Being a pilot gives one a warped sense of time and distance. Seattle to Portland? About 40 minutes. Seattle to the San Juan Islands? About 30 minutes.
I think nothing of jumping in the plane and popping up to Friday Harbor for dinner or Orcas Island for a bike ride while many Seattleites have never been to the San Juans, daunted by the more than four-hour travel time each way and unpredictable ferry waiting lines.
While a small plane it is not exactly the phone booth from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it can feel like a time machine.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to invite some folks to fly with me from Seattle to Duluth, Minn., to pick up a new airplane. They were initially hesitant to accept my invitation, but it only took about 45 minutes in the air before they admitted this was better than being on an airliner. By the time we arrived in Duluth, they had sworn off commercial travel.
Our departure from Seattle’s Boeing Field that morning took us over the Cascade Mountains just north of Mt. Rainier. The landscape was blanketed in fresh snow and dotted with pristine mountain lakes that were not yet frozen.
Flying over Deer Park, Wash., we noticed what looked like words plowed into a field: “WILL U MARRY ME.”
As we overflew Spokane, Coeur D’Alene, and Glacier National Park, I watched my passengers snap photos and stare in awe out the window. Flying over these beautiful places with people who have never flown more than 100 miles from their home airport helped me appreciate just how amazing the world looks from a small airplane.
Jagged peaks, glacial lakes, and long cliff bands in western Montana wove together in an epic tapestry of green, blue and grey, only to drop off to the east into a windswept prairie, beautiful in its desolate solitude. We were the only plane on frequency when we announced our arrival into Glasgow, Mont., for fuel, and as we taxied to the fuel pump the only traffic we had to avoid was the tumbleweed blowing across the taxiway.
The sun dropped low in the sky behind us and the MFD turned from brown to green as the elevation of the terrain below dropped from thousands to hundreds of feet. The reds and oranges in the sunset grew deeper and darker, then faded from blue to black as the stars began to appear one by one. We were handed off to Minneapolis Approach as the lights of Duluth came into view.
Flying into Duluth always feels like a bit of a comfortable homecoming to me, but for my passengers it was another exciting new experience to add to the list of firsts that day. First time in a cloud, first time flying on an IFR flight plan and talking to approach, first time flying out of state, and the first time picking up a new airplane!
Three days later, I departed Duluth solo on my return flight to Seattle. It had been a packed few days, including multiple meetings, two aircraft deliveries, and an aerial photo shoot with the Cirrus Vision Jet. I was facing stern headwinds, turbulence, less-than-ideal weather over the mountains, and would need to make two fuel stops instead of one due to the wind.
Flying over Minnesota, The Land of 10,000 Lakes, it is easy to see how the state got its nickname. I thought about how different the view would look in just a few months when I planned to return to Duluth. What was now deep blue water surrounded by trees showing off their fall colors would be an expanse of white lakes indiscernible from fields.
Minnesota bled into North Dakota, the wind remained strong, and the flames marking the oil rigs in the Bakken Oil Patch shone like beacons as the light started to fade.
The weather for my final leg from Great Falls, Mont., to Seattle looked better than it had when I left Duluth and there were no PIREPs for icing anywhere along my route. The wind was still strong: 50 knots on the nose, but the air was smooth and I had plenty of fuel.
For the second time in a week I was flying over Glacier Park enjoying the mountain scenery, but the weather in the mountains can change quickly and it was not long before I was IMC and the temperatures started dropping.
I decided to divert to Missoula and spend the night there. While general aviation is flexible and efficient, it also demands respect and flexibility in return.
My outbound flight from Seattle to Duluth showcased the time savings, comfort, and freedom that general aviation can offer, but my flight home showcased the discipline, respect and understanding that general aviation requires.
Staying in Missoula overnight led to a beautiful and smooth flight the following morning with unparalleled views of the volcanoes jutting skyward from the Cascade Range.
General aviation is an interesting juxtaposition of convenience and restriction. The total trip time from Seattle to Duluth was shorter than it would have been via commercial airliner. We were able to depart when we wanted, my passengers were able to take more luggage than initially planned without any hassle, and I did not charge an extra baggage fee. When we saw cool stuff out the window, we were able to slow down to look around and take photos, and when we arrived in Duluth it took all of 10 minutes to disembark, unload our luggage, grab the rental car, and start driving to the hotel.
When my return flight was diverted due to weather, I did not have to stand in line and re-book a flight, then sleep at an airport gate with hundreds of other disgruntled travelers. Instead, I landed at the airport, secured the plane, and called for a taxi which arrived 10 minutes later and drove me to a nearby hotel where I had a tasty dinner and a comfortable bed.
While traveling via a general aviation aircraft is not always flawless, more often than not it provides a more convenient and more comfortable ride. Even when the trip doesn’t go exactly as planned, delays often translate to unexpected adventures, and at the end of the day isn’t it better when the journey is just as enjoyable as the destination?
Though being a pilot has given me a warped sense of time, I wouldn’t have it any other way.