The next morning, Amy woke up and sat on the side of her bed. She recalled her career conversation with her parents and felt a sense of grief. She grabbed her pillow from behind and held it to her stomach.
I wonder what dreams did Mum give up herself for being a woman?
Amy decided to not share her own dream with her parents for now. She did not want to hear them tell her how ridiculous it was for her to become a pilot. To their mind, it was probably crazier than becoming a geologist. Geologists had at least their feet on the ground.
Oh Amy sweetheart, you can’t become a pilot. No one will trust a woman flying a plane.
She could hear her mother say. If nobody knew about it, then nobody could tear it down. Amelia Earhart was a great pilot. It was clear that women could fly a plane too.
Amy went to secretary school as per her mother’s request. In secretary school, Amy found it odd that only women were taking these classes. She also learned that girls only wanted to be secretaries so that they could find a better husband.
‘I don’t understand. How does becoming a secretary help people find a good husband?’ Amy asked Judith who who was putting some makeup while they were waiting for the class to start.
‘Amy dear, if you can get good grades, you can get a good job in a big company.’
‘I get that. That makes sense,’ Amy nodded.
‘So if you can get into a big company, you get to work for people who are more successful and has a bigger pay check. If you can find your husband in that pool, he is more likely to be financially successful. Got it?’
‘I see. And if you don’t find your husband there, then what?’
‘Then you still have a good job in a big company that pays well. No down side!’
‘So it’s a means to an end, as well as a safety net.’
‘Yes Amy, you got it.’
That could work for me too.
Through her parents’ connections, Amy got a job in the lac local council. Her supervisor Mathew, was a middle-aged man with a stereotypical middle-aged man figure. He had hair on both sides of his head with long strands in between like bridges connecting the two sides. He wore a tie and a business shirt that struggled to completely close itself at the belly.
Mathew dropped a stack of papers down on his desk and plonked himself onto his plush rotatable high backed chair complete with armrests. Amy stood rigidly in front of him holding her notepad and pen by her side. He had called Amy in to dictate a letter to her.
‘Amy, it never ceases to amaze me how many stupid people there are. Everyday, I tell ya. Every single day, I get a ridiculous request. Look, here’s another one. This bloke wants the council to relocate the rubbish tip because the close proximity of this unsightly structure to his house has a negative impact to his house value. The rubbish tip was there before his house was built. It’s not like he didn’t know. That’s why he got the land cheap. Unbelievable! Now we have to respond to this idiot. Amy, you ready?’
Amy brought her notepad and pen close up to her face.
‘Dear Mr. Sullivan, We regret to inform you that your request to remove the town’s waste collection centre has been denied. This facility is an essential service to the community and has been in its current location for a considerable period of time, dating back to 1875. The council has no plan to relocate this facility to another location in our current planning. If it is any consolation, properties in proximity of this facility tend to be more affordable and therefore represent great value to their owners. Yours sincerely,’ Paul spoke quickly in one breath.
Amy gripped her pencil tightly and scribbled as quickly as she could. She was onto the second sentence when Paul stood up.
‘Good, so you got all that? I have to run to my lunch appointment with Mr. Davidson in town. I’ll review the letter when I come back.’
Amy stared at her incomplete transcript and swallowed. Her palms were sweaty and her face felt hot.
‘Yes, Sir,’ Amy replied hesitantly without looking up.
Shit. What am I going to do?
Amy went back to her own desk. She sat down on her short back wooden chair and tried to complete the letter that her boss had just dictated to her. She strained to recall but nothing came to mind. It was futile. She looked up and around for help. However, the office area was empty. Everyone had already gone out for lunch.
Oh no, I’m going to get fired and Mum’s going to kill me.
She scanned the office looking for an inspiration and there, she spotted the filing cabinet.
What, didn’t he say that this kind of things happens everyday?
Amy walked over to the filing cabinet and looked for past correspondences. She took out a few to read and discovered quickly that there are a lot of similarities. Thank goodness to the stupidity of humankind, it wasn’t difficult to find a couple of samples. She took a couple of them back with her and used them to finish her own letter. She placed it sheepishly on Mattew’s desk and hopped out to have her own lunch.
He probably wouldn’t notice the difference.
Sitting in the sun with her long leg stretched out, Amy munched on her sandwich. She flicked through the pages of the local newspaper and then slowed down at the classified section. That’s her favourite read. She felt like she was peeping into the lives of the people around around her. They revealed an intimate part of society, of how people actually lived. She would scrutinise each advertisement and smiled. Most of the ads were regulars but every now and then, she would spot something new.
The new advertisement today turned out to be more than lunch time amusement. It would change Amy’s life. The new ad was only small. It was a rectangular ad featuring a hand-drawn aeroplane with the text “Flying Lessons – £6.10 per hour. Beginners welcome.”.
Amy’s eyes widened when she saw the ad. Her jaws stopped mid chew. She picked up the newspaper with both hands and brought it close to her face. She read the ad again and again, examining every inch of that little rectangle. She wanted to make sure that this was real. She continued to stare at the paper but her eyes were no longer focused. Adrenalin coursed through her body and her heart raced. She was flying an aircraft. She was in the air.
When saliva started to drip down the side of her mouth and her half-masticated sandwich threatened to make an appearance, she returned to her body. She sucked her sandwich back in and hastily swallowed it with a brief bite. Amy tore the ad from the paper and put it in her pocket.
This is it. I am doing it.
There was only one small problem. The flying lesson was expensive. £6.12 was how much Amy made in an entire week. That evening at home, Amy sat down to make some calculations.
If I don’t go out, I can afford one flying lesson per month.
The next day, Amy picked up the phone to make an appointment. She made sure that she was alone and no one could hear her phone conversation. Her shoulders were above her ears with her tension. She pressed the phone so firmly to her ear that even her other ear went red. It was an immense relief to Amy when the voice on the other end of the phone sounded friendly and welcoming. The person simply took her details and said to see her on the day.
Amy was on cloud nine after that phone call. Everything was brighter. The world was beautiful. She was excited. She had a smile that could not be wiped off.
‘Hey Amy. It’s none of my business to ask but are you seeing someone?’ Martha, a c0-worker in her twenties who sat next to her asked.
‘No!’ Amy blushed.
‘Martha, Amy is only sixteen. She’s too young for that sort of stuff. Don’t pollute her young mind.’ Joanne, an older worker interjected.
‘What? Sweet sixteen is the perfect age for this sort of stuff. Amy’s a pretty girl and there is this glow about her. She looks like someone in love,’ Martha placed her hands on her chin, closed her eyes and smiled.
‘Thanks Martha, maybe I am. Just not with a person!’ Amy smiled and skipped away before either Martha or Joanne had a chance to ask further questions.
I’m going to be too busy for anything else!
She also needed more money. Amy had to find more work. She searched for a weekend job and eventually found one working on the dining car on the train. Serving food and beverages to train passengers turned out to be tougher than she had imagined. The train rocked side to side pleasantly when one’s sitting down. However, when one’s standing up, the rocking became less friendly with a higher centre of gravity. Then if one was tall and holding a tray of food and drinks, the rocking could turn into a terror.
Amy carried her food tray precariously between the tables praying that the coffee would not spill. It was nerve wracking and awkward at best, and outright embarrassing when drinks were spilled along the way. To make things worse, she learned that long arms were a liability in confined spaces. Any efforts to re-gain her balance often meant knocking somebody else out.
‘Oops, I’m sorry. I’ll clean that up,’ Amy said apologetically to her fellow work mate. Amy had just delivered her drinks to the table and was turning around to return to the service counter. She didn’t realise that another waitress was right behind her, and promptly elbowed the other waitress in the back, knocking the coffees off her tray.
‘Don’t worry, it happens all the time. You’ll find your train legs soon,’ smiled the barman when Amy returned to the service counter.
‘I hope so. It’s hard to be graceful when you don’t know when and where the next lurch is going to come from,’ said Amy wiping sweats off her forehead.
‘It’s all in the feet and legs. You need strong legs and core to maintain your balance.’
‘Right! Now, a cheese toastie for table woh…’ Amy fell backwards as the train lurched to the right. She grabbed onto the counter bench with one hand while her other arm flailed backwards, smacking the barman on his forehead.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry Jim,’
‘It’s fine. Jeez, those long arms of yours have quite a reach.’
‘I’m really sorry!’
‘It’s fine. My head is still on my neck. By the way, what’s a pretty girl like you doing a job like this on a train?’
‘I need the money.’
‘To do what?’
‘To pay for school.’
‘What kind of school?’
‘I don’t want to say.’
‘Why, because it is illegal?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Then why don’t you want people to know?’
Because I don’t want people to dissuade me.’
‘If you have already made up your mind, how could other people dissuade you?’
‘If what you want to do is not considered normal, everybody would try to stop you.’
‘What is it that you want to do is so abnormal?’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘Alright, I want to become a pilot.’
‘A woman pilot? Are you kidding? Women can’t even drive…’
The train made another hard lurch and Amy’s arm went flailing again, this time smacking Jim in the mouth.
‘Oh I’m so sorry again. No, actually I’m not. I think you deserved that one.’
‘It hurt. You didn’t do this on purpose, did you?’
‘No, I’m sorry. It was an accident. But you shouldn’t say things like that. It’s just prejudice.’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause offence. It just came out. Slip of the tongue. ‘
‘Apology accepted. Now you see why I don’t like to tell people.’
‘Well, put it this way. You’re not going to miss a landing with that bloody aim of yours. I think you’ll make a very good pilot,’ Jim gave Amy a sheepish grin and put his thumb up.
‘Yes I will!’
Between her council and waiting job on the train, Amy had little time for anything else. It was work and sleep on repeat. Whenever Amy felt her sore feet, felt lonely or felt disgusted with her greasy hair and smelly clothes, she would take out her bank deposit book. When she saw her bank account grow, a smile would form on her face and she was ready to do it all over again.
I can’t believe it. My first flying lesson is this weekend.
Amy could hardly sleep the night before her first lesson. She had taken the day off work. When she rose, the sky was still dark outside. She went to her closet and ceremoniously took out the clothes that she would wear today. They were all hung neatly in a single hanger. She had prepared her dress a week in advance. It was the green dress first, then she changed her mind and picked the yellow one. That went on for some time. She wanted to make sure that she would leave a good impression. She wanted to appear smart and capable.
Amy laid out on her bed a one piece light grey knee length dress with a built-in belt. That was her final decision in the end. It was formal enough to show respect but not too formal. The stocking was brand new and she would wear her white ballet flat. The dress should go well with her white hand bag. Just before leaving her room, Amy stopped by the wall where a calendar was hung. She placed her finger to the date that had been circled by a red marker. The date was Sunday, May 27 1962.
Today’s the day.
Amy left the house as quietly as she possibly could. She didn’t want to wake her parents up. The trip to the Bankstown aerodrome would take her over two hours by public transport. She would catch a bus, then a train followed by another bus. Yet, it felt like the most exciting commute she had ever been on. On the last bus leg, Amy followed the road signs with the airplane symbol on it, just as she did as a child in the back of her father’s car. The bus turned left, then right. It went on one road, then another. All the time faithfully following the iconic sign. When the bus rounded a corner and the first aircraft could be seen on the tarmac, Amy’s heart fluttered. Even though she had already flown a numerous times with her many visits to Stanthorpe, today would be different. Today, she would be learning how to fly one.
David, the flying instructor greeted Amy with a firm handshake. He was in his early forties with a rich tan. His deep lines on the forehead and face were probably from sun exposure. When he smiled, he exuded warmth. He was dressed in a pilot’s uniform with a white shirt, black tie and black pants. On each of the shoulder sat an epaulette with four gold stripes.
Wow, four stripes.
‘Amy? It’s lovely to meet you. If you could please follow me this way.’
David held his clipboard under his arm led Amy to the end of the building. There was a door at the end of the walkway that led to an outdoor area. When they stepped outside, the smell of airplane fuel filled Amy’s nose. They kept walking until David stopped in front of a small aircraft. It was tiny, a fraction of the size of the DC3 that she used to fly on between Sydney and Stanthorpe. It almost looked like a toy. The aluminium panels on the plane looked flimsy. Standing at such a close distance to the plane, she could see the rivets and sheets that hold the plane together.
Right, don’t panic. It’ll be fine. An aircraft has to be light. It’s designed to be this way. David looks really relaxed.
‘Amy, this is the aircraft that we will be using today. It’s a Piper Cherokee PA28, a single engine aircraft. Before we take off, there are a number of ground checks that we have to make. The first step is to walk around the aircraft,’ David started to circle the aircraft and Amy followed him.
‘We check the condition of the aircraft to make sure that there are no visible damage to any parts of the aircraft. We check that there’s no debris on the ground. We don’t want to run over anything that could damage the aircraft when we taxi as we may not be able to see them once we’re in the cockpit.’
A gust of wind came by and the whole plane shook.
‘Don’t worry, the plane is tied down by three ropes secured to the ground. One for each wing and one for the nose. I’ll remove them before we take off. There’s also a chock here in front of the wheel to stop the plane from moving. Someone else will remove it for us once we are inside the cockpit before we take off.’
‘Now, we check the fuel and oil. The tank should be full and there are no contaminations. It’s critical that fuel is clean. We can test both with a wooden stick.’
David stood next to the fuel cap and produced two wooden rods that he must have been carrying. He opened the fuel cap and dipped the first rod into the tank. He examined the rod after pulling it out and nodded his head. Then he showed it to Amy.
‘See this line here, it shows me that the tank is full. If you hold the rod up and watch the fuel run down, you can see that the viscosity is consistent. This means that water had not gotten in. There’s also no debris or any rubbish on the fuel. So all looking good. It is critical that the fuel is clean in an aircraft.’
‘Right. And we have to do this every time?’
‘Every single time.’
‘Next, we check the engine oil. This is similar to how you would check a car’s engine oil.’
‘Oh I know a lot about that. My father is a car mechanic.’
‘Great, you would appreciate how important it is to look after our machines then.’
‘Certainly, it keeps Dad in business,’ Amy laughed.
‘Very good, and the roads from broken down cars so that we can all get to work on time.’ David went along.
‘May I touch the plane?’ Amy asked tentatively.
‘Yes, go ahead, have a little feel.’
Amy ran her fingers lightly along the body of the plane. The surface was smooth. She then ran her fingers along the line of rivets.
Wow, I am touching a plane.
Amy wiped the dust off the fingers and nodded to David to indicate that she was ready to continue.
‘The pilot’s seat is on the left. This will be your seat today,’ David pointed to the aircraft door.
What? I’m taking the pilot’s seat already?
This was also when Amy noticed that the door was situated right above the wing.
And how on earth do I get inside?
As if on cue, David pointed to a metal foot bar hanging out just behind the wing.
‘Grab the handle here and step on the foot bar. Walk on the this part of the wing only where it has been reenforced,’ David explained.
Amy climbed onto the wing as instructed. She then squeezed her long legs into the cockpit. It was like a tiny cave. The confined space was cramped with instrument panels. There were hardly any space for anything. Booklets and documents were stuffed into gaps around the dashboard and the windscreen. It was rather, casual.
Once Amy was inside the cockpit, David went to his side of the door and climbed up himself. He closed the aircraft door and gestured for Amy to do the same.
‘There are two seat belts here. There’s one that go around your waist. Pull that in real firm. This is what will hold you in your seat when we’re in the air. The one that goes across your chest is to stop you moving forward and face planting into the instruments on landing.’
Amy followed David’s instruction and strapped herself in.
‘Now, put these on,’ David handed her an army green headset with a small microphone sticking out.
This is so exciting.
For a couple of minutes, David ignored Amy and busied himself with a booklet and touching various parts of the controls with his hands and feet. Amy watched David clamber around and thought he looked a bit like someone who had lost something and trying to find it. Then he turned his head to Amy and gave her a scan her from top to bottom. Without saying a word, he leaned forward to turn the key on the ignition.
The aircraft made a coughing noise, then another one. The propeller at the front of the plane rotated haltingly with each cough. After a few coughs, the engine roared into a steady hum, and the propeller spun so fast that Amy could not longer see them.
Suddenly, a crackle came through the headset and David’s voice came in. It sounded strangely distant, and not not from a person sitting right next to her. Amy listened to the crackle and smiled.
Oh wow. I really feel like a pilot now.
‘Can you hear me?’ David asked.
‘Yes David, loud and clear.’
‘Great, once we are inside an aircraft, we have to communicate via the headsets. See this button here, you push it if you want to talk to the air traffic controller. Everything that you say can be heard by others then.’
‘I’ll be careful not to touch that button then,’ Amy smiled.
‘We will now taxi to the the runway.’
David pulled back gently on the throttle and the plane moved forward.
‘This is the throttle and it controls speed of plane similar to the accelerator pedal in a car. The brakes are in front of your feet. You use it just as you would in a car. You put your foot on it and the plane will stop. Try it.’
Amy stepped on the brake pedal and the plane stopped immediately launching both of them forward. Amy was pleased about the seat belt tip which David gave earlier. Amy released the brakes and the plane moved forward again.
‘Good,’ David said.
David just smiled and continued.
‘When we taxi, we use differential braking to turn the plane. What this means is that, when we want to turn left, the brake is applied to the left wheel so only the right wheel can turn. This will turn the aircraft to the left. Similarly, when we want to turn right, the brake will be applied to the right wheel so that only the left wheel can turn. This will turn the plane to the right. It sounds complicated but the control is quite simple.’
‘To control the aircraft, we use the control stick. Some people call it the joy stick, some people call it the control column. It has many names but I like to call it the control stick,’ David pointed to the protruding rod in front of her.
‘The control stick can move left and right to control the direction of the aircraft. It can also move forward and backward to control the pitch of the aircraft. When the aircraft is on the ground, only the left and right movements would be relevant. Have a feel with the control. Do a zig zag.’
Amy pulled the control stick left and the plane moved to the left. She pulled the control right and the plane moved right.
That’s quite easy.
‘Now, straighten up the plane and see if you can take us to the blue sign there.’
Amy straightened up the plane and held the control stick in position.
‘Alright, there’s our runway. I’ll take over for now. We’ll get clearance from air traffic control and then we can take off.’
David talked to someone on the headset and then he pulled the throttle all the way back.
‘On take off, we use maximum power,’ David spoke as he pushed the throttle all the way forward.
The plane started move faster and it took a few seconds to gain speed. Amy’s eyes were wide with anticipation. She had no idea how much faster would the plane go before it would lift from the ground. She looked outside to watch the ground outside as the plane sped along the runway. When she turned her head back, she noticed that the control stick in front of her was moving rapidly left and right, and then it pulled back and the plane started to climb. That was when Amy realised that whatever David did to the yoke on his side, the yoke on her side would move in sync.
‘Okay, once we are in the air, we can reduce throttle to 90% during the climb and we would then fly at 75% throttle. If we reduce power to 50% if we want to fly slower,’ David explained.
‘Is 50% the minimum to stay in the air?’
‘Pretty much. Any slower you will start to descend as there would not be enough speed to maintain lift.’
Amy looked about her. The sky was a glorious blue. There was not a single cloud around. The sun was above them and she could feel the heat through the windshield. She took a look at David and he seemed to be enjoying the flight. He was looking around with a smile on his face.
Even though the weather was magnificent, the plane would get bumped around.
‘Is that the wind?’ Amy asked when the plane got another bump.
‘Partially. You can’t see it but air has different densities. When the plane flies over a patch of air that is less dense, it will naturally drop until it hits air that is of a higher density. Those areas are usually quite small. This is why they are called pockets. The drop is small and it feels more like a bump However, every now and then, you can come across a large air pocket and the drop will be correspondingly bigger,’ David gave a cheeky grin.
‘When your plane is in the air, you have to be aware of the third dimension. There could be an aircraft above you or below you and you need to know that. Can you see other planes around you?’
Amy looked around and could see another small aircraft a way away to her left.
‘Yes, I see another plane over there.’
‘Good. It’s important to have awareness of your surroundings at all times.’
‘Once we have climbed to our designated altitude, we want to maintain that altitude. This means keeping the plane level. If the nose points up, the plane will climb. If the nose points down, the plane will descend. We need to keep the nose level. If we want to point the nose of the plane up, we pull the control stick back. If we want to point the nose down, we push down on the control stick. Got that?’
‘One very important thing to note is that when you control the aircraft, you do everything gently. You make small movements. You never make big movements. Okay?’
‘Alright, I will now hand the control to you and see if you can hold the plane level. Remember, small movements.’
Amy placed her hands on the control stick and just felt it for a moment. The plane felt level without her doing anything. Then she felt the plane dip a little and she pulled the yoke back gently. Right away, she felt the plane pull up. Then she eased the control stick back to bring the plane level and held it there.
‘Very good. That’s it,’ David smiled at Amy.
Amy’s heart leapt. She grinned from ear to ear after that successful movement.
‘Good. See if you can keep it going for a few more minutes.’
Amy strained to stay focus on the control. She discovered that her movements were more jerky if she was tense.
Relax. Gentle. Small movements.
‘Woh,’ Amy made a noise when the plane suddenly dropped a couple of feet.
‘Air pocket?’ Amy pulled the yoke to get the plane back higher, and looked at David.
‘There’s a bit of weather coming in from the west as well,’ David pointed his finger to some clouds to his right.
‘What do we do?’
‘It’s perfect timing as we’ve just completed our loop and it’s time to head back to the airport.’
Amy relaxed and handed control back to David. Amy watched David gently lowered the nose of the plane and then levelled out before pushing the nose down again. He did that repeatedly and then suddenly, the run way came into view. She watched David make small but rapid movements to the yoke to control the plane even though she couldn’t feel anything. It appeared that David was constantly reacting to something that could only be perceived if your hands were on the control stick. The runway seemed to be rushing up to the plane. When the plane was just above the run way, David pulled the throttle all the way back and the plane went quiet with the engine just idling. The she lost sight of the runway as the nose of the plane went up. The the plane was down on the ground with the smallest thud.
‘Wow, that was good,’ Amy smiled.
‘Want to take us take to the hangar?’ David indicated for Amy to take control.
Amy eagerly nodded with her heart still beating fast from the thrill of the landing.
‘How did you find it?’ David asked after turning off the engine.
‘I loved it.’ Amy said as she removed her headset.
‘Good,’ David removed his and started to gather the papers around him.
‘And… how did I go?’ Amy held her breath for David’s response.
Please please please say I did okay.
‘Let’s see,’ David looked up to compose his thoughts.
Oh no, he’s looking for nice words to say something bad.
‘You listened and you paid attention. You followed my instructions diligently, and you enjoyed the lesson. I’d say you did pretty well. I have no complaints,’ David smiled and continued to pack up around him. Amy let out a sigh of relief. Her face had gone beetroot red from the heat, the nerves and the thrills from the last hour.
‘Thank you David,’
‘You’re welcome. Are you going to continue with learning how to fly?’
‘I thought so. By the way, you can wear slacks around here. We all do.’