Laura, the writer, producer, and actor playing Winifred Baxter in Time & Again’s latest show, Clouds, is taking to the skies in the lead up to the Edinburgh Fringe to experience what it’s really like to wield the controls of a plane. The only problem – she’s absolutely terrified of flying!
Last Tuesday she managed to conquer her fear and head up to the clouds. Here’s what she had to say about the experience:
On Tuesday I had my first ever flying lesson.
This was a HUGE deal for me as I’m totally afraid of flying. Even on big passenger jets, which I use as little as possible, I’m stressing and feeling sick and clutching at the arm rests at the slightest movement. I’ve even been known to call out loudly, “are we going down?”, which probably doesn’t make for a particularly fun flight if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself sitting next to me..
So going up in something much smaller, and actually taking over the controls, was filling me with ‘you’re going to die’ level of fear. But it was a really important challenge for me to undertake. My character in Clouds is a daring female pilot and I want to be able to do her justice. I feel I can’t play such a pioneer without experiencing what it’s actually like to control a plane myself.
The lesson had already been rescheduled twice due to low clouds (ironic!) but luckily on Tuesday the weather was clear, bright and not too windy. I arrived at Barton and met my instructor. I was given a headset with a little microphone to wear during the flight so we could hear each other. Not going to lie, it felt a bit like being on TV or in a film (nerd). We went to the control tower to write down the details of our plane and which runway we’d be using. There’s actually plenty of traffic up in the sky, although it looks pretty empty and peaceful from the ground, so it’s important to get these details and times to avoid collisions. Then it was time to get in…
The plane felt quite flimsy. It was much smaller than a car; a little box under big white wings with two seats side by side. The inside was a bit car-like I suppose, with windows either side and a sun shield you could fold down. I was instructed to strap myself in and give the door a good thump to make sure it was firmly shut.
There were lots of checks to perform before we started up: dials had to be in the right place, switches had to be tested, seat belts checked. Then it was safe to start up the engine.
It wasn’t actually as loud as I was expecting (though I don’t know what I was expecting… a Spitfire? A Jet? Who knows with my mind at this point). On the ground, you control the steering with foot pedals which is a bit mind bending to get your head around. You want to use the control wheel, like you would if you were driving a car, but instead it’s all in the feet. I was told to direct us out so I took up the pedals. Our trundles down to and away from the runway were a bit wobbly but I did my best.
The engine was revved up a bit to help us take off. It felt like we weren’t going fast enough to ever get up into the sky, but of course we did. The going up wasn’t so bad. It was the levelling off. Every tiny pocket of air, every little rise or drop felt hugely amplified and sent a burst of fear shooting through me. It would be calm for a stretch but then there’d come another burst of the plane bumping and wobbling in the air. This feeling never eased off through our time in the air and was the worst part of the experience for me. Luckily, my instructor was lovely and told me lots about the plane and the area we were flying over (towards Blackpool) to distract me.
The view was AMAZING. That was definitely my favourite part of the flight. The north west is actually really green! You notice that there’s actually far more fields stretching out around you than built up areas when you’re up that high! We flew over the abandoned Camelot theme park which looked particularly captivating and poignant, the rusting rollercoaster track slowly decaying in the bright sunshine.
Taking the controls was also terrifying. The first time my instructor passed over control, I passed it back in about 2 seconds flat with the professional exclamation, “I don’t like it, take it away!” But I pushed myself to have three attempts. The plane really responds to the smallest movement. It was a lot trickier than you might think just keeping it level (though the instructor made it look ridiculously easy!)
I have to say, although I was so anxious, the time passed pretty quickly. Soon we were turning round and heading back towards the airfield. I think landing was the part I’d been dreading the most but actually it was fine. We did a large rectangular circuit over the airfield before slowly descending. It felt almost like gliding (though before anyone asks, if you ever think I’m going up in something without an engine, you can think again). It was a BIG relief to be back on firm ground. There were more checks to complete upon landing before heading back to the aircraft’s stand.
I felt relieved and elated and sweaty. People kept asking if I’d enjoyed my flight. I’m not sure enjoyed is the correct word. It was definitely a great experience that I’m so glad I managed to persuade myself to do. But there was also so much fear and anxiety, not just during the flight, but for the days leading up to it.
Once I’d handed in my headset and collected my certificate, I headed over to the Trafford Centre and treated myself to an immense Belgian waffle. The sugar was very much needed, partly because I’d not eaten much all day and partly because I was buzzing so much!
The lesson taught me a lot and gave me plenty to think about regarding early aviation (such as in my character’s day). The smaller, slower planes must have been so wobbly. The slightest gust of wind must have been catastrophic. And the pilot’s themselves must have been so fearless to the point of being a bit mad! Imagine doing something so risky for the first time, without an established set of rules and guidelines. Aviators wouldn’t have known what to check before and after take off until something went wrong on someone else’s flight and they learned from the consequences.
On top of that, if you were a woman back then, you were also fighting against everyone’s prejudices and expectation that you were going to fail at such an ‘inappropriate’ endeavour. Truly, I have so much for those early pioneers of aviation, especially the women.
You can catch Clouds at The Pankhurst Centre in Manchester as part of the GM Fringe on Thursday 25th July and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Friday 2nd – Saturday 17th August at theSpace on the Mile.