It’s expensive, it’s dangerous, it takes a lot of time to learn, and even more to stay current — flying is just a rich snob’s way of avoiding the interstates and the airline terminals crowded with “common people.” What could personal aviation possibly do that can’t be done more easily and cheaply some other way? In short, “why fly?”
All I can do in answer is to think about some of the flights I’ve made…
Hot and dry, the summer sky tinged red as the day’s winds calmed for dusk. A flick of the mag switches and a pull on the starter, and the little Continental engine puttered and purred. Sitting straight-backed on the bench seat, I strained to see over the nose of the 1946 Cessna, engine and prop already pointing skyward even before I taxied the tailwheel classic toward the runway.
The little airpark (I wish more places in the U.S. could boast this description) was quiet except for my lone airplane. But I knew the local pilots who lived along its periphery would look up from their books and their televisions and their chores at the sound of my airplane, as did I whenever I hear the passing of an airplane near my home. Today’s “trip” would be a local flight — in fact, I didn’t even leave the traffic pattern, instead content to log seven nearly perfect “wheel landings” in the conventional-gear craft before the night fell. Even at the time, the experience was so unique I entered in the comments of my logbook, “squeaker wheelies at dusk.” It’s one of my great flying memories approaching two decades and thousands of flying hours later.
A corporate trip in a turbocharged Beech Baron — individual stars peeked through small holes in the near-overcast clouds. Six hundred and twenty horsepower roared at takeoff, smoothing and quieting as I reduced throttle and propeller speed for the climb. It was gloriously dark in the cockpit; I had the panel lights dimmed as much as possible, and my lone passenger dozed in the back after a long day’s tour. The lights of Johnson City, Tennessee, a small city on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains, burned upward, bright illumination on the undersides of the clouds. The ride was smooth, but suddenly I felt myself rocketed upward as I neared and reached the cloud deck — a visual illusion brought on by human inability to judge distance from the clouds without a frame of reference.
In mere seconds I was on top of the layer. The bright lights below, with yellow cloud bottoms and flecks of stars above, turned almost at once to an intense moon above, tinting the cloud tops white, with city lights through cloud gaps below. The entire world inverted in an instant, stars and moon swapping places with downtown and rural lights. The sensation was like rapidly rolling inverted in an aerobatic airplane. Capping this magical event, my filed cruising altitude put me mere feet above the cloudtops — providing a rare, sustained sensation of speed with moon-tinged, puffy clouds racing by, matching my three-mile-a-minute pace.
We rose seemingly straight up in the weight-shift “trike.” It was my first ultralight aircraft flying lesson. Straddling the back of a narrow seat that reminds me of the “banana seat” on my childhood “three speed” bicycle, I tried to follow the instructor on the pushes and pulls required to maneuver this tiny craft. After a little practice we turned off down a railroad line, over green trees and farms and little homesteads — ultralights aren’t restricted by the altitude requirements of other airplanes, so my teacher was guiding me at a safe but intimate height above the earth.
“This is what it must have been like in the 1920s,” I remember thinking. I could actually smell the freshly turned earth below, feel the air’s dampness over rivers and farm ponds. People actually stopped what they were doing and waved as we flew over their yards. I swear I could hear the shouts of children as they raced their bikes, trying to keep up with us. We met a train coming head-on, and although it was a modern diesel-electric freighter, I imagined a giant plume of steam and a long line of Pullman cars, nappily-dressed passengers leaning from compartment windows to wave as we drifted down the left side.
The airplane marketers and the association hawksters promise family vacations and efficient business trips using personal and business airplanes. College admissions clerks promise lucrative careers with the airlines, and military recruiters entice with the excitement and adventure of squadron life. Certainly I like an airplane for quick personal and business travel, have tried the professional flying life, and have even served as an officer in the Air Force, but I likely would not have tried any of those things if I didn’t love to fly.
As I look back, it’s not the trip lengths or the passenger loads or the destinations or even the type of airplanes I flew that have proved the most memorable — it was the visual rush of speed, the feeling of absolute mastery and control, the confidence of accepting personal responsibility for my actions, and the sheer beauty of the world when seen from above that reinforce my decision to fly.
Likely you also have special flying memories that are independent of what you were flying and where you were going. These memories are your realizations of the dreams that we all share about flight, dreams that tragically disappear in most people as life teaches them “better.” My challenge to you is to focus on those special moments. Then show them to a new generation, before they are taught to fear the natural joy of flying. Support “Young Eagles” and “Project Pilot” and all the other programs that hope to keep personal aviation alive. Help substitute the responsibility, risk management, achievement and natural “high” of flying for other, darker pursuits. Awaken the future to our great pursuit, personal aviation.
BOTTOM LINE: “Why fly?” If they flew… they’d know.