I’ve never really understood why it’s true, but people seem to like lists for some reason. They’re forever buying magazines and clicking on hot links that will take them to The Top 3 Retirement Destinations in America, or The Top 5 Cars For 2016, or The Top 10 Reasons You Should Shop at Ralph’s.
It’s enough to drive a man to distraction.
I’m a team player, though. I can be flexible when the situation calls for it. So here I go, getting all flexible, playing ball, and basically giving in to the appetite of the crowd. So here, I offer you my Top 5 Reasons to Get Airborne. Go ahead and see how my list stacks up against yours.
Reason Number 1: To commemorate the work of Otto Lilienthal.
At the exact same time General George Custer was on the plains hunting native Americans in an effort to eradicate them from the face of the nation, a German engineer named Otto Lilienthal was in the early stages of actively engaging in a field of endeavor that was widely thought to be impossible — human flight.
By 1891 Lilienthal was launching himself from a hillside, to pilot a frail craft for only a matter of seconds. Over the course of more than 2,000 flights, Lilienthal learned more about aerodynamics than had been amassed by the entire human population combined to that point.
In fact, Otto Lilienthal was the only person on the planet who could, and did, fly reliably and repeatedly during the later years of the 19th Century.
Yes, that’s right. While it is absolutely normal to look up and see contrails of aircraft passing overhead on almost any day now, 120 years ago there was only a single person capable of planning and executing a flight that carried a human being. That person was Otto Lilienthal.
Reason Number 2: The Wright Brothers made it possible.
Yes, the Wright Brothers. I don’t care what the Governor of Connecticut signs into law. It wasn’t Whitehead. It wasn’t Pearse. It’s certainly wasn’t Langley. No. It was the Wrights.
Spurred to action in part by Lilienthal’s death, the self-taught engineers from Ohio turned the world on its head by proving the naysayers wrong, and beating the best funded scientists and technologists of the day into the air with a heavier than air, powered, controllable flying machine that was capable of carrying a man aloft.
The original Wright Flyer only flew for one day. It was damaged on the sands of Kitty Hawk and never flew again.
But the door to manned flight had been opened and the floodgates of experimenters, daredevils, serious engineers, and even shade-tree tinkerers began to pour into the industry, expanding and improving on the basic design of the aircraft, its mission, and its viability in the marketplace.
Reason Number 3: Glenn Curtiss did the Wrights one better.
If the airplane was brought to life by a couple bicycle mechanics, it only makes sense that it would be improved by a motorcycle man.
After their major success with the 1903 Flyer, the Wrights busied themselves by threatening to sue, or actually suing everyone who had the audacity to attempt to operate a flying machine with wings.
Motorcycle racer and engine builder Glenn Curtiss spent his time tweaking the machine, making it more to his liking. He won races at speeds of over 46 mph, a rate considered to be blistering at the time. He also flew long distances in record time, covering a 137 mile route from Albany to New York City in less than four hours, with only two fuel stops.
He also pioneered the seaplane, and built the only American aircraft to see any use in Wolrd War I, a big, wallowing trainer known as the Curtiss Jenny.
Reason Number 4: Flying has never been safer.
The terms “aviation,” and “safety” had only the most casual acquaintance in the early days of flight. In truth, flying was downright dangerous.
Building materials were of unknown reliability, aircraft designs were often questionable, and the pilot’s knowledge of aerodynamics, meteorology, structural integrity, and upset training were shaky at best. Instrumentation was less than reliable, and the amount of support a pilot could expect from the ground often amounted to little more than a water tower with the name of the town painted on it.
Today aviation is safer than ever. In fact, even with an enviably low accident rate, in nearly 75% of aircraft accidents, the pilot and passengers suffer little to no injury at all.
Classic designs that have been flying for decades have given us tremendous insight into what can go wrong with a particular airframe, engine, or appliance. With that information in hand, prevention becomes the name of the game, and it’s a game the general aviation community has become amazingly adept at winning.
Pilot training has also come a long way. We now realize the keys to safety are not found in the icy-cool stare of a pilot who looks and acts like John Wayne or Tom Cruise, but rather, in the methodical and well reasoned thought processes of a thoroughly prepared pilot who may bear a closer resemblance to Don Knotts or Halle Berry.
Reason Number 5: Flying is less expensive than ever.
Yep, it’s true. Flying today is less expensive than it’s ever been.
And that’s even true when you figure in fuel costs, insurance, and hangar fees.
With the aviation world awash in good, well-maintained classic aircraft that can be had for well under the price of a new Hyundai, and a growing appetite for flying clubs, partnerships, and fractional ownership options, flying can be less expensive than many traditional leisure activities.
Combine that fact with the added bonus that no matter how long you play golf, you’re still right there on the golf course, but if you fly you can find yourself having lunch in an exotic location that was virtually inaccessible by other means.
And you still might have time for a quick round of golf before dinner. General aviation wins, hands down.
Those are my top five reasons to get airborne. If you’ve got something to add, let me know.
Maybe if we work together we can double this list and publish a Top 10 List later in the year.
Until then, get flying. There’s never been a better time.