I’m still amazed when I land. I sometimes sit in the cockpit, as the gyros wind down and the prop clicks to a stop, and wonder at the magic of it all. Minutes ago I was flying, looking down from over a mile high, screaming along at a hundred miles an hour, going in any direction I chose. I landed this machine safely, putting 2,000 pounds of metal and moving parts on a 50-foot-wide ribbon of pavement with barely a chirp. I did something that less than two-tenths of one percent of the U.S. population can do: Fly an airplane. How amazing that the little plastic card in my wallet that says “private pilot” grants me this freedom and wonder.
But it’s easy to forget that the private certificate is simply what everybody says it is: a license to learn. It’s the federal government telling us our skills are just good enough to not pose a danger to others when we fly. The day we pass our checkride, we’re covered only with the downy feathers of a bird just leaving its nest—hardly the steely-eyed aviators of legend. But, our certificate is also the key that unlocks the door to adventures and experiences few will ever have. All it requires is for us to reach beyond our comfort zone of weekend $100 hamburgers and rides around the patch. So if you’re ready to make your certificate “sizzle” a little, and experience something new and different, here are a few ideas to get you started.
1] Camp At Tieton. One of the true joys in flying is making a long cross-country to a picturesque destination, pitching a small tent and sleeping under the wing of your airplane. Tieton State Airport (4S6) sits on the placid shores of Rimrock Lake, about 30 miles northwest of Yakima, Wash. An interesting quirk of Tieton is that its grass strip was recently resurfaced with six inches of ash from Mount St. Helens.
2] Fly Below Sea Level. There are times when it’s good that your altimeter passes below zero while you’re in the airplane. At an elevation of 200 feet below sea level, Death Valley’s Furnace Creek Airport is an unusual and beautiful resort. With handsome Spanish-style accommodations, and golf and bike rentals, Furnace Creek is a fantastic GA destination quite different from the norm. Oh, and the Sunday brunch is legendary. Visit www.furnacecreekresort.com.
1 Camp Under Your Wing
3] Dine Inside A Tanker. Fly into Colo-rado Springs Municipal Airport (COS) and stop at this nearby pilot-friendly eatery. Solo’s Restaurant (also called “The Airplane Restaurant”) is built into a fully intact Boeing KC-97 tanker in original USAF colors. This KC-97 was an active-duty refueling aircraft used since 1953, and retired in 2002 to start its second life as a restaurant. Visit www.solosrestaurant.com.
4] Turn Your Passion Into Photos. Flying is an endeavor that’s classically suited to photography. Since so few people have seen our world from the perch of a low-’n-slow GA airplane, the resulting vistas are unique and beautiful. The International Society of Aviation Photographers offers a variety of resources at www.aviationphotographers.org.
5] Fly The Bahamas. More pilots are discovering the hidden paradise awaiting them on the islands of the Bahamas. There are 20 airports of entry scattered among some 700 islands there, giving pilots enough places to explore to last a lifetime. Many pilots don’t realize that both Bimini and Grand Bahama Islands are only 60 nm away from Fort Lauderdale. For pilots wanting to do their own planning, www.bahamasaviator.com is a great resource. Fully escorted flying tours also are available from Caribbean Sky Tours at www.caribbeanskytours.com.
6] Donate Your Services. There’s no better feeling than knowing you helped another person—or in this case, animal— through your skills as a pilot. Pilot N Paws is an organization that coordinates general aviation pilots willing to donate their services with animals that need transportation for rescue, relocation or medical reasons. The entire organization is self-run to make it as flexible as possible for volunteer pilots. Visit www.pilotsnpaws.org.
8 Get A Seaplane Rating
7] Make A Real Cross-Country. The Rinker Buck book Flight of Passage ignited the passions of pilots everywhere, inspiring them with the desire to fly across this grand nation of ours. Many have done just that, experiencing the true soul of aviation: grass strips, old-fashioned airports and a once-in-a-lifetime adventure seeing our country from the air. In addition to Buck’s now-classic book, Maria Gosnell wrote about her solo flights across the nation in her book Zero 3 Bravo, and Ann Hopkins writes about her exploits flying an old biplane around the country in Sticks & Wires & Cloth.
8] Get A Seaplane Rating. Flying a seaplane is one of the most amazing experiences in aviation. And if you love Piper Cubs as most of us do, you can combine the two into the perfect weekend. Jack’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Fla., offers single-engine seaplane ratings in their all-original Piper Cubs on floats. This is flying at its best! Visit www.gate.net/~seaplane.
9] Become A YouTube Star. Pilots love to share what they know and what they see. Technology has made it easier than ever to share your flying with the whole world. Mount the tiny, 4.5-ounce ContourHD helmet cam anywhere on you or your airplane, and capture 1080p, high-def video with a 135-degree view. Light Sport Group makes a version that captures audio from your aircraft’s intercom. Visit www.lightsportgroup.com.
10] Go Soaring. If you’ve never flown a glider (also called a “sailplane”), you’re missing one of the most sublime experiences in aviation. The Southern California Soaring Academy, operating at Crystalaire Airport (46CN) in Llano, Calif., offers basic lessons, advanced instruction and aerobatic training. Visit www.soaringacademy.org and www.ssa.org.
11] Get Formation Certified. Each year, pilots get killed attempting to fly formation with no training. Formation training is fun and rewarding, and opens you up to ground flying, air-to-air photo missions and much more. Do it right and get certified instruction. The Formation and Safety Team (F.A.S.T.) offers certification. Visit www.flyfast.org.
12] Write A Book. Aviation has no shortage of great authors, and we never tire of reading about flying. Perhaps you can be the next Gann or Bach? Today’s technology has allowed many pilots to self-publish their books to great success. Amazon’s “CreateSpace” service has all the features you need to launch your aviation writer’s career, and it’s free. Visit www.createspace.com.
13 Fly An L-39!
13] Fly An L-39! If you’re a fighter pilot at heart, Gauntlet Warbirds in Chicago offers warbird and jet training, including the agile and sleek Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros. Piloting one of these beasts is an experience that’s not easily forgotten, with many pilots going on to become warbird or jet owners. Visit www.gauntletwarbirds.com.
14] Join The Civil Air Patrol. As an official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) has plenty of opportunities for licensed pilots. With the largest fleet of single-engine piston aircraft in the nation (mostly Cessna 172s and 182s), CAP pilots fly those planes to perform CAP missions in service to their local communities, including search and rescue, cadet training and more. The CAP is one of aviation’s best-kept secrets among pilots. Visit www.gocivilairpatrol.com.
15] Become An Aircraft Owner. LetsFly introduces an interesting business model: low-cost, part ownership in a small GA airplane. With an initial investment of less than $5,000 and equally low monthly payments, nearly anyone can own a plane. To make it even more interesting, they specialize in the Legend Cub. Visit www.letsfly.org.
16] Attend The Dayton Air Show. As pure air shows go, this is one of the largest. The show in the air is unbeatable, with performances that sometimes include all three top aerobatic jet teams: the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds and Canadian Snowbirds. Dayton, Ohio, is also the site of many aviation attractions because it’s the home of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Visit www.daytonairshow.com.
17] Join The Young Eagles. The Young Eagles program was created by the Experimental Aircraft Association with the goal of giving youth a no-cost flying experience in a GA airplane. To date, millions of kids have been flown across the nation. You only need to be a private pilot to share the magic of flight with kids who are aviation’s future. Visit www.youngeagles.org.
18] Fly Inverted. Tutima Academy is home to some of the best aerobatic pilots around, including founder and Oracle air show pilot, Sean D. Tucker. When you want to take your skills to the next level in every sense, aerobatics is the way to do it. Giving you confidence and increased stick-and-rudder skills, aerobatics training is done gradually to acclimate pilots to the sights and sensations involved in the sport. Visit www.tutimaacademy.com.
19] Earn Your A&P License. There’s no better way to learn about your airplane than to maintain it. Becoming an FAA-certified airframe and powerplant mechanic can be done in a relatively short time, with many community and technical colleges offering courses. It’s a useful add-on for any pilot. Though not a comprehensive listing, the “Best Aviation” site features a directory of maintenance-certification schools in different areas. Go to www.bestaviation.net/aircraft_maintenance_schools.
20] Make A Sentimental Journey. Each year, a pilgrimage happens to the William Piper Memorial Airport (known as “Cub Haven”) in Lock Haven, Pa. If you love classic Piper aircraft (and who doesn’t?), this four-day fly-in is a must. Going for 26 years now, the fly-in has become an aviation ritual. Also, about four times a year, the Sentimental Journey group sponsors a weekend pancake breakfast, fly-in and drive-in. Visit www.sentimentaljourneyfly-in.com.
21 Fly Get A DC-3 Type Rating
21] Get A DC-3 Type Rating. With fewer and fewer of these aircraft still flying regularly, the dream to pilot one is becoming more elusive. For many of us, flying a DC-3 from the left seat is one of the first items on the bucket list. Lucky for us, flight training in the DC-3 is still available. Dan Gryder runs a DC-3 flight-training operation out of Georgia, with a multitude of options from simple flights to full PIC, left-seat type ratings. Visit www.thedc-3network.com.
22] Visit An Airpark. One of the most postcard-worthy airparks in the West is Alpine. Nestled on the shores of Palisades Lake, Wyo., Alpine is home to a community of Husky aircraft (among others) and backcountry pilots. Alpine is the perfect place to launch from for whitewater rafting, big-game hunting, fishing or flying among the most beautiful mountains in the world. Alpine hosts a summer air show, grass and paved runways, and luxurious log homes. And it’s all just 35 minutes from Jackson Hole, Wyo. Visit www.alpineairpark.com.
23] Fly A P-51 Mustang. If the famed P-51 Mustang makes your heart skip a beat, then you need to make your way to Stallion 51 in Kissimmee, Fla. They specialize in the legendary P-51, and offer orientation and training flights in the two-seat, dual-control version of the fighter, known as the TF-51. Visit www.stallion51.com.
27 Explore The Backcountry
Training in the backcountry is exhilarating and will improve your stick-and-rudder skills.
24] Discover The Cradle Of Aviation Museum. Our country boasts more than 100 top-notch air/space museums. Though it’s hard to pick a favorite, Cradle of Aviation on Long Island in New York is one of the nation’s best. It’s one of the only museums to encompass a complete history of aviation from 1900 through today. Long Island played a big part in aviation history as the site of many historic flights, and this museum is a part of that. It’s also one of the only museums to house an actual lunar module (from Apollo 19). Visit www.cradleofaviation.org.
25] Pilot A Zeppelin. When you’re ready for one of the most relaxing and rewarding experiences as a pilot, try an airship. In this case, it’s a true zeppelin, built by the Zeppelin company in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Currently, there are only two of the 246-foot-long behemoths flying in the world. The pilot experience includes a two-day course out of Moffett Field in Northern California, and at least 30 minutes of left-seat stick time. Visit www.airshipventures.com.
26] Sleep In A 727. Costa Verde, a beautiful spot in the coastal jungle of Costa Rica, features a hotel that was converted from a fully intact 727 airliner from 1965. The plane’s interior was completely redone with hand-carved teak and native materials, and the entire fuselage was hoisted onto a 50-foot perch and built into the trees. The effect is an aerie from which you can see the ocean and beaches of Manuel Antonio below. The two-bedroom suite’s neighbors include sloths, monkeys and toucans. Visit www.costaverde.com/727.html.
27] Explore The Backcountry. McCall Mountain Flying is a well-known backcountry training facility that offers specialized courses of mountain flying and specialized mountain instruction, all of it in an environment of picturesque valleys, river gorges and vast swaths of postcard wilderness that will take your breath away. Visit www.mountaincanyonflying.com.
28] Tour A Boneyard. Known officially as the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC), pilots know it as “the Boneyard.” Located on part of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the AMARC houses some 4,400 military aircraft and 13 aerospace vehicles on a giant patch of desert land. The ultradry air, soil composition and weather patterns allow aircraft to be stored there indefinitely and brought back into service as needed. The Pima Air Museum runs tours of AMARC. Visit www.pimaair.org.
29] Spin Around. Rich Stowell wrote the book on spin training. Actually, he wrote two: “Stall/Spin Awareness” and “Emergency Maneuvers Training.” He stands as one of the industry’s experts on the subject, and is helping to reform flight training today. Spin training will make you a better, safer pilot. Stowell offers several modules of upset training in both Idaho and California. Visit www.richstowell.com.
30] Feast On Ribs. If you haven’t been to JP’s Ribs in the 40 years they’ve been in business, you’ve missed true barbeque pleasure. Sitting smack-dab on Bolton Field Airport (TZR) near Columbus, Ohio, JP’s Ribs does it right. Fly in and say hi to JP’s mascot, a pitbull named “Bernardo.” Visit www.jpsbbq.com.
Aviation has its share of innovation, and enthusiastic members constantly come up with exciting things to do as a pilot. And services like Skype, YouTube and Facebook allow us to share our adventures with our friends and family. Back in the day, we were limited by distances and local knowledge; today we’re limited only by our imagination. So use these ideas to spark your own creativity, and take the next step in your aviation journey.