A Japan Airlines Boeing 747 passed in front of me as I was taxiing to the runway in my rented Cessna 172. “Saipan Tower. 230. Request takeoff clearance,” I said, trying to sound as if I had been doing this all my life.
A Pacific Island Aviation plane landed, and my instructor and I were cleared for takeoff. I taxied to the runway, lined up on the centerline and applied full throttle. When we had sufficient speed I gently pulled back on the control yoke. We tilted slightly to the left as we ascended, because of what I later learned were forces stemming from the clockwise movement of the propeller. Otherwise, it seemed like not too bad a takeoff.
I had come down to Saipan (a part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, around three hours by plane south of Tokyo) to learn how to fly. I found, with help from a friend who flies helicopters on Saipan, an excellent instructor: Hiroaki Nishio, a 39-year-old Japanese whom everyone simply called “Hiro.” Part owner of Saipan Flight Academy, Nishio is a certified flight instructor with around 5,400 flight hours under his belt.
“Hiro,” I said, “flying a plane for you must be like driving a car.” “Easier,” he said. “I got my pilot’s license at 22. I got my driver’s license at 26. I’ve been flying since 17.”
Today Nishio mostly conducts sightseeing tours and flies Japanese television crews around. He also gives flying lessons to students from Japan, Russia and the United States. I was only the second American student he had had in Saipan. The first was the captain of a Boeing 727, who apparently didn’t know how to fly a Cessna, or maybe needed to brush up on his skills.
Compared to Japan, Saipan is a much cheaper place to learn to fly. Lessons are around $100 per hour, compared with the $350-per-hour Tokyo rate. Also, Saipan weather is good enough to fly in almost every day of the year, whereas in Tokyo the haze, clouds and strong wind often prevent one from flying a small plane where visual flight rules apply.
Another attraction of learning to fly in Saipan is the beauty and historical interest of the area. The island was the site of a ferocious battle between the Americans and Japanese during World War II.
On the first day, we flew over Tinian, an interesting place to be practicing level turns on my very first lesson: This pristine island, just south of Saipan, was the site of the North Field airbase from which the B-29s Enola Gay and Bock’s Car departed, carrying the atomic bombs for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I spent a few days on Tinian between lessons, checking out the Tinian Dynasty Hotel and casino, the island’s secluded beaches and the sleepy village of San Jose. I also experienced the only engine trouble of the trip — on the ground, when my car conked out on the runway the Enola Gay had once departed from. I had to hike to an intersection, where a jeepney picked me up next to a sign that said “Danger, Keep Out — Unexploded Ordnance.”
On my second day out, we flew around the north of Saipan, past Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff, where many Japanese killed themselves in the wake of defeat. Below us we could see Garapan, the main tourist area, and nearby Managaha Island, which is popular for snorkeling.
On my third day, we flew to uninhabited Aguijan, or Goat Island, south of Tinian, where I practiced more banked turns, climbs, descents and flying a heading. Aguijan is the place where Guam’s native Chamorro people put up their final resistance to Spanish colonial rule in 1695. Today the island, which has nearly vertical cliffs rising from the sea, offers goat hunting, sport fishing and abundant bird life.
On my fourth day, when I had my final lesson, Nishio appointed me “captain” of the flight: Instead of his telling me when to turn and where exactly to fly, I would decide.
There were many things to remember; any failure could result in disaster. If I failed to turn on the carburetor heat when descending, the engine could shut down because of ice. I should never take off immediately after a large jet had taken off because of the severe turbulence that would be created. When coming in to land, if I “flared,” or pulled back, on the yoke too much, the tail of the plane might hit the ground, but if I didn’t flare enough and landed hard on the nosewheel, the propeller could hit the ground and the plane could flip.
Once again, we flew to the northern part of Saipan from the airport in the south, and as I banked to the left I saw a squall, which I avoided. I also checked to make sure there weren’t any Air Force B-52s in the area, as I had heard they would be participating in the military exercise Tandem Thrust. No doubt they were flying at a higher altitude than our 700 meters.
I felt a little more relaxed, and my intense grip on the yoke eased a bit. I started to enjoy the scenery as we flew over the turquoise waters off Micro Beach on Saipan’s west coast. Again we passed over Tinian, and Nishio pointed out Eighth Avenue, near Broadway, so-named because the island was said to resemble Manhattan in shape. Over North Field we banked right onto our final approach. The control tower warned us about sky divers in the area, and I looked out the window to make sure we were clear of them. Slowly I pulled back on the throttle and lowered the flaps to reduce speed.
The plane was buffeted by winds as we approached Saipan International Airport, which has a nice long runway for beginning fliers at 2,650 meters, and I struggled to keep it lined up. The plane remained centered. I pulled back the throttle to go into the flare, and we touched down. (All this, of course, was done with Nishio’s guidance and assistance.)
A perfect landing, I thought, or at least one which satisfies the criteria of the joke: “A good landing is one you are able to walk away from. A great landing is one after which you are able to fly the plane again.”
As we taxied in, we met up again with a woman everyone referred to just as “Mary,” a pilot in her 70s who flew for Freedom Air. Her voice was crystal clear and very confident on the radio. Coming in to land at Tinian a few days earlier, we had let her land before us, just to be on the safe side.
I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me before I could get my private pilot’s license. It was an exhilarating experience, though. I was hooked, and would relish every opportunity to get in the air again.