Taking off – Flying with John Levinson


The first time I flew on an airplane I was 16 years old, heading to Florida to meet my paternal grandmother. I didn’t know what to expect — from her or the flight — but as it turned out, flying was fun. Plus, I got free pretzels and soda. As I’ve aged, I’ve become a tad leery of flying. This may be because it’s finally occurred to me that I’m not immortal after all. But I think it’s also because once you see the devastation of a plane crash on the news, you can’t unsee it, or forget it. Yet, though plane crashes are horrifying, they’re actually rare.

According to simpleflying.com, research conducted by Harvard University shows that your odds of being in an accident during a flight are 1 in 1.2 million, and the chance of that being fatal is one in 11 million. Your odds of dying in a car crash are more than 200,000 times higher. Still, even armed with this information, I was a little nervous when my neighbor, John Levinson, asked if I wanted to go flying. Levinson’s plane is small, you see, and I’ve experienced a few roller-coaster-esque rides in puddle-jumpers in the past. And not the fun kind.

“U.S. flying, anywhere in the world, is about the safest way to get anywhere,” Levinson said. “Cars are more dangerous than planes, and motorcycles are more dangerous than cars, but a lot of that risk is controllable. We’re born with a full bag of luck and an empty bag of experience. The goal is to fill the bag of experience before you run out of luck.”
Levinson’s bag of experience seems to be fairly full. A cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, he bought his first plane — a 30-year-old Cessna — in 2003. “A Cessna is what your mother flies. It’s not what your uncle the bachelor has,” Levinson told me. “It’s stable, and it’s completely unsexy.” Though I’d argue that there are plenty of sexy mothers out there (stable and unstable), and many single uncles who aren’t Brad Pitt’s doppelganger, I got the point.

I was curious to know what led Levinson to take up such a nuanced and chancy “hobby.” He could have simply taken up birdwatching, yet he chose to fly like a bird instead. It turns out that his interest in flying was based on several factors: His dad was a pilot in World War II (perhaps it’s in his blood); a friend of his was taking flight lessons; and he read an article in a flying magazine about the true cost of owning an airplane. But the tipping point may have come in the summer of 2003.

“After 12 years of renting and wanting a house on Martha’s Vineyard, my wife Theresa and I finally found one in 2002. We used it that summer, and went down as often as we could through the winter. Then, on a Saturday morning in early June 2003, we woke up to perfect springtime weather and realized that we and the kids had nowhere we needed to be. ‘Let’s get a ferry to the Vineyard!’ we said. But the ferries were completely booked. Here we had a house on Martha’s Vineyard and we couldn’t get to it!”

Levinson called a friend who was attending flight school, got the name of the school, and the next day took his first lesson.

Though flying for the sake of efficiency and fun makes sense, how does one go about choosing a plane? In Levinson’s case, he knew a guy who brokers planes. “He tried to talk me into a Bonanza plane,” Levinson said. “It’s fast and beautiful. It has a V-tail, and it’s aerodynamically great. It’s more on the expensive side, and since it’s fast, you have to know what you’re doing. I was a little worried about what the accident report would be if I got this plane — another doctor who doesn’t know his limits.”

Apparently, the V-tail design on a Bonanza gained a reputation as the “forked-tail doctor killer,” due to crashes by overconfident, wealthy amateur pilots. Passing on it was probably a wise choice on Levinson’s part. He is a doctor, after all. After gaining more experience, Levinson bought his current plane, a Mooney, in 2009. “It’s the fastest single-engine in the world, and it has legs. It’ll fly 1,200 miles without stopping,” he said. “In addition, it has the reputation in the flying community as a real pilot’s plane.”

So, how does one become a pilot? According to American Flight Schools, flight training includes two major components: ground school and hands-on flight training, which should commence around the same time. Ground school consists of 36 hours of instruction on aircraft systems, aerodynamics, airport environments, proper communications, phraseology, meteorology, Federal Aviation Administration regulations, aircraft performance, charts and navigation, and human factors.

“There are different ways to learn, and there are also different stages along the way. Your instructor will do stage checks,” Levinson said. “The amount of time it takes depends on a lot of things. Weather is a big one. Seventy-three percent of my lessons got canceled due to weather. It took a year to get my license.”

Luckily, weather was not an issue the day we flew. According to the good doctor, the kind of weather we had is often described as “severe clear.” “Also known as CAVU, which is an old aviation term for ceiling and visibility unlimited,” Levinson said. “We were just ahead of a cold front, but it was a mild cold front, and so the weather was generally calm and clear.”
Yeah … what he said.

Levinson’s Mooney is a handsome plane. Sporting a svelte shape, it’s red, white, and silver with black stripes. He walked me around the craft, pointing out obvious things like the wings, and not so obvious things, like the little holes in the wings where deicing fluid releases if needed. He prudently checked everything, explaining what he was doing along the way. Inside the plane was tight quarters. I could have licked the yoke (“steering wheel”) in front of me without too much effort (I didn’t). Being that close to the instrument panel allowed me to see all the buttons, knobs, bells, and whistles that make the aircraft fly. Once the plane started, it was loud, but we were able to hear one another and the air traffic control folks through our headsets.

We taxied over to our liftoff location, and I got a little nervous. Takeoffs and landings rank very low on my list of enjoyable experiences. As we picked up speed, all I could think was — what if a cow walks out in front of us? I jokingly said this to Levinson later, and in all seriousness he said that pilots have a strategy for similar incidents. “It’s called a balked approach, or Go Around. On a jet aircraft, there is usually a flight automation button called TOGA,” he said. “It stands for ‘take off and go around.’” Luckily for us, there were no cow crossings.

Once up, I took a deep breath and looked around. We were at 1,000 feet, and as we flew over the Island, Levinson pointed out various towns. “We’re going over Aquinnah now,” he said. “Let me know when you see the lighthouse.” We both saw it at the same time. From that height, it looked like a lighthouse in a miniature diorama, and the Cliffs looked like baby sand dunes. Seeing places you know well from a different vantage point provides a new perspective. Things got philosophical for a moment there. I kept thinking about how minuscule humans are in the grand scheme of things, and yet we invented a contraption that allows us to fly thousands of feet off the ground and cover great distances in little time. That’s no small feat.

We followed the coast just offshore by Lucy Vincent, Squibnocket, and then climbed to 3,000 feet, toward Provincetown. About 20 minutes into the flight, I started to relax and enjoy looking out the window at the colors and textures below me. The ocean’s blues, indigos, and deep greens looked like oil paintings, while land parcels reminded me of landscape architectural renderings. Our course took us over Naushon and other Elizabeth islands, Falmouth, Mashpee, close to East Sandwich, and then over Cape Cod Bay. We continued over Monomoy National Wildlife Preserve and Monomoy Lighthouse, over open water to Nantucket, and around its eastern shoreline, then over Madaket, Tuckernuck Island, and back to M.V. Airport.
Our flight ran about 45 minutes, but it felt much shorter. As we began our descent, my anxiety returned. I find landings in commercial planes disconcerting. In part because I’m not in the cockpit and can’t see what’s coming (false sense of control issues much?) and sometimes, when the plane hits the ground, I worry about the resiliency of my teeth. In the Mooney, the landing was smooth — far less bumpy than driving my car down some of the roads on the Island.

Once out of the plane, I was still flying, just not in a literal sense. I’d pushed through something I was afraid of, and I not only survived — I had fun. It was a delightful dopamine boost. Am I still a bit afraid of flying? Yeah. But do I understand it a bit differently now? Yes. Gaining insight made the experience less terrifying.

Though I could see why Levinson loves flying, I still wanted to know how he feels when he’s at the helm. “I’m never bored,” he said. “There’s mastery involved — thinking and feeling. Landing a plane in a gusty crosswind is the funniest thing around. Any day flying is involved is a good day. There is a feeling I enjoy when taking off — the plane gets light in your hands, and you become unstuck from the ground.”


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