The great equalizer

With all the hand wringing and brow furrowing we’ve experienced lately as a result of the sequestration, it’s probably worth remembering that we live in the most technologically advanced, affluent, and safe period of human history.

When my granddad was a boy he lived in a world that was devoid of everyday modern conveniences like electricity, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, or online shopping. Heck, stepping on a nail out by the barn could be a death sentence in his day. The infection had a better-than-even shot at killing you. Add to that little inconvenience the fact that the water wasn’t safe, the weather was lethally unpredictable, and the risk of expiring due to tuberculosis or influenza was so common that it touched virtually every family, and you’ve got something less optimistic than our current situation to talk about.

As I write this I can shift my view the slightest bit to see a Dassault Falcon on the ramp outside my window. This fine machine, which was built during the first Reagan administration, still carries a price tag of $4 million to $5 million. Two spaces away, lined up nose to nose across the ramp, is a Piper Cherokee that might sell for $35,000 or less.

Both these fine machines do essentially the same task. They take people or property from one place to another, and they both do it relatively quickly.

Admittedly, one is most often used by people of means, or who are conducting business on behalf of a corporation that finds their time to be valuable enough to warrant a lickety-split ride from Point A to Point B without the hassle of long security lines, the trek from a distant parking garage, or the annoyance factor brought about by a terminal building that’s jam packed with harried passengers.

The other is a more pedestrian flying machine, but it packs every bit as much adventure into every flight.

My first solo flight was in the left seat of a Piper Cherokee, and I loved that machine. It was neither speedy nor luxurious – but I could afford to put a few hours on the clock every month. The money came hard, but it came nonetheless. And by carefully allocating where my pennies went I was able to budget enough to fly so that I was hooked for good.

Little by little I learned to fly in that all-metal magic carpet. The process continued in fits and starts over a long period of considerable effort – until one day I found myself standing on the ramp in Vero Beach, Florida ,with a temporary Certified Flight Instructor’s ticket in my hand.

I had reached the mountaintop. I was now officially a working pilot. I got paid to fly an airplane. You can’t beat that with a stick. You couldn’t then and you can’t now.

Ironically, perhaps, Vero Beach is where the Cherokee is built. Piper Aircraft is located there, right across the parking lot from the FBO. I flew there one day with a friend and walked across that parking lot. We sauntered in the front door and said to the receptionist, “We heard you give tours of the facility. Is that true?”

The answer was yes and no. They did give tours of the facility – during well established times that were advertised and readily available. Of course it had never occurred to my flying partner or me that Piper Aircraft might have a schedule for its tours. So we prepared to be downhearted and limp back to our airplane for the flight home, slightly dejected, but still pretty darned happy to be in the club that lets people fly airplanes in almost any direction they want to go, pretty much any time they want to do it.

We didn’t make it to the airplane, though. Because the receptionist contacted the marketing department, and as it turned out, one of the big muckety-mucks in marketing happened to be free for a while. So he wandered on out to the lobby and offered to personally guide us through a tour of the facility.

We went, too. We were young, but we weren’t stupid. You take an opportunity when it falls in your lap like that.

That was one of the great adventures of my young flying life. We flew to Vero Beach, enjoying every minute of the experience. We landed and ate lunch at the restaurant on the field, then we launched off on what amounted to a VIP tour of the Piper Aircraft factory. We were nobodies. Just average guys off the ramp. Yet we got the royal treatment without even asking for it.

Maybe that’s what I love so much about general aviation. Perhaps that’s why I gush about it the way I do. Because in my experience GA is one of the great equalizers we can encounter in life. That guy behind the counter at the distant FBO has no idea if you are a VIP or just some flight student building time. At least in my experience nobody has ever asked.

The line service employee in St. Simons Island, Georgia, offered me a car and directions to the best restaurant in the area the first time I ever saw him. I hadn’t even bought gas or oil yet. An FBO operator in Merritt Island, Florida, once gave me $10 to use in their vending machines after she heard I’d been stuck overnight with a plane sunk in the mud. When I sent her $20 in a thank you note, she returned it, asking nothing of me but to pass on my good fortune to others when I could.

I’ve got stories. I’ve got lots of stories. But then so does everyone else who flies, or spins wrenches at the airport, or just stops for a sandwich and a cold drink on a hot afternoon.

You don’t have to believe we live in the most incredible time in all of human history. But we do. I just choose to accept the obvious, embrace the possible, and thank the men and women I’ve met in this industry who make every single day an adventure worth living.

Yeah. We’ve got it good. We really do. I hope you can see that and live your life to the fullest, too.





  1. says

    A GREAT JOB It has me thinking and looking back through the years. Your are right . Thank-you and please keep writing about this thing called G.A. PS; the way you write, it reminds me of a great G.A. writer that I really enjoyed and really miss , as others must do as well . Mr. Gorden Baxtor.

  2. Greg W says

    Jamie, evocative article once again,well done. I would add that the “low” end of aviation is where we all start and many long to return and in fact do. Next time we see a piper cub or cessna 140, look at the pilot, many times they are retired commercial/airline pilots. The goal of being paid to fly is common but so is the return to basic flight. By and large the majority of us got into aviation for the romance of flight, the mere idea of it. We know or soon learn that there is not much financial reward to flying, the intangible however is great. The G.A. airports are as a rule still friendly and helpful as you state, the good people of aviation are still there, so we as a whole need to take our non-flying neighbor for a flight in our planes that cost about the same as many cars and show them the “Norman Rockwell” America that is still out there just beyond the next horizon.

  3. Douglas says

    An important distinction in your story: A CFI does not get paid to fly. He/she gets paid to teach. While teaching, a CFI is considered a teacher, not a paid pilot, which is why a CFI does not need to maintain a 2nd class medical.

  4. says

    Jamie, I wholeheartedly agree, we do really have it good and should enjoy every minute. But things are changing. Corporate aircraft are under attack. User fees will surely come over the horizon. There are not enough influential GA supporters in DC or in State Capitals to assure the good aviation life and other of it’s joys will be sustained. The general non-flying public can, too readily, choose to turn airports into shopping centers, sometimes by the same thinking as “soak the wealthy”, because that’s often the way we are charcterized. Thank heaven for the never-ending ombudsmanship of AOPA, EAA and the like. The good news is, it will take a long time before the privileges we enjoy are erroded to the point that flying is no longer enjoyable, affordable and fun. Thanks for your upbeat post.

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