For most people, flying conjures images of pat downs, long lines, frustrations, and cramped seats that haven’t been refreshed since the 1980’s.
However, for a small group of people, who fly what is called “general aviation,” flying is the opposite: it is a passion and often a lifestyle. I happen to be fortunate enough to have a private pilot’s license and the opportunity to fly small aircraft on a regular basis. For me, flying isn’t simply a means of travel; it is my life.
I can remember as a young teenager stepping into the early 80’s Cessna 152 for my first intro flight, which gave me a taste for how a small plane would feel. It was unlike anything I had ever done in my life. No check-in, no security, not even a destination. My instructor asked where we wanted to go— and we went there.
On the route, flying at only 3000ft above the surface, the people, terrain, and towns seemed so close. I could look around 360 degrees, including directly ahead, something most travelers never experience in a commercial plane. If something caught my eye, we could fly closer, circling overhead and enjoying everything around us. The beauty of this type of flying is not the arrival, but the entire journey there.
More recently, I had the opportunity to fly to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for an event known as EAA Airventure. Simple put, it is the largest gathering of aviation enthusiasts in the world. More than half a million visitors came to Oshkosh to share their passion for flying with others. The flight from White Plains, NY to Airventure was around 1,000 miles, close to half a cross-country flight. Flying at only 150mph, just a few thousand feet above land, was surreal.
When you grab the yoke (analogous to a steering wheel) to turn, climb, or descend, you become connected to the sky around you. I would bet it is different anything you’ve likely done before.
After getting west of NY towards the Pennsylvania border, viewing the ground from the air looks almost unreal. The farms and homes seem to sit on perfectly square plots of green that look as if someone had just finished painting them. From above, it seems more like a picturesque miniature world from fantasy than reality. The sky is so vast it almost feels like space. From the ground, up to somewhere near 45,000ft, over the entire US, there is air. That is, there is lots and lots of empty space with a relatively small percentage of it occupied by other planes. Because of this, the chances of seeing another plane at just a mile above the ground is remote. For more than half the route, it felt like my friend and I owned the sky. No one there to tell us what to do and not another plane could be seen.
Up in the air, you’re strictly focused on your safety as well as others looming below. Once you approach the runway, any other problem or thought crossing your mind is no longer important. The sensation of controlling an aircraft and having freedom in the sky is something that most people will never experience. The majority of people don’t even know that this kind of flying even exists as well as what they are missing out on. General aviation is much more than just travel and it doesn’t take much to experience it yourself.
The slower speeds of general aviation planes and the coziness of the cabin make you feel more like you are flying, rather than the aircraft is. When you grab the yoke (analogous to a steering wheel) to turn, climb, or descend, you become connected to the sky around you. I would bet it is different anything you’ve likely done before. Unlike an airliner designed to get you to and from your vacation destination, general aviation gives you the feeling of freedom similar to driving a convertible on a windy road with the top down blasting your favorite music.
Arrival into Oshkosh is unique. Around 10,000 individual planes (ranging from a small single engine Cessna 152 to a twin turbine powered Gulfstream) make their way to the show. The only way to arrive at the show is by landing on a single runway. Planes form a line in the sky, only a half a mile apart, and descend one by one, onto the runway— another unreal experience.
Small planes are getting so fast and comfortable these days they are starting to match the general population’s idea of what a small, private aircraft should be.
For those new to general aviation, the arrival is something you should fully take in. There are planes everywhere you look, canvassing the entire landscape. The arrival alone is a true rush of adrenaline. But touching down is only the beginning of the journey. Planes park just feet from each other and neighbors begin talking (honestly mostly bragging) about their plane and the flight in. My friend (another pilot) and I were parked next to a pilot who had flown in his plane all the way from England, just for this event.
After getting settled, the enormity of the event started to sink in. Hundreds of vendors selling aviation related items, seminars about different flying activities and demo aircraft, which the general public can get in and out of, to get a feel for what their future plane purchase may be.
All the big names; Cessna, Garmin, Cirrus, Beechcraft were there to show their latest and greatest. But there were also startups showing how their planes are cheaper and better than the big manufacturers. Advertisements for new technology was everywhere. Even a kit aircraft that claimed a mechanically inclined person can assemble his own plane with performance that beats some production planes. For just one million dollars, you could buy a turbine powered single engine aircraft called an Epic…with some assembly required. And by some, I mean 9-15 months of weekend building. But if complete, you can say you built your own aircraft, which is likely faster than your other pilot friend’s plane.
Seeing this sort of innovation raised my expectation of what a small aircraft can be. It can be a toy, a means of transport, a passion, and others I’m sure I’m leaving out. In my mind, a small single engine plane is more of a toy than a tool. These new manufactures though proved that even small planes are becoming more useful and practical than you’d think. Whenever people explain that small planes are cramped, slow and inefficient, I can now bring up aircraft like the Epic and many others. Small planes are getting so fast and comfortable these days they are starting to match the general population’s idea of what a small, private aircraft should be.
This event was an eye opener because the amount of aviation enthusiasts isn’t exactly comparable to Football or NASCAR-loving Americans. But having the opportunity to meet so many other people who shared my rare passion was undoubtedly remarkable. Being part of a community that so few know about, is a unique and coveted feeling. For this reason, I can easily say flying is the number one thing to date that has changed my life.
I truly suggest anyone reading this, who might be the slightest bit interested, to search for the nearest airport and see what I am talking about. On the rare chance you don’t enjoy it, you will at least have a better appreciation of why people are so passionate about flying, as well as the complexities and art involved.
At a bare minimum, you will realize that flying is much more than boarding an airliner to your nearest metro area. Flying is a large community of people who dedicate their entire lives to their passion. The cockpit for me is a place where I can forget my life on the ground, and be at ease. Find someone to take you up in a small plane and you can find out for yourself.