TO GET A TASTE of the training, I signed on for a three-day familiarization course with Albuquerque's West Mesa Aviation. With Bird looking on, I performed the preflight check on the altimeter, tachometer, and the rest of the instruments; I walked around the aircraft, eyeballing flaps and ailerons for structural damage. He taught me how to read the weather, what to do if I found myself staring down a massive thunderhead ("fly at least 20 miles away from the storm"), and how to select a runway based on the current wind conditions (you always want to take off with the wind in your face; ditto for setting it down).
By day three, I'd absorbed so much charlie-alpha-bravo jargon that my head ached, but that was a good thing, because the morning agenda involved a "cross-country" trip of about 100 miles, from Albuquerque, across the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, to the small railroad town of Las Vegas, on the mountains' eastern slope. It was during this lesson that I discovered something that instruction can't prepare you for: turbulence. After an hour of pitching and rolling like a yacht in big seas, I was turning green.
Nothing seemed to rattle the Birdman. He calmly produced a white paper sack.
"Don't worry," he said, "it happens to the best of us up here." I flew the Evolution with one hand on the stick and the other clutching the bag. Thankfully, nothing ever came of it. An hour and a half later, Bird took the controls back and gently set us down back at our home base.
Maybe someday I'll learn how to land an airplane, but I was really jazzed about what I'd accomplished in just three days. I folded up the bag and tucked it behind the seat.
"We'll save that for the next newbie," I told the Birdman.