The best flight I ever had was in a Cessna light aircraft only slightly larger than the car I’d driven to the airport to catch it. We flew roughly 300 miles, from Nottingham to Saint-Malo, and we had big grins on our faces pretty much all the way.
The “we” in question was a group of four theme park designers from Farmer Studios, the company I worked for at the time. We were attending a meeting at the Grand Aquarium de Saint-Malo, which we were due to deck out with all kinds of fancy themed displays and animatronic goodies. When we first heard we were going, we assumed we’d have to get the train across the English Channel, and book an overnight hotel. But no. Nick Farmer, our team leader and company boss, had something else in mind. “It’s too expensive to book travel and accommodation for four people,” he told us. “I’ve chartered a plane instead.”
Once we’d stopped laughing, Nick told us he wasn’t joking and showed us the numbers he’d crunched. Sure enough, the cost of chartering a Cessna from our East Midlands Airport was cheaper than getting us all to France and back by more conventional means. It was there in black and white, plain to see.
Almost as plain as the happy-little-boy expression on Nick’s face.
On the day of departure, we turned up bright and early and made our way to a remote corner of the busy airport. The sky was clear and the little aircraft waiting for us on the apron looked like something I might have built out of plastic as a kid. We were greeted by our captain for the day and his smiling co-pilot, and invited to climb aboard.
I should probably say “squeeze” aboard. The Cessna had just enough cabin space for four big men, two facing forwards, two facing backwards, with our knees interlocked in companionable fashion. Several inches away in the cockpit sat the two dapper uniformed fellows we were trusting with our lives.
Before we took off, Nick told us that for many years he’d been afraid of flying. However, the first time he’d gone up in a little plane like this one, his fears had left him. “You can see how you’d get out if it crashes,” he explained, pointing to the quick-release latches on the doors. “It’s not like being trapped in an airliner. In a plane like this, you feel as if you’re in control.”
I’ve never been afraid of flying, but as we took off on that clear sunny morning, I understood exactly what Nick meant. We could see, hear and feel everything. We sensed the exact moment when the wings gripped the air and the tyres detached from Mother Earth. We heard the rush of the wind past the canopy glass, the soft ticks and creaks of the control surfaces. We observed our pilot’s every little nudge of the controls, and felt the little aircraft’s instant response.
Oh, and the view …
I don’t recall what altitude we reached as we proceeded south. But I do remember that England looked very green and very fine, with fields and forests and towns and roads wholly visible in a way they never are from a big jet. Surrounded by glass, we were low enough to observe a thousand little lives proceeding below us, and high enough to see, it seemed, forever.
Best of all, somewhere over Oxfordshire, our smiling co-pilot handed round the dinkiest little airline breakfast trays you ever did see.
Nick’s happy-little-boy face returned as we approached the south coast. Obeying instructions the rest of us were unaware of, the pilot banked low over the Isle of Wight, circling the visitor attraction at Blackgang Chine to give us all a good view of the work that the company had done their years earlier. Fibreglass dinosaurs stared up at us, clearly bemused.
Tummies full and curiosity satisfied, we settled in for the cross-Channel leg of the journey. We crossed a vast, calm sea and landed smoothly on a tiny airstrip on the outskirts of Saint-Malo. Clearing customs comprised smiling at the sleepy-looking chap sat in the doorway of a large shed beside the runway, in whose company we left our crew while we proceeded on by car to our final destination.
The meeting at the aquarium went well. We conducted business with our client, ate lunch, and admired the fish. Secretly, I think we were all just waiting to get back on the plane.
We arrived back at the airfield towards the end of the afternoon, whereupon our pilot clapped his hands and asked us if there was anywhere we wanted to take in on our way back. He could arrange to fly over Paris, for example, although that would add considerably to our journey time, since he’d need to file a flight plan that avoided bumping into airliners.
Somewhat tired, we declined. We were content simply to repeat our outward journey, this time without the dinosaurs.
The sea was less calm on the way back, and so was the air above it. I spent a solid hour gazing meditatively at the far horizon, convincing my stomach that it really did want to retain possession of the dinky breakfast and the business lunch. To my relief, the turbulence subsided once we were back over Blighty, and as the sun went down we all relaxed deep into our compact seats and allowed our knees to jostle companionably.
Our pilot had one more treat in store. As we passed into Leicestershire airspace, he asked everyone in turn where they lived. One by one, he steered the Cessna low over our neighbourhoods. As the only passenger from Nottinghamshire, my own house was considerably further north than the rest and significantly out of our way. What’s more, night had fallen, so I suggested we head straight for the airport. Nobody protested.
Driving home after we’d landed, I experienced a brief moment of confusion. Just for an instant, I was convinced that if I pulled back on the steering wheel, the wheels would leave the tarmac of the road and my car would carry me back into the sky. I may even have tried it, I don’t really remember.
But I do remember smiling as the thought crossed my mind.