On A Wing And A Prayer

(This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun)

I’m going to let you all in on a little secret: I am petrified of heights.

For years, I could barely stand on a stepladder without feeling faint. And roller coasters? Forget it. I’d rather have root canal.

So when my editor asked if anyone wanted to write a first-person account of the beginner flight lessons being offered at a local flight school at the Punta Gorda Airport, it’s not unreasonable to assume I’d hightail it out of the newsroom.

Instead, I begged for the assignment.

Here’s the thing: A few years ago it dawned on me how much of life I was missing out on because fear was holding me back. I don’t ride Ferris wheels. I hate ski lifts. And although I grew up in the Northeast, for the longest time I avoided going to the top of the Empire State Building to gaze out on the magnificent view. Surprisingly, however, I don’t mind flying on jumbo jets when traveling because, well, they’re jumbo.

But the thought of hopping in a single-engine Piper Archer II, which can be pulled out of its parking spot easily by human hands, seemed analogous — at least in my mind — to standing on a step stool 3,500 feet in the air. So, gulping back fear, I asked my editor for the chance to fly that little plane.

“You’re afraid of heights ?” asked Pierre Cieciorko, the French-born flight instructor who runs the school. “Me too! One of my biggest fears is getting on a ladder and cutting the palms in my backyard.”

Great, I thought. Just what I want to hear on a Saturday morning from the man who’s supposed to take me thousands of feet into the air, just as a thick blanket of clouds moves in over Punta Gorda. “Don’t worry,” the instructor reassured me. “You’re in good hands.”

He wasn’t kidding. With nearly 4,000 hours of flight time under his belt, Cieciorko, who moved to Charlotte County seven years ago, easily has as much flight time as a veteran commercial airline pilot. He held licenses in France, and holds several in the U.S. Funny thing is, though: Cieciorko never made a career as a commercial airline pilot or gave lessons until he got to Punta Gorda.

“I did it as a hobby, but I had enough experience that my instructor said I should become an instructor. I love to fly. But I really love to teach.”

Indeed, Cieciorko’s enthusiasm for the air is infectious, enough to make this scaredy-cat wanna go ‘Top Gun.’ But it was his non-negotiable insistence on safety (I waited two hours for the clouds to clear because Cieciorko didn’t feel the conditions were optimal), and his cheery encouragement (“Don’t worry. You’re a natural.”) that sealed the deal.

As I climbed to the 2,000-foot altitude, then 3,000, then 3,500, I realized how it is that people get hooked on flying. High above the fat, white clouds, I lost all semblance of fear. The sweeping view of Boca Grande’s emerald waters and white beaches was almost a spiritual experience. Everything felt peaceful.

As I drove home that afternoon, thinking about everything I had experienced, I remembered a quote I had come across years ago that goes something like this: “Feel the fear, and do it anyway.”

I’m so glad I did.

About The Author

Brenda Barbosa

Copywriter + Business Storyteller