The Catalyst

The Catalyst

One rather innocuous experience delivered the most exhilarating, victorious, and perfect moments of my life.

“‘What if I fall?’ Oh my darling, what if you fly?” Asta Lander

It took every ounce of courage to knock. Wide-eyed and heart pounding, I heard my voice squeak out a greeting as my flight-instructor neighbor opened his door. And so began the adventure that would change my life in ways I could not have imagined: that knock on the door and asking Al to teach me to “fly upside down.”

The day of my first lesson arrived and I awoke with intense anxiety that locked up my gut and refused to let me breathe. I told myself unconvincingly that it would be OK. It was a beau- tiful day. I was an experienced pilot and supposedly an adult too. One way or another, it would all be over in an hour.

When I arrived for the flight, Al was leaning up against the engine cowling of his Decathlon aerobatic aircraft, looking relaxed and cool with that big grin of his stretching across his face. He briefed me on the flight. Flying upside down means the sky ends up where the Earth should be. If the nose of the aircraft goes up, the aircraft is descending—not climbing. To maintain altitude, push the stick forward rather than pull back on it. He explained this all matter-of-factly, but it’s counterintuitive, to say the least.

“Breathe, Kellie . . . deep . . . deeeep breathe,” I told myself.

I settled into the front seat as Al shared thorough instructions and familiarization with the cockpit—including the extra preparations like shoulder harnesses tight and no loose objects in the cabin.

Oh, God! What the hell was I thinking? I thought, practically aloud. Actually, my whole flying life seemed like an immensely stupid idea at that moment.

Al continued, oblivious to my terror. “OK? Let’s go!”

How could he be so calm?

Al’s voice crackled into my headphones, “Let’s get good and high—5,000 feet—in case anything happens, so you have plenty of room to recover.”

The ascent felt a lot like the slow, upward chugging of a roller coaster before it breaks over the top and screams downward. I felt captive, knowing what was coming and powerless to stop it. As we reached altitude and leveled off, I was sweating as if I had personally climbed that high. Meanwhile, Al began to direct the next moves. “OK, let’s pick out a road below to line up with, and we’ll do a loop.”

I found a road and he told me to dive for entry airspeed. “Hold the aircraft straight with both feet on the rudders. When we hit 140 mph, level the nose, then start to pull straight back slowly and steadily on the stick.”

As we reached 140, I pulled back, the nose of the aircraft moved out of the dive, through level flight, and started an upward and then backward movement. My body was pinned into the seat as the g-force increased. I was sure we would fall out of the sky.

“Now look out to your left to see your progress toward inverted at the top of the loop—pull pull pull back.” Looking out the side window, I could see the sky disappearing and the Earth taking its place.

Al continued, “OK, keep pulling back—OK—we are at the top of the loop now—release a bit of backpressure on the stick and feel the controls unload to neutral as we float across the top. Now look backward for the horizon so you can keep wings level. . . . Keep even pressure on the rudders. . . . Feel the sensation of neutral as we float!”

And I saw land where the sky should be! It sent thrill shivers through me as I realized I was actually doing this. We were upside down! It felt oddly freeing and just a bit badass at the same time.

The forward momentum carried us out of inverted and down the backside of the loop. I pulled back on the stick to slow the steep descent—and suddenly, over the nose of the aircraft the Earth reappeared right where it should be, with the sky stacked on top of it. At Al’s instruction, I reduced power, loosened my white-knuckle grip on the stick, and flew straight ahead—none the worse for wear. Amazing!

I was all smiles when we landed—and had to wonder who was the person who had been so crippled with fear just a short time before. I had learned a lot about trusting aerodynamics and that the laws of physics really are true. The entire world felt very different—I had a different relationship to the air.

As the lessons progressed, my fear morphed into mental focus as I concentrated on my final lesson and my first “air show.” With Al in the back seat choreographing the sequences, we did a loop and came up, back up, for an Immelman: a half loop, and then, with coordination of stick and rudder, a roll off the top to right side up, then a dive down. With airspeed from the dive, we defined a double half loop maneuver called a Cuban 8. We flew the half loop and inverted at the top, but this time, we stayed inverted as we flew down from the top on a 45-degree line and rolled out halfway down the descent and repeated it on the other side to trace an 8. I was utterly amazed at my ability to fearlessly fly the sequences—and giddy that I had overcome obstacles I never believed I could.

So much was packed into that sliver of time that it took a while to grasp the full significance. It had set free my perfect, focused, and unstoppable life force. To this day, it is the gift that keeps giving: through cancer, ending a long-term relationship, creating new careers in teaching, spiritual psychotherapy and freelance writing, numerous relocations, supporting a dying parent, marriage to the love of my life, and being a caregiver during my husband’s illness.

When I remember those perfect moments of grace, my heart rate still speeds up, that same inner “woo-hoo” gurgles up into a smile, and the sense of deep satisfaction is as palpable as it was the day of. It’s the crack in the wall where that light gets in.

—Kellie Poulin-Kinnard

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