After a long road trip from California to Florida in her Mini Cooper, Wagstaff gained a renewed appreciation for flying and a new perspective on why it's so great.
I love this sensation. The faster I go, the harder I want to pull back on the yoke. The grey turns into blue, and all I see is sky. Blue and grey, it blends together, and I'm flying. My hands control the machine, and the beauty of the sky mesmerizes me, but I never forget the task at hand—to enjoy, swim, bask in the big beautiful picture in front of me, while remaining relentlessly aware of the control of energy—the airspeed, altitude and health of my engine. Life is good, and it's a mighty Zen moment when just the right song comes on the playlist I created for this journey.
I press the pedal harder, and go a little faster. Like a runner at altitude, the engine is breathing hard, and I know it's reaching its limits when the supercharger kicks in. The Texas freeway is smooth, and despite "high-wind warning" signs, the morning is still with the dark of night in my rear-view mirror and the light of day ahead. I'm enjoying the ride so much that I don't see my radar detector flash. In my reverie of road and speed, a flash moves out of concert with the flow, and a highway patrol car almost spins out of control, making a 180 on the dusty median. I know, without a doubt, that he's heading straight for me. Busted. The obscenely bright flashing lights coming up behind me bring me back down to Earth with a big-point ticket. This would never have happened if I had been flying my airplane.
I recently drove my Mini Cooper Clubman S from California to Florida. I enjoy the Mini's acceleration and road-hugging ability, and just had to open it up to enjoy some of our superbly cambered roads, knowing I was running the risk of "giving it up" for one of the multifarious law-enforcement agencies waiting for someone like me. Road trips start as an exciting venture, especially when cruising the California coastline. But reality hits pretty soon after turning left, heading inland toward great deserts and grassy fields. The thrill is gone, and Texas looms ahead. I'm just not covering enough ground, and for the next 2,500 miles, I compare every gas station to every little airport I've stopped at for fuel.
The great American road trip is part of our culture. We equate it with freedom, adventure, new starts. I get it. But, can I just make the statement for everyone who has both driven and flown coast-to-coast, that flying is so much better?
Driving is stressful. American freeways are marvels of transportation, but driving at obscene speeds in close formation with other massive moving metal objects takes vigilant concentration. Why we don't collide more often is a mystery to me. Flying, on the other hand, is peaceful and relaxing. Between the more demanding tasks of takeoff and landing, there's a lot of open space out there, and unless you're flying in Class B airspace, you can really sit back and enjoy the ride, especially if you have an autopilot and TCAS.
Driving is fatiguing. The insidious worry of not always knowing where you are because you can't see through mountains or across the horizon creates fatigue. How often can you take your eyes off the road to read the GPS? In my airplane, I can leisurely study my charts and enjoy my GPS. When flying VFR, you always know where you are because you can see ahead of you, where roads lead and what's on the other side of exit signs. Kick on the autopilot, and you have a relaxed, integrated approach to travel. Flying is a much more refined experience.
Driving is disturbing and kind of creepy. Like most people, being stalked is something I avoid. When driving, you're constantly being stalked. Unless you're driving a Winnebago, every motorist on the Interstate cruises at least 20 miles above the posted speed limit. Enjoy the freedom of the open road, but be aware that around every corner is a potential Highway Patrol Officer ready to pounce and "make your day." Even with a good radar detector, you have to be paranoid. This is simply something that just doesn't happen when you go by air. There are no stalkers up there, and once you know your airspace rules, you can go as fast or as slow as you like. Amen.
Driving is expensive. Time to spare, go by air? Let's talk about time and money. It not only takes less time, but it doesn't cost any more to fly than it does to drive coast-to-coast! According to my calculations, a Cessna 182 cruising direct from LAX to St. Augustine, Fla., takes about 14 hours, three or four fuel stops, two days, and burns just over $1,000 of 100LL. You might spend another $200 on a hotel room and meal, tiedown fee and a quart of oil on the one night you have to spend on the road for a grand total of $1,200. You arrive relaxed and ready to enjoy your destination.
Driving the Mini took more than five days, $400 of fuel, five nights in hotels and meals worth $750, or about $1,150. I arrive in St. Augustine $50 richer, but have wasted three days, and I'm exhausted and fatigued. You can have the 50 bucks! My time is more valuable than that.
The open road has possibilities, and is the only way some can get around, but let's face it, it's just not as cool as flying. Flying is faster, funner and less expensive! Cruising above terra firma is good for your head. Perspective changes priorities, and mundane cares drift away when we can see the contours of the land unfold in front of us. Flying is the magic carpet ride, and when I'm flying cross-country, I never fail to wonder why more people aren't up there doing it with me.
You can make anything into an adventure, but the next time I leave Fort Stockton at dawn with the dark of night in my rear-view mirror, I plan to be flying.
Air show pilot Patty Wagstaff won the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships three times and is a six-time member of the U.S. Aerobatic Team. She's also a flight instructor, consultant on television and movie projects, and flies an OV-10 Bronco for Cal Fire as an Air Attack Pilot during California's fire season.