Plane & Pilot
Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ode To The Fast Lane

General aviation answers a question that wasn’t important until recently

I wouldn’t want to be riding out on the wing tonight. The wind is roaring down out of the north like a polar bear’s breath—a vicious torrent of air frozen by winter and twisted by the Rocky Mountains. Somewhere below, far down in a blanket of black sky four miles deep, the night snow of November blitzes New Mexico and Colorado into immobility.
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In the United States, there are currently something like 600,000 licensed pilots who log 27 million hours a year in 225,000 airplanes. Mobility is becoming a key concept in the business world, and also it means more to the recreational traveler. General aviation has proven its worth as an alternative to automobile and airline travel; it offers access to thousands of places on your own schedule, with all your baggage guaranteed to arrive with you and no need to strip before boarding the airplane. Oh, and yes, you can load a life raft, a utility tool, a seeing-eye dog and an over/under survival shotgun if you wish.

Sadly, pilots still have to battle the inanities of the Fourth Estate, and that’s not liable to change anytime soon. How many times have you read something like the following in your local newspaper: “A six-seat, three-engine Sikorsky Skyhawk crashed today in a vacant field, 60 miles south of Tecumseh, injuring all 12 onboard. Though the light plane went down on a Sunday, 67 miles from the nearest school in July, it could have injured dozens of school children had it crashed in a school yard in October. The flight originated from an uncontrolled field in Krelman, Idaho, so the pilot may have had little control. The weather was perfect at the time, but authorities said no flight plan had been filed, and that may have contributed to the accident.”

In truth, most of us who fly for fun or profit recognize that it isn’t always art and beauty. Flying can be pure work, irregular hours, fast food, too little sleep, marginal hotels and plenty of etcetera. Still, most pilots who make all or part of their income flying anything from Skyhawks to Boeings wouldn’t trade their jobs with anyone else. Whether it’s “scuzzbag freighter pilots,” as one friend at UPS used to call himself, aviators who fly checks at o’dark-thirty, ferry pilots who cross oceans in God-only-knows what kinds of airplanes, or airline captains, still regarded as the peak of the pyramid—all acknowledge that flying is a remarkable way to make a living. It’s more than coincidence that most pilots who fly for a living have a private aircraft stashed in a hangar at home.

And, yes, I’m aware that writing these words in an aviation magazine is targeting the wrong audience. Most of you who read Plane & Pilot are already aware of the amazing adaptability and flexibility of personal and business aircraft, whether you fly them for kicks on Sunday or to work on Monday. I work in this industry full-time, so no one needs to convince me of the operational efficiency of general aviation over the airlines.

Even at a time when fuel prices are going bananas, however, pilots are finding that the economics of doing it yourself can make sense. True, I had to fly an airline to Oshkosh last year (though it did seem slightly heretical to travel by airline to worship at the most holy of general aviation places), but that was only because I couldn’t find anyone to share expenses on the Mooney. The airlines wouldn’t consider operating most flights with a 25% load factor, so why should the math make more sense for a single pilot alone in a four-seat airplane? With two passengers aboard, I could’ve split the costs three ways and made the trip to OSH in nearly the same door-to-door time at roughly the same cost—and had fun in the process.

As I drift along at an easy 3+ nm per minute above an unseen winter in Kansas, outpacing the cars on the interstate below by a factor of at least three to one, I can only wonder why every businessman with the means and the need to move people and things from Podunk to Townsville hasn’t discovered the fast lane in the sky.

Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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