In most recognizable respects, the trip was hardly unusual. It was just an easy 280 nm hop from Long Beach to Groveland, Calif., for a speaking engagement before the Pine Mountain Lake Aviation Association, a typical out-and-back, 1+50 hop in the LoPresti Mooney, precursor to at least a four-pack of 400 to 600 nm trips around the Southwest.
Even so, I knew this edition of X-Country Log would be the 300th time I’ve tried to put words to thoughts about flying the world. After 25 years, it would seem to deserve some special effort. For whatever it’s worth, I’m told this is now the longest-running continuous column in aviation. That and $4 will buy you a mocha Frappuccino at Starbucks.
Like most folks who’ve spent what passes for a career kicking around this industry, I’ve accumulated a few hours and a couple of ratings, but I’m still amazed at how much more there is to learn. Every flight, no matter how mundane or seemingly matter-of-fact, reveals something new.
Today, I’m rediscovering my Mooney. A series of ferry flights and long-distance editorial obligations had left the little Executive snuggled in its hangar—polished, waxed, annualed and ready to take to the sky, if only Dad would let it. Yet, for the most part, I’d been busy flying other people’s airplanes, everything from 414s and 421s, a TBM 850, PC-12, Epic LT and King Air F90 to a new Turbo 206, Luscombe 8F, Maule M-7, Cessna 350 and Twin Comanche. (Hey, it’s a tough job, but…) It just seemed there never was enough time to take the Mooney for a walk longer than 10 minutes around the pattern on a Sunday afternoon. Not good.
The logbook suggested I had flown my airplane only 70 hours the previous year; that’s $85 per hour just to offset the hangar. Add all the other fixed costs, plus fuel, oil and the inevitable etc., and I probably could have chartered an Eclipse for less. (Sorry, bad analogy.)
And, so what? I choose to own an airplane because I want to, not for any economic reason. I put up with all the financial inconveniences so I can enjoy the fun conveniences. If I didn’t believe that, all the airplane money would be rotting away in a bank somewhere, earning interest toward my alleged retirement. Horrifying thought.
The reality is that I’m not that different from many other pilots who love to fly and make no attempt to rationalize aircraft ownership. While there are certainly hundreds of scenarios that can make owning a viable option to renting, there’s no requirement that any of us subscribe to those rationales.
So today, I sit on the right, traversing California’s San Joaquin Valley, girlfriend doing the flying, me sitting and relaxing, feeling the Mooney breathe comfortably two miles above the summer murk of Fresno, happy to be out of its house and in service again. We’re running 158 knots true with basically zero winds on 10.5 gph, with all the pressures and temperatures in the green. Pilot Peggy, always the inquisitor, guides the Mooney manually from the left seat rather than engage the world’s only S-TEC 65 autopilot installed in a Mooney Executive.
After 21 years as my servant to Florida, Oshkosh, Texas, Seattle, Boston and all points in between, the Mooney has become more than simply a machine, a mere mode of transport. Corny as it sounds, the airplane is my friend. I trust it, as I do my two German shepherds.
Sure, there was that time in ’87 when the engine-driven fuel pump failed, and the electric fuel pump didn’t work as a backup (dead-sticked into Hawthorne). And, yes, back in ’90, the engine sucked a valve and stopped in the worst possible place, over South Central Los Angeles (dead-sticked into Compton).
But for the last 18 of those years with the new engine, 1,200 hours worth, Mooney has been willing, trustworthy, stalwart and true, even if I haven’t. So far, it hasn’t missed a beat in 187 million revolutions. Perhaps it knows it’s the best of the half-dozen airplanes I’ve owned in four decades. It’s not the most comfortable, nor the fastest; not the most economical, nor the most expensive—just the best.
Read that as the best airplane for me, incidentally. I don’t necessarily recommend it as the best for anyone else. My needs are fairly simple. Most of the time, I don’t need more than two seats, much less four; the difference between 155 and 180 knots on a 500 nm trip is only 26 minutes; and, okay, so I don’t have air-conditioning or a Garmin G1000 flat-panel display. To switch to an airplane with all those advantages would probably cost me an extra $250,000, not in the budget unless I win a lotto or accept a contract to deliver a 421 to the Sea of Tranquility.
In the last few years, I’ve inspired three friends to take up flying, and all three are eagerly embracing the discipline. They’ve discovered the new world that waits in the sky or just across the next mountain range, they’ve come to appreciate that their horizons are no longer limited by the horizon, and they’ve expanded their friendships to include pilots, among the world’s most interesting people. At least one of those three is looking to buy an airplane.
Learning to fly is probably five times more expensive than it was when I took my first airplane ride in 1953, but all three students feel the benefits are more than worth the investment. Who knows, perhaps one of those three may even see the moon and visit the real Sea of Tranquility someday.
I know I never will. I was born too late to fly P-51s out of England during WWII and too early to fly in space, but that’s okay. Mooney and I still have people to meet and airports to see. I can hardly wait.
Bill Cox is in his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected].