn’t one of those gags where a friend tells you to take over, then heads for the loo in the back (not that there’s room for a loo on a Seahawk). She explained the coordinated use of the yoke and rubber pedals to move the ailerons on the wings, up and down for left and right. (Do not fear: There’ll be no quiz to follow).

Flying in a plane this small creates a dream state. You’re not racing around the stratosphere; you’re drifting, with time to gaze in every direction at this spiraling blue and green globe of ours. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that with global warming this all may turn to shite; for now, this Earth of ours is still astoundingly gorgeous. You forget everything. Wars. Your bank account. Those avocados on your counter that remain hard as rocks. Up here in the skies, who cares? All shall be well; all IS well …

We returned to the Vineyard along the south shore. Sharon glanced down at Lucy Vincent: “No nudists out today. Might still be a tad cold.” We hung a U-ie over the airport. Sharon did another one of her Buzz Aldrin impersonations as she and the air traffic guy talked about “Zulu Echo 9-4, vectors tippity-toppity [or something to that effect], wind 2.1.3, proceed to runway 24,” and, by the way, every so often a “roger” was thrown into the mashup of words from other pilots, although I heard not a single “10-4,” which made me sigh.

A couple of wind currents buffeted our landing, but Sharon got both front wheels on the ground with only a little scooching noise. I was frankly sorry to be back on terra firma. When you’re up in a cutie-pie plane, high above every last care and concern, you no longer think of crashing in a black, twisted, smoking mess of metal. Well, not often. Hardly at all. Would I go up again?

10-4, good buddy!