I look down and see that we’re completely over the azure waters of the Caribbean. Within 10 minutes we’re out of sight of the Florida coast, and we can’t yet make out Bimini or Grand Bahama Island.
For three months, this kind of adventure happened to me every day.
Last year I spent about 300 hours in honest-to-goodness cross-country journeys in Cessna Skyhawks, Mooneys, Piper Cherokees, and a new Tiger, taking photos and gathering information for the Flyguides Web site. The trips took me to places I’ve always dreamed of visiting: the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Deep South. After years of traditional travel writing, I had found the perfect gig: writing about the great places I was flying to. Some of that information also finds its way into the Postcards Online that members receive in AOPA ePilot. There we deliver information about a destination in your region one Friday a month (sign up for your free copy online at www.aopa.org).
The downside about such a job? The commute was no picnic: Say what you will about the 8:17 a.m. from Poughkeepsie – I was catching the 3:55 a.m. from Munich, Germany. Every other Monday. I began to suspect my wife – who stayed at home in Germany – did not love this setup as much as United Airlines did.
So we decided to move back to the United States. We threw all our belongings into a shipping container and headed west. Rather than settle down immediately, we decided that I would take the family with me on an extended research trip, which would double as a grand tour of America, my German-born wife and son’s new homeland.
Astonishingly, some have used the word vacation when referring to a three-month family trip in a general aviation airplane, although I must admit that I was, in fact, hoping for just that. Spending uninterrupted time with Corinna and 4-year-old Spijk (rhymes with Mike) was a dream come true.
But bills needed to be paid, and for me the trip was about gathering information on great fly-in destinations. In the first year, Flyguides had laid the foundations of a pilot travel Web site by publishing detailed guides to the largest metro-area GA airports in the country; now our small squadron of freelancers and I are flying around America to get information on the mid-size and smaller places we need to include to give our Web site a truly nationwide appeal.
With five and a half thousand airports to cover, we couldn’t afford to stay on the ground long.
My mission: profiling the East, South, and Midwest United States, as well as the Bahamas. We tried to schedule stops at beaches and interesting activities for the family, but adhering to the tight production schedule didn’t leave much time for lounging.
Things did not begin well. A couple of days into the trip, our rented Skyhawk blew out its radios in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) as we approached Lexington, Kentucky. It was interesting doing the “turn-left-two-two-zero-if-you-can-hear-this-ident” thing with the excellent approach and tower controllers there, but it was not something I’d wish to repeat any time soon.
Herb, at Hortman Aviation Services at Northeast Philadelphia Airport, was great: He told us to “fix the radios, send me the bill, then get on back here,” where he would swap us out for a 2004 Tiger. That Tiger turned out to have 80 hours on the Hobbs and that new-car smell.
One of the things we had worried about while planning the trip was Spijk’s ability to roll with the punches of GA: weather-related itinerary changes, getting stuck anyplace that is not Disney World…what amazed us throughout was his nonchalance when it came to getting into the airplane. After he called out, “One, two, three…takeoff!” to begin each flight, we could almost set the altimeter to Spijk’s nodding off as we hit 600 feet.
Perhaps the biggest surprise we faced as a family essentially living in an airplane was how quickly those routines evolved. Unless you’re driving a bizjet, GA travel is far more intimate than travel by car – if only because you’re unable to toss the luggage in the trunk. For the first few days, my right-seat passenger was a 55-pound Samsonite.
But imagine flying by GA every day, and every day someplace new: Leave the hotel, return the rental car, check the weather, load up and preflight the airplane, file the flight plan, take off, land, unload the airplane, get a rental car, head to the hotel…. The complex preparation, which I relished in the days of more sporadic flying opportunities, quickly became mundane.
This repetition was also an immersion course in real-world flying: Being in the system every single day is normally the domain of airline and cargo pilots. Being a part of this airborne community was a thrill, and I noticed that after a while, controllers treated me like a pro. As a newly minted private pilot, I’d been tentative on the mic. Later I overcompensated to the point of drawling like a graybeard. After weeks in the system I was relaxed but concise, and I knew when to be cute – and when to shut up.
Throughout our journey, we benefited from that most holy of travel-writing perks, local knowledge: We learned about the bourbon business and horse training in Lexington, and why the waters of the Bahamas are so gin-clear. We learned about the Bayou and the oil industry in Louisiana, Kansas’ high-tech corridor, and the Amish and Mennonite communities of Iowa. And that the best burgers any of us have ever had were at the airport restaurant in San Marcos, Texas.
Early on, we recognized my propensity to make decisions based on comfort in addition to safety, something new to me after a couple hundred hours of solo cross-countries. There were several days during which the weather was soft IMC: no icing or convective stuff, just garden-variety soup. Operationally this spells a smooth ride. But I had to scrub the flight because “Daddy, are we there yet?” takes on new meaning inside a 200-mile-long cloud.
Time, in aviation, apparently differs from that in the real world. A major point of contention for the first week or so was the allegation that I was underestimating journey time. “How long is it to X?” I’d be asked. I’d reply, “Oh, just under an hour.” Except, where we pilots count in Hobbs time, our friends and family tend to judge time using something they call a watch. Note to self: Families judge journey time door to door, not chock to chock.
I spent the entire three months feeling I was late for an appointment. Never before have I felt like such a rat as I did when, in a hurry and down to minimum fuel requirements, I landed at Morgantown, West Virginia, in the midst of a Young Eagles Day. As I was snappily marshaled in by Civil Air Patrol volunteers, I gazed at the sea of shining, innocent faces of children eager for their dreams to take wing. Then I slammed the Skyhawk door, said, “Sorry, guys, I’m just here for a fill-up,” and stomped off to the terminal.
Flight planning now required consideration of family business as much as the business end of cold fronts. We’d planned a straight shot from Northeast Philadelphia to Grand Strand Airport in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as the inaugural flight in the Tiger, so early in the morning we loaded kit, caboodle, and Spijk into the airplane and set off. As soon as we were in the air, though, Spijk had the mother of all temper tantrums. We set down at Philadelphia International Airport nine minutes after departure – and learned our first valuable lesson: The new Selby family rule is no one gets into the airplane without breakfast.
While we were getting used to the Tiger, Corinna and Spijk got an intensive course in aviation weather. As any Florida pilot knows, convective sigmets in the Sunshine State are much like the temporary flight restrictions around our commander in chief – they’re in place whenever you’re overhead. As we approached the Florida border, we began a three-hour cell dodge, which had us diverting 50 miles inland, then back to the coast, then inland again before making our way to St. Augustine.
We saw places we’d never have seen if it weren’t for the airplane: I’d never even contemplated Port Arthur, Texas, but when I arrived there for a break and fueling on our flight from New Orleans to San Antonio, the disarmingly friendly lineman at the Southeast Texas Regional Airport handed me the keys to his new truck (in lieu of a formal courtesy car). “Just make sure the gas is where it is when you got it,” he told us. And then he gave me directions to a nearby restaurant. Took me three tries to decipher his twang, but I heard something like “Sahtn.”
Forty minutes later, Corinna, Spijk, and I practically rolled away from the table at Sartin’s Seafood, where we had dazzlingly fresh, crispy, and enormous portions of fried fish for Corinna, barbecued crabs for Spijk, and broiled flounder for me. Awesome.
That kind of hospitality doesn’t, as far as I can tell, exist outside aviation circles. But within those, it’s commonplace.
The Bahamas provides pilots the best of all worlds, and the government is keenly supportive of aviation tour-ism, which is nice in itself. But the flying isn’t great there just because of the jaw-dropping clear water and dazzlingly white beaches; it’s practical, too. I could and did fly from Freeport to Walker’s Cay for a delicious lunch, then return for an afternoon on the beach at Port Lucaya; this is something the earthbound could never accomplish. There’s not enough space in this magazine to list opportunities like that in the Bahamas.
And having an airplane there was an interesting opportunity for me to show others the wonders of flight; the look on the face of the Rev. Hicks, as I let him take the controls on a flight from New Bight Airport to Hawk’s Nest on Cat Island, was of childlike wonder and bliss.
At the end of our odyssey, Corinna, Spijk, and I were, truth be told, ready to land for a while. Covering 5,099 miles, landing at 77 airfields, and moving our bags every 24 to 48 hours for three months took their toll. I knew it was time to stop when I found myself saying, “Roger,” at the Radisson check-in desk. I have to admit, during the next two months, I didn’t even sit down in an airplane.
Looking back, the journey was a lot like high school, or a stint in the Army: It was intense, I learned a lot, and we made some wonderful friends. But I wouldn’t want to do it again. In fact, it makes me wonder just how great my job really is. Maybe GA is best in smaller doses.
I think of my friend Carl, who starts planning his weekend trips on Monday and spends the week tweaking the route, researching his destination, and checking the weather. These ingredients are all part of the allure, and anticipation, of a GA flight to somewhere new.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more the whole concept of carpe nundinae – arguably Latin for seize the weekend – appeals. So next time you find yourself contemplating an hour of circles around the airport and holes in the sky, remember that no matter where you live, you’re under an hour flight from someplace great.