Melbourne-based Canadian expat pilot Peter Richards offers a touching story about taking his five-year-old daughter for her inspiring first flight in a light aircraft.
I have always loved flying. When I was eight I played on a soccer team, but would stop mid-play to stare up at passing aircraft, while my parents shouted from sidelines to, “watch the ball, son!”. While they didn’t think much of my ignoring the match I was nominally playing, they were at least partly to blame for my fascination.
I can remember so many warm Sunday afternoons when my family drove out to park at the end of the runway at Toronto International Airport. My parents would sit my sister and I on the roof of the car and we’d eat hot dogs as jets screamed just overhead. We had a ball, and we got to know the best times to go to see all the big trans-Atlantic 707’s, DC-8’s and 747’s roaring past. 21 years later, on one of the first dates with my future wife, we did the same. We put a dent in the roof of my car, but I can remember thinking she was a keeper when she enjoyed it as much as I did.
Like a lot of kids with planes on the brain, I learned to fly as an Air Cadet. That was about a million years ago, and I’ve flown steadily ever since, as well as spending hundreds and hundreds of hours on survey planes navigating and operating geophysics equipment at 300ft above the dirt. In all that time, I’ve found myself in the odd stressful situation, but only once have I had that sweaty-palm feeling on a sunny day with a perfectly operating aircraft.
CAPTION: On earlier flights, Richards introduced his older daughters Lene (left) and Sidney to flying and to Australia from the air.
My family and I moved to Melbourne in 2009, and I was keen to get flying as quickly as I could. I soon dragged the kids down to Moorabbin Airport so I could stop by the Royal Victorian Aero Club (RVAC) and enquire about what I’d need to do to be checked out to fly. Of course, with a three, four, and six-year old along, the visit revolved around the playground next to the control tower, but I found out what I needed in order to get flying Down Under.
Three months and several trees worth of paperwork later, my pilot’s license arrived. I remember picking up that registered letter at my local post office with that ‘little kid at Christmas’ excitement, as if I’d spotted a BB gun-sized parcel under the tree and just knew what was inside!
Having taken care of the paperwork, I finally found myself in the left seat of a C172 with an instructor showing me around my new backyard. Not too long after this, my youngest daughter, Sabine, turned five. My wife and I have three young daughters, and when they hit five it’s been a father-daughter tradition that I take them for a flight in a light aircraft. The rule I’ve had is that they must be at least five-years-old – my rationale being that they’d be tall enough to see out the windows, and (hopefully) sensible enough to keep quiet when I’m talking to the control tower.
Now, my older daughters each had a special solo trip with me for their first flight, but Sabine hadn’t had hers yet. Between the weather, work, school and family, the opportunity hadn’t come up in the months that had passed since her fifth birthday, and I was feeling bad about it.
CAPTION: Buckled in with her headset on, Sabine (with Teddy) calmly awaits start-up.
Looking out the window at work last Friday – a windy, but clear and sunny day – it occurred to me that I should surprise her after school! I called the RVAC and booked VH-LSP – a 2009 C172S with a “new-car-smell”, suped up engine, and a very “un-flying-club” spiffy leather interior. It’s the plane everyone likes to take first-time flyers in as it’s very comfy and new. I raced home from work, picked the kids up at school and handed out snacks in the car on the way to the airport. Arriving at the RVAC, I grabbed the keys and papers, strapped the big kids in back, Sabine in front on a booster seat, did the walk around and pre-flight checks and started up.
For a Canadian expat, Melbourne is a very busy place to be flying in, so between wheels up at Moorabbin and “Look, Sabine!” I hardly had time to appreciate what I was doing until we were in orbit over the city centre at 1500ft. It was amazing to hear her picking out landmarks – Eureka Tower, the MCG, St. Kilda Pier, Flinders Street train station and the Royal Exhibition building. I have a theory that kids are naturally better at identifying things from the air than adults as they haven’t got the mindset that something must always look a certain way, but rather can imagine it looking differently at any moment.
CAPTION: Though never having been in the air above Melbourne before, Sabine found it easy to identify landmarks from above, including the hallowed MCG.
A few minutes later, we were over our neighbourhood, their school, and then the Victoria State Police Academy – a VFR inbound reporting point for Moorabbin. Winds were a gusty 18-22kts at 280 when I was cleared for Runway 31L and asked to maintain 135 knots until on final as there was a Piper Malibu behind me. Turning to land, I bled off speed, put the flaps down partway (too gusty and too much crosswind for full flap) and concentrated on the trickier than expected approach. At that moment I heard the kids chatting and giggling to each other over their headsets and I had the realisation: “They’re all with you, Peter. Don’t bugger this up!”
For me, this was one of those “flash-bulb” moments that you get when you hear something big has happened. That view over the cowling at the precise moment that it clicked that I had my three children aboard is completely seared in my mind. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like a private pilot making a routine crosswind landing, but as if I were flying a stormy night approach onto a heaving carrier. I don’t think I’ve ever been more focused! Every gust lifting a wing or drifting me off the centreline was quietly cursed and corrected for, down, down, down until a bump and roll to the taxiway. Of course, the kids didn’t notice my inner turmoil, and before we had even come to a stop on the ramp, I had returned again to my usual role of “Dad in family car”, telling the kids to stop always making fart jokes, and to quit pestering each other.
On the way home from Moorabbin that day, I got thinking about my sister and me laughing and watching the jets blasting over us all those years ago and I wondered how my kids will remember our flights together. At the dinner table, I asked Sabine what she thought of her first flight. She looked up from her plate, shrugged and said, “I don’t remember…”. My heart sank – could she really not remember her flight with me just two hours earlier? Or even worse, could this mean that flying might not be universally esteemed as the coolest thing ever? (This is the cornerstone of my worldview.)
As these terrible thoughts swirled around my head, she added, “…but I liked watching Peter Pan!”. And then it clicked – she was, thank heavens, referring to our flight from Canada to Australia when she and her sisters crossed the Pacific, and watched Peter Pan about 10 times consecutively. Phew! All was right on planet earth. Pressing on, I said, “No, no, I mean flying today, in the little plane with me. What did you think of that?”. There was a pause, and with a mouthful of noodles she grinned and said, “It was fun! I liked wearing the headset!”.
I think I’ll ask her again in 15 years.
CAPTION: Five-year-old Sabine in the cockpit looking every bit the aspiring young aviator.