Secret Agent Training Phase 1: Flying Lessons
It started out with a package.
I think it always starts out with a package. You’re walking down 8th Ave like you always do because 7th Ave merges with Broadway, Times Square, and the entire population of Canada. A figure in a trenchcoat, hat, and shades walks toward you on the sidewalk, holding a package. As you pass each other, the figure shoves the package into your chest as he mumbles, “Monterey is on ice” while keeping his pace.
You automatically clutch at the package due to some involuntary need to make sure you don’t look like an idiot dropping a package in the middle of Manhattan when you know someone probably has a camera phone pointed at you and proceed to the nearest hotel, rent a room under a fake name using cash, and open the package: a silver attaché case holding the dossier of a mission and the tools and weaponry necessary to complete it: laser watch, forged passports, credit cards, currency from multiple countries, and a fully-loaded Walther PPK.
Okay, so that’s not how it happened for me, but I am certain that the following event is the beginning of my training to become a secret agent. James Bond, Ethan Hunt, and Maxwell Smart didn’t just come out of their mother’s womb and start sabotaging evil villains’ plans for world domination, did they?
My mission came from someone I knew and trusted: from my editor. Apparently the good people at Speed Stick wanted to send me on a flying lesson and report on it. “Oh, sure,” I thought. “Speed Stick.” “Flying Lesson.” “Report.” I knew right away that this was covert-speak for “The President needs you to fly to a secluded terrorist base in Antarctica and rescue a science team that had uncovered a cheap, safe, and inexhaustible form of fuel.” I eagerly took on my mission. It was as if my editor was M, giving me a perilous mission, and the people of Speed Stick were Q, giving me the tools to complete my mission.
Soon, a package arrived in the mail. It was a metal attaché case. I knew it! Only secret agents are given metal attaché cases. When was the last time you saw someone carry a metal attaché case who wasn’t in the midst of a global criminal conspiracy? This further proved my theory that I was in line to become the next James Bond.
The contents of the case included:
A) Polar FT1 heart rate transmitter watch (because every secret agent needs a new watch)
B) Speed Stick GEAR deodorant (it was not a secret receptacle for plastic explosives or knock-out gas, unfortunately)
C) GoPro video camera (because spy cameras need to be small and powerful)
D) Speed Stick GEAR T-shirt (obviously a hidden in plain sight garrote for use against enemy agents)
My rendezvous point was set for the Academy of Aviation at Republic Airport in Farmingdale, NY. There I would learn to “fly a plane” in order to prepare myself for my prime directive as a newly-recruited secret agent. Considering I had never been in an airplane smaller than a commercial Learjet and always received a complimentary bag of mixed nuts, this training flight was miles from what I was used to. Wait, is that nautical miles or statute miles? Maybe that’s in the navigation lesson. All I know is that it isn’t fathoms. That’s a measurement of depth for water. If you find yourself questioning how many fathoms you’ve gone in a plane, you’re doing it wrong.
My flight instructor, Pilot Dan, seemed very aware of the severity of my mission and quickly lead me to the vehicle that I would use to maneuver through unrestricted airspace. No lectures, reading, no written tests to prove my knowledge of aircraft. Secret agents don’t have time for normal training. We’re lucky if we sit in a cockpit before we have to jump into a moving plane as it careens toward a rocky cliff while loaded with a nuclear bomb on a thirty-second timer. Pilot Dan fast-tracked me right into a Cessna Skyhawk.
But even secret agents need to be able to inspect a plane for safety before flying it. Sure, when you’re James Bond or Ethan Hunt, you can inspect a whole plane with a mere glance, but Pilot Dan walked me through my novice inspection, which included checking the gas mixture, checking the oil level, and making sure the wing flaps and tail fins were intact. It’s just like a car, except we get lazy in checking the oil and kicking the tires. But unlike driving a car, if there’s engine or steering trouble while flying a plane at an altitude of 5,000 feet at around 100 ktas (a little more than 100 mph), you’re in a hell of a lot more trouble.
After making sure that the plane was capable of flying and, later, landing, we finally entered the plane. Once we spoke to tower control, we were off. But not exactly how I expected. This wasn’t an F-15 flight simulator where I grip a control wheel and turn like I’m shredding towards the runway without my Captain’s approval. On the ground, we steer planes with our feet. That’s right, feet. It took a bit to get used to the idea of it, but I steered us to the departure point without rolling off the runway. Came close, yes, but never off.
Next was the take-off. Now, I’ve heard about these introductory flights: the instructor takes you into open airspace, you get to steer around a bit, see if you don’t completely lose your mind or vomit or both, and that’s it. That wasn’t the case for this lesson in secret agent flying. Pilot Dan did his best impersonation of Dr. Emmett Brown.
“When you hit 55, pull up,” ordered Pilot Dan.
“What?” I asked like an idiot.
“When that reads 55, pull up!”
“I’m taking off? I don’t know about this.”
Considering I never got past a level of Nintendo’s Top Gun game without crashing into the aircraft-carrier when I was supposed to land (yes, I made sure Pilot Dan knew this), I was a little surprised to be given this sort of responsibility. But secret agents aren’t given responsibility. Responsibility just finds them. Pilot Dan also assured me that he would make sure I didn’t do anything stupid, aka life-threatening.
And we were off. Since it was winter, the most obvious place to fly to was the beach. Okay, it was to Jones Beach, which is still on Long Island and still cold, but I got to see the Wantagh State Parkway, Jones Beach Water Tower, and the Fire Island lighthouse in a way I never had before: way up above. The only thing missing was a line of women on the shore in bikinis, but it wouldn’t have mattered. We dropped down to the altitude allowed for planes that fly around with those advertising banners, and I still probably couldn’t have figured out if a figure sunbathing on the beach was Olivia Munn in a bikini or a large, hairy man in a Speedo. Hm. Olivia Munn. That would be a great Bond girl for me. But, I digress…
After some preliminary sight-seeing, it was back to work for my secret agent flight training. Coincidentally, Pilot Dan was trained in aerial acrobatics, which is something every secret agent needs to know about. It also helps make a flight into the greatest aerial roller-coaster I’ve ever been on. Without the literal rolling part.
With Pilot Dan in control of the plane, we did wide sweeps, which is like making a sharp, G-force turn in a car except without the luxury of a suspension keeping you completely upright. We did lazy-eights, which is like a figure-eight in a car except you’re rising and falling in altitude as well as going left and right. We did a dive, and Pilot Dan even stalled the engine because I stupidly asked him what happens when the engine stalls.
Then Pilot Dan told me to do those same aerial maneuvers. Well, not the dive or stall. We wanted to survive this flight, but I did enough wide sweeps and lazy-eights to outdo every roller-coaster and free-falling ride I’ve ever been on combined into one awesome flight.
But what comes up must go down. In the case of flying, it is a gradual down. Pilot Dan directed me to land the plane on the runway with his help. Memories of my failures playing Top Gun resurfaced, but I pushed them out of my mind. Fear has no place in a secret agent. Pilot Dan guided me to decrease the plane’s altitude in a way that a video game never could. Either that, or putting myself in a life-or-death experience helped me focus a bit more.
I don’t know if Pilot Dan did most of the landing. What I do know is that we were only on the runway for a few seconds when Pilot Dan ordered me to pull up.
“What?” I yelled.
“Pull up! Pull Up!” yelled Pilot Dan.
I did the only thing I could do. I pulled up and we were off again, climbing through the air for a surprise aerial maneuver: the touch-and-go landing. If there was ever a time during this flight that I would have made a total mess of my pants, that was the time. But I did not. I succeeded in completing a surprise, split-second maneuver, just like a real secret agent would.
Next stop: secluded terrorist base in Antarctica.
Patrick Emmel is not a secret agent. He has never been to Beirut. He is not watching you from outside your window right now. You can see some of his work at www.theineptowl.com or heckle him on Twitter @Patrick_AE.
Patrick knows every good secret agent has a drink in his hand, which is why he compared the characters of Archer to different types of alcohol. Or take it one step further with The Best Bond Actor: Proven by Alcohol.