I advance the Boeing 737’s thrust levers, and the high-pitched whine of the engines grows louder.
“Check thrust,” I say.
“Thrust set, 98 percent.”
A thick white runway stripe disappears beneath us as the jet’s nose springs across seams in the pavement.
We race past 120 knots. Then 140.
“Vee-one,” Kent calls. “Rotate.”
I pull back on the yoke. The wheels come off the ground.
And before I can say, “Gear up,” time stands still as an eerie—and strangely familiar—feeling creeps over me like it had 14 years earlier.
Hagerstown, Maryland. I’ve never noticed the small slit in the vinyl seat beside me. Then again, the 17-year-old-me has also never seen that seat empty.
But it is now. I feel more alone than ever before in my life.
My flight instructor walks away. Before entering the nearby building, he turns to give me a thumbs-up.
Using the back of my hand, I wipe beads of sweat from my brow; the humidity inside the two-seat Cessna 150 is stifling, even with the hinged side window open.
And you’ll sit in this oven until you’re absolutely ready, I tell myself. There’s too much at stake.
I sit silently, focusing on the steady rhythm of my breathing and the subtle sloshing of fuel in the wing tanks above my head.
Who am I kidding? I’ll never be completely ready. Just do it.
I grab the laminated checklist and work through its items, then start the engine and request permission to taxi.
I read back the clearance, clear the area, and add far more power than necessary to begin moving. The airplane jerks ahead as my shaky legs release the brakes.
At the runway’s end, I complete the predeparture engine check. Then I wait, staring at the cockpit, searching for something I may have missed. Scared to take the next step.
Let’s go, Korry. You’re ready. Just do it!
Feebly, I key the microphone to request takeoff clearance. Permission is granted immediately.
“Who am I kidding?” I think. “I’ll never be completely ready. Just do it.My heart feels like it’s going to burst out of my chest as I align the airplane with the slightly downward-sloping asphalt. Through the arc of the spinning propeller, I see opportunities and adventures. To seize them, all I have to do is this one thing. And yet doubt paralyzes me with fear—of the unknown, that I’m not good enough, that it’s too risky.
Oh, to hell with doubt. Let’s go.
I release the brakes and shove the throttle forward. At just the right moment, I haul back on the control wheel. The wheels come off the pavement. I’m flying solo for the first time in my life.
A massive smile spreads across my face. Then I look at the empty seat to my right, and I realize this time there is no instructor to step in or correct my mistakes. This time, it’s just me.
My fears and insecurities threaten to bubble over. But there’s no time for nerves; there is only time to act. I concentrate on flying the airplane as my instructor has taught.
I fly a rectangular pattern and request my landing clearance midfield on the downwind leg.
“Cleared to land, Runway Two-Zero, Cessna Niner-Three-Quebec.”
I inch the throttle out. The airplane drifts downward. I extend the flaps like I’ve practiced. And when I see the runway behind my left shoulder, I turn base.
The ground angles across my windshield, and I attempt to time my final turn so as to roll wings level with the runway. I’m mostly successful.
I jiggle the controls, rocking the wings left and right, noticing the dampness of my clammy hands upon the control wheel.
You’re almost there, I tell myself.
Nearby trees and buildings seem close enough to touch. I crest the airport’s perimeter fence, less than 100 feet above the ground.
This is it!
Left and right. Left and right. Power in. Power out.
Once over the runway, I pull the throttle to idle and pitch up, hoping to ease the airplane onto the pavement. But I flare too high. I’m floating a few feet off the ground, wiggling the controls at a feverish pace, attempting to settle the airplane’s tires onto the asphalt.
But there is to be no settling.
Wham! The airplane slams onto its wheels, bouncing immediately back into the air. The landing’s ferocity fills me with terror. As I wrestle with the craft, precious bits of airspeed slip away, and the airplane drops again. It meets the runway with another forceful wham! before bobbling from one wheel to another for several frightful seconds.
Mercifully, the craft finds its footing. I press the brakes and exit the runway. As I reach a complete stop, my legs twitch from adrenaline.
Yes! I think. I’m alive! I did it! I landed the airplane—twice—by myself!
An incredible sense of freedom floods over me. I have faced my fears and risen to this challenge.
This, I tell myself, is just the beginning.
And so is this.
The 737’s wheels are off the ground in Chicago. The responsibility for getting us safely to San Diego is mine. I feel twinges of fear, but if I respect my limits, I will rise to meet this challenge.
Time starts moving again.
“United Ten-Sixty, contact departure,” instructs the O’Hare tower controller.
“Over to departure, United Ten-Sixty. So long,” Kent says.
So long, indeed—to the life I’ve known before this moment, my life as a co-pilot. I’m a captain now. FT
Korry Franke is a captain for United Airlines. This text is excerpted from his book 3 Feet to the Left: A New Captain’s Journey from Pursuit to Perspective.