I wouldn’t want to be riding out on the wing tonight. The wind is roaring down out of the northwest like 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 clouds and black sky one to three miles deep, the night snow of November blitzes New Mexico and Colorado into immobility.
But, for me, the night is warm leather, the snore of my engines through the velveteen, obsidian darkness, and a moon and stars light the scattered clouds from above. There’s Ursa Major pointing the way to the North Star, right where my HSI suggests it should be.
On the panel before me, two dozen instruments paint impressions of my travel, and a half-dozen radios verify that I’m now far from where I began and closer to where I want to be.
Still, I seem to be suspended in my own private cocoon of immovable comfort, totally detached from the reality of solid ground. Two GPSs indicate I’m gaining on Wichita at 200 knots, so I have to assume the airplane is smarter than I am, nearly always the case.
The OAT reads -30º C a few inches outside the Plexiglas, but the Janitrol heater is keeping up. My Zulu headset suppresses the noise almost as effectively as an anechoic chamber, but lets in the music of Desmond, Miles and Kenton, more than a fair trade.
The engine nacelles on each side glow from the warmth of orange-hot turbochargers, happily spinning at a ridiculous 60,000 rpm, fooling my Continentals into believing they’re breathing the air of Denver instead of compressing the sky at 21,000 feet. I’m alone in the little twin tonight, well above the tallest rocks, reaching for the Midwest and the airplane’s new owner.
How did we come so far so fast, I wonder behind the gentle chaff of my oxygen mask? Can it really be only an incidental century since man discovered the incredibility of powered flight? Can we really have leaped so high so far and so fast?
‘‘Still, most of us who make all or part of our income flying anything from Skyhawks to Boeings wouldn’t trade our jobs for anything else.”
Yes, yes, and yes. It seems somehow a monstrous joke that one of the most significant scientific innovations since the invention of the wheel took nearly 5,000 years to achieve; yet, once realized, progress in the new discipline has been little short of logarithmic.
Until the 19th century, the cleverest form of transportation known to man was the back of a horse, plodding along at perhaps 5 knots. Trains elevated that to 40 knots. Today, private air travel is gaining on Mach 1.0 (570 knots), and 200 knots is becoming boringly commonplace on even single-engine piston aircraft.
Business and professional men and women, doctors, lawyers and bricklayers, plumbers and teachers—all are beginning to take airplanes for granted, as both the machines themselves and the pilots who fly them become safer practically every year. The accident record of “those little airplanes” is better than almost any other form of transport—snowmobiling, water skiing, dog sledding, ice boating, paragliding, bungee jumping and, most definitely, driving. The sky has no stoplights or centerlines, there are no drunks coming the other way, and most of the time, you won’t even see any traffic in a three-hour trip.
In the U.S., there are now something like 600,000 licensed pilots who log 27 million hours a year in 225,000 airplanes. Only 5,000 of those are airliners, cargo or passenger. Mobility is becoming a key concept in the business world, and it means more to the recreational traveler, as well. General aviation has proven its worth as an alternative to automobile, train and airline travel, offering access to thousands more places on your own schedule with all your baggage guaranteed to arrive when you do and no need to strip before boarding the airplane.
Oh, and, yes, you can load aboard a life raft, a utility tool with a knife blade attached, a seeing-eye dog and an over/under shotgun if you wish, no extra charge and no charges filed.
Sadly, pilots still have to battle the inanities of the Fourth Estate, who treats any incident as if a giant meteor had collided with the Earth. 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 Tucumseh, injuring all nine onboard. Though the light plane went down on a Sunday in July, 167 miles from the nearest school, it could have injured dozens of children had it crashed in a schoolyard in October. The flight originated from an uncontrolled field in Krelman, Idaho, suggesting the pilot may have had little control. The weather was perfect at the time, but authorities said no flight plan had been filed, so the pilot obviously had no idea where he was. Authorities are investigating, but so far, they suspect pilot error.”
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 etc. Still, most of us who make all or part of our income flying anything from Skyhawks to Boeings wouldn’t trade our jobs for anything else.
Whether it’s “scuz-bag freighter pilots” (as one friend with 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 ends meet. It’s more than coincidence that most pilots who fly for a living have a private aircraft stashed in a hangar back home.
And, yes, I’m aware that writing these words in an aviation magazine is preaching to the choir. 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 versus the airlines.
Even at a time when fuel is priced higher than good Chablis, pilots are finding that the economics of doing it yourself can make sense. True, I had to fly by airline to Oshkosh last year (though it did seem slightly heretical traveling by airline to worship at the Mecca of general aviation), but that was only because I couldn’t find anyone to share expenses in my 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 flying alone in a four-seat airplane. With two passengers aboard, I could have 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 three-plus nautical miles a minute above winter Colorado, outpacing the occasional disembodied lights of cars on the interstate below by a factor of three-to-one, I can only wonder why every businessperson with the means and the need to move people and things from Podunk to Townsville hasn’t discovered the fast lane in the sky.
Senior Editor Bill Cox made his first flight as a CAP Cadet in Anchorage, Alaska, in March 1953, flying in a Piper J-3 Cub on skis. As of January 1, 2016, Bill has logged some 15,100 flight hours in 321 types of aircraft. He currently flies a LoPresti Mooney. You can email Bill at [email protected].