Flying Blind

by Andrew Oliveira


December 29th, 2011. A Cessna 172 took off from the Brampton Flying Club. It pointed its nose south west to begin a roundabout route into downtown Toronto for a CN Tower tour, a route specifically designed to avoid the insanity of Pearson’s airspace. The little Cessna was the last plane to take off that day as a front of winter fog and haze was encroaching from the north.

Phillip, my teenaged brother, sat in the pilot seat with my girlfriend, Barbara, next to him. When I was younger, I had spent a whole summer flying in order to get my pilot's license, so I volunteered to take the back seat. I had felt superior to my brother up to that day: six years older and more experienced in life. Yet, on that day that I did something I had never done before: I trusted my brother with my life.

The small engine let out a constant loud thrum, but headsets made conversation possible—it also felt very cool speaking into a mouthpiece. We were excited because the flight was a Christmas gift and an experience Barbara had never had before. One that I wanted to share with her, almost like giving her a look at my past. The sky was cloudy, yet visibility was good at 16 kilometers. Phillip knew that we didn't have a lot of time because a bank of bad weather was coming. He was confident that he would get Barbara and me back safely. I was just eager to be up in the air, and to give Barbara a taste of flying in a small plane.

Peering down below, I saw buildings as minute blocks of grey and brown as the plane flew over the conglomerate of cities towards the lakeshore. Phillip got clearance for the CN Tower tour and banked the small four-seater east, following the shore of Lake Ontario. We passed by the building Barbara’s parent’s lived in and sent them a text from the air, hoping that they would peer outside their window and spot the little plane passing by.  We flew above downtown and peered out at the CN tower, a slim spike standing above the metal and concrete. After the full tour of downtown, we started to retrace our flight path back to the Brampton flying club. That’s when trouble hit.

After following the lakeshore west, Phillip steered the plane back towards land. Already wisps of mist and clouds were obscuring the horizon, but Phillip didn’t say a word. I knew the situation was turning foul, but we had two lifelines: the plane`s radio and basic GPS system with a tiny screen—essentially a smart compass. As the propeller pulled forward, the visibility went from poor to worse.

Strangely, I gave Phillip my complete trust. I had once thought myself a pilot, flying my little two-seater out of London, Ontario. But, that summer was far behind me. Unlike me, Phillip fell in love with flying. To me it was a hobby because I couldn’t envision my life carrying passengers or cargo from one place to the next. Phillip was seduced by the sky. Playing flight simulators, he would chart realistic 7-hour flights from Canada to Lisbon, and just let the computer run, making adjustments as he went. I used to tease him that what he was doing wasn’t really flying. He would shake his head and argue with me. Yet, when Phillip started to follow my footsteps by getting his pilot’s license, he agreed with me. Flying was something that couldn't be simulated. Then my little brother started to surpass me in every way. He kept his hours up by taking cadets, friends, and relatives up for flights. He would take charts and splash them over a table to study every landmark. When he studied flying, he absorbed it, placing first in test after test. So, I sat back and didn’t say a word as we flew into the mist.

Fog and haze dropped the visibility to a few kilometers. A pilot flying by sight without the instruments that keep larger planes safe, like Phillip was, relies on good, long range visibility to fly. Phillip had just over three kilometers. That cut in visibility is the same as trying to drive on the highway while only being able to see three meters ahead of the car, and no one is slowing down.

Phillip lowered his altitude so he could still see the major roadways beneath him and he had the GPS pointing straight to the flying club. Tense minutes ticked by as I kept my ear strained on the radio for call signs. I tried not to imagine midair collisions. The iced-over air strip appeared just as we were flying right over it. Phillip entered the circuit over the airfield and turned in for a landing. He over-steered the turn. With a quick adjustment we were back on track, flaps down, wheels touched asphalt, and we were safe and sound on the ground. Silence.

Phillip finished his checks, and we walked back to the club. I finally admitted how scary that flight had been. Barbara was shocked; the silence in the cockpit had insulated her from the reality of the situation. I heckled Phillip, exaggerated his errors, but I was proud. Phillip made mistakes. He could have gotten radio assistance to navigate home, or he could have been more cautious about the weather. Nevertheless, my little brother, the rascal, was a skilled and trained pilot at seventeen, and from that point on, he was no longer the little kid that I had teased and protected from bullies. He was a young man, one that I could trust with the life of the people dearest to me. As we were signing back into the club, I smiled. It felt good to have a friend like Phillip.