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.
But for me, the night is stars and moon and warm leather and the snore of my engines through the velveteen, obsidian darkness. On the panel before me, two dozen instruments paint impressions of my 200-knot speed, and a half-dozen radios verify that I’m now far from where I was and closer to where I want to be.
Still, I seem to be suspended in my private cocoon of comfort, detached from the reality of solid ground. The OAT suggests it’s minus-30 degrees C outside, but the Janitrol heater is keeping up, and my Zulu headset keeps out the noise but lets in the music of Wayne Bergeron—more than a fair trade.
The engine nacelles on each side glow from the warmth of orange-hot turbochargers, happily spinning at 80,000 rpm, fooling my Continentals into believing that they’re breathing the air of Denver, Colo., instead of compressing the sky at 21,000 feet. I’m alone in the little twin tonight, reaching for Wichita, Kans., somewhere out on the plain.
“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 and so far so fast?
Yes, yes and yes. It seems somehow a monstrous joke that one of the most significant steps forward since the invention of the wheel took nearly 5,500 years to achieve; yet, once realized, progress in the new discipline has been little short of exponential.
Until the 19th century, the most clever form of transportation known to man was the back of a horse, plodding along at perhaps 10 knots. Trains elevated that to perhaps 40 knots. Today, private air travel is gaining on Mach 1.0, and 200 knots is becoming boringly commonplace on even single-engine piston aircraft.
Business and professional men and women, doctors, lawyers, bricklayers, plumbers and housewives—all are beginning to take airplanes for granted as both the machines 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.
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 [email protected]