As long-time readers know, I have kept my flight instructor rating current so as to have an additional source of income when I'm not off in the wild beyond. So here I am, the week before Christmas, back in a Cessna 150. I'm in the right seat, flying night circuits from a little strip next to a lake. The snow isn't very deep so the ice glistens through in strips where the wind has bared it. There's enough moonlight and other ambient light reflecting off the snow that I can see the shapes of the evergreen trees below us as we climb out from the touch and go. It's odd yet familiar to fly again in the tiny single engine airplane with the toylike controls. I'm not handling the controls, just supervising as the student practises night take-offs and landings.
I experience a moment of "how did I get here?" disconnection. Did I fall asleep? Instructors do a lot, but it's never happened to me. I make sleep a priority, and now more than ever I'm aware of the need to be alert at night with only one engine holding us above the trees. The windshield is fogged up and I reach to wipe it with my coat sleeve--the little Cessna defogger only clears a patch on the left pilot's side--but then I realize that it's not fog obscuring my view, the window has iced over on the outside. A warning flag goes up in my head. Ice? I still can't see forward. As I scan the instruments to ensure the airplane is maintaining altitude on downwind I wonder why the windscreen would ice in cold, clear weather. If there's ice on the window, where else is there ice? "Is the pitot heat on?" I ask.
Or rather start to ask. Before I've finished the question I'm facing a completely different direction and there are branches. Tree branches. The airplane is in a tree. The windshield remains opaque. I still don't have a complete picture of what has happened. Is the engine on? Another blank in memory. We must have secured it. I'm not sure how we got down, have no memory of anything we might have said to one another. There is no fire. I have a mental snapshot image of the end of a building, the peaked eaves of the roof damaged. We must have hit the tree, bent the tree to hit the building and then stayed in the tree as it bounced back. No memory of it. I can see a large clay pot knocked off a ledge of the building and broken in half, but not an image of the airplane.
For some reason the student is still holding the CFS as we walk, apparently unhurt, to where we know there is a payphone. I'm rehearsing in my head telling the aircraft owner what we've done to the plane. "Everyone's okay, but ..." My career, my confidence, my reputation, my ability to be insured as a pilot, my dreams ...
The student dials the payphone, then I take the handset away. "I'm pilot in command," I say. That's a little rude. A flight instructor did that to me years ago after I eagerly followed protocol on the ground after a radio failure. In my hand the phone is ringing and ringing, no answer. I look at the CFS in the student's hand in order to see the protocol, the correct order of everything to be reported in the event of an aviation accident. For some reason this is important to me at this moment. I want to get the last thing in my career right. Then I see from the page that he has looked up a number for the Transportation Safety Bureau, but it's a daytime number. I hang up in order to redial the Nav Canada twenty-four hour number at 1-888-WX-BRIEF but I never do.
The next thing I know I'm lying down. There's no pain. It's like I'm ... oh ... like I just woke up. I just did. I'm in my own bed. The whole thing was a dream. It probably took three seconds and my subconscious just filled in all the details so it seemed to make sense.
Now I admit that that was a freaking cruel way to tell a story to readers who I know feel for me in my ups and downs, but I hope you gasped in horror. I wanted to tell the story so you would feel what it was like. I didn't even have the dreams tag on the blog entry to tip me off that this wasn't really happening. I guess I should have remembered that I don't have any flight students right now, and don't live near a little airstrip next to a frozen lake, and that real life does not just start into the middle of the story, but I have the excuse that I was not paying really close attention on account of being fast asleep.
As nightmares go, it doesn't rival Kafka. No one was hurt. I'm sitting at my desk now laughing as I realize that I am relating a nightmare that was largely about paperwork. The bad part is that I didn't feel any better about it once I had woken up. As I lay awake in my bed, I knew with one hundred percent certainty that nothing had really happened. No real airplane or building had been damaged. No one was even scratched. There was no paperwork to be done. But it didn't matter. I still felt responsible. I was so overwhelmed with guilt to have been so inattentive as to have had an accident. I was pilot in command. I should have realized that there was a risk of pitot icing, should have known all the obstacle heights, should not have fallen asleep. I'm literally lying awake, unable to sleep, beating myself up for an unforgivable lapse in responsible behaviour which occurred while I was in my own bed asleep. I try to tell myself that it wasn't my fault, but that's no excuse. When you are pilot in command, it is always your fault.
As I lie there thinking it over, I gradually realize where the parts of the dream come from. Sitting in a stationary vehicle with the windshield iced over and the engine running is the story of Canada in the winter. You start the car up, turn on the heater and defroster and then wait a bit to loosen the ice a little before you start scraping. Just as first place someone lived fills the role of "house" in a dream, the first airplane I flew became "airplane." And suddenly I realize that in my life the "responsibility" is represented by airplanes.
What do the top of an evergreen tree and the edge of the roof of a house have in common? It's where you put Christmas lights. This is not a dream about airplanes. It's a plain old holiday stress dream about distributing gifts appropriately, doing my year-end paperwork, filing all those utility bills that I haven't even opened, because they are supposed to autopay through my bank account. So I'm not an irresponsible pilot. I'm someone who can't be bothered to do her Christmas shopping and write cheques to charity. That's much better. The relief is so great it takes away all the Christmas stress too.
I fall back asleep and dream I am staying in a hotel room that has a glass elevator and overlooks a hockey rink in which Steven Spielberg is directing a gangster movie. A gangster movie musical. A huge cast of flapper girls and zoot suited guys toting those old-fashioned guns with magazines the size of a medium pizza are high-stepping in unison towards the blue line while making dramatic arm movements. Life is back to normal.
This blog post brought to you courtesy of the NDB RWY 23T into Alert, NWT. The MSFS flight analysis looks bizarre because it maps it onto a grid with 15" squares and at that latitude the graticules are tall, tall rectangles.