It was all anyone could talk about. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was all we were allowed to talk about. We swapped stories and cheat codes in the playground. But today I’m going to talk the most-hated mission in San Andreas – ‘Learning to Fly’.
The game was fun and weird and bursting with wit and cartoon menace. The visuals were like nothing any of us had seen before—unimaginably huge and vibrant—and the soundtrack became instantly iconic. Plus it had bicycles! Those were the coolest and made a wicked thummmm noise when you pedalled on Grove Street’s cracked, sun-beaten asphalt.
Then, there was “Learning to Fly” and that stupid flight school, and James Woods’ slick-as-shit government agent Mike Toreno, making things worse.
You’d see the kids in school who finally ‘learned how to fly’, with their telltale sunken eyes and sloped shoulders. They’d been stopped dead in their tracks by this absolute ballache of a vehicle school set way out at the rundown Verdant Meadows airstrip. You could spot them from how quickly they would change the subject—”Has anyone got up to the mission with…” “Oh my god, are you still talking about San Andreas? It’s crap, man. Bullshit. Get over it.”—and how much slower they’d walk home.
Missions before this had been difficult (shout out to “Wrong Side of the Tracks,” you piece of shit) but this was different. A totally separate kind of pain that’d leave you demoralized and wanting to spend time doing something that wouldn’t make you feel this terrible. The flight school just outright defeated people.
I remember when I first reached it. I went straight for it and bombed out pretty early in the run—I failed the opening tests a dozen times at least, probably way more. I’d gun for that corona (the tiny red hoops through which we had to fly) and the plane’s nose would start to dip and I’d be hurtling toward the ground and then I’d be a plume of red, yellow, and orange fire before fading to black with six letters spread across the screen telling me my character—and my time—had been wasted.
Eventually, I passed the (admittedly quite simple) first few tasks, but the learning curve for the rest was unreal. It was like teaching a child how to ride a bike then snatching away the two-wheeler and throwing them the keys to your car. Even if you were a quick learner with two four-leafed clovers taped to your controller, you’re looking at hours and hours and hours learning to do pretty much impossible tricks and stunts that have no actual purpose in the game. I was 13 and stared at the tiny screen of the TV-VCR combo.
But I was determined to not give up. Until this point, when I was sitting in school ignoring my work, head in the crook of my elbow, I would dream about blazing it down a road in the Ballas’s territory in a busted Stratum station wagon, blasting “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” by The Gap Band as I sprayed round after round into inch-high pixelated gang-members clad in purple. Now I was haunted by carefully manoeuvring an ungainly rendering of a World War II airplane through the sky at a speed slower than Big Smoke’s metabolism. I closed my eyes and saw pulsing red rings on the backs of my eyelids. I was obsessed.
The weight of importance sat heavily on my shoulders. For the first time in my short life, I had to focus and dedicate my life to something. I had to complete this series of meaningless tests of agility and dexterity so I could get on with this game and the rest of my life. I decided to sit there until it was done, hands contorting like Lego claws, day passing into the night and then into day again, and I did it. I did the hell out of it.
My school work and behavior in the years leading up to this had been incredibly erratic—usually ranging from “Really good” to “Not bad” to “You’re probably going to be expelled”—but after that thing clicked into place and leveled out, just like the wings of C.J.’s plane. I’m not saying that completing the flight school on San Andreas changed my life, but I’m not ruling it out.