There’s nothing unusual about seeing two guys in the early stages of middle age, looking over a fabric-covered airplane before launching off to seek out a pancake breakfast or watch the sunset over the hills. Nothing unusual at all.
Yet there was something about the two guys on the ramp at Orlando Executive Airport that made me wander out the flight school’s air-side door to say hi.
They were pre-flighting a very sharp looking Bellanca 7GCAA, more commonly referred to as a Citabria.
With two seats in tandem configuration, 150 horses under the cowl, and a tailwheel, this is the sort of airplane plenty of pilots dream of flying. It’s light, responsive, packed with the potential to have a lot of fun, yet it won’t cost you an arm and a leg to buy, maintain, or fly.
The Citabria is the kind of airplane that is far more accessible than many would guess, but it’s still enough of a rarity that many of us have never flown one.
This particular Citabria belongs to the Orlando Aero Club, which has been giving recreational flyers the opportunity to climb into the skies above America’s favorite tourist destination and explore from on high for half a century. The club operates three other aircraft in addition to the Citabria. All three are C-172s. One has retractable gear.
Pilot number one, Frank, stood back from the airplane while pilot number two, Mark, handled the pre-flight inspection. Both men were cheerful and outgoing, freely sharing the story of how they’d met through mutual friends at work.
What was a bit unusual, perhaps, was in both cases, their work involved flying far larger aircraft, much farther than the little Citabria could ever hope to go.
Frank spends his professional life in the left seat of a Boeing behemoth known as the B-747. Based out of Frankfurt, Germany, he flies internationally on a regular basis. Mark flies the Airbus A-320 from a base on this side of the Atlantic.
Different men, different airplanes, different continents – same dream.
They met through aviation, earn their living through aviation, and continue to seek out the romance and delight of aviation in its various forms.
Although Mark is an old hand at the Citabria, Frank hadn’t flown a piston-powered, propeller-driven aircraft in years. No problem. They committed to the pre-flight briefing with the professionalism of two guys who do this sort of thing for a living.
Frank became familiar with the cockpit, while Mark explained the plan for the morning’s flight. They bonded over the airplane and the tasks to come.
The relationship transitioned smoothing into student/instructor or mentee/mentor. Imparting useful information was the name of the game.
I’m so glad I got the chance to meet them both and share just a sliver of the enjoyment they were getting out of going flying.
They typically fly IFR in the flight levels. This flight was entirely VFR, in a taildragger that would likely stay well below 5,000 feet for their entire flight.
Yet each was thoroughly enjoying being with another pilot who was just as excited to be headed upstairs as they were.
As we chatted prior to the flight, an interesting topic of conversation popped up: Transition training. Both these men work as professional pilots. Both understand the importance of committing to a transition training program when moving into a new aircraft.
And both of them recognize that transition training goes in both directions.
Whether you’re moving from a C-182 to a Caravan or a B-747 to a Citabria, it’s well worth your time to become truly familiar with the airplane, its systems, and its idiosyncrasies before leaving the ground. Doing that with a qualified instructor makes the whole process that much easier.
Here they were, doing just that. One high-time jet jock, walking the other through the paces of getting this much smaller, simpler, less powerful airplane into the air and safely back down again.
Eventually the time came for Frank and Mark to climb into the cockpit, and so I left the two intrepid aviators and stepped back through the flight school doorway, where a room full of Rusty Pilots awaited me.
By lunchtime, this crowd of lapsed pilots would be well on their way back to experiencing aviation from the front seat, as Pilot in Command.
And by shortly after dinner time Frank would be back at work, guiding his enormous beast of an airplane across the Atlantic ocean, while no doubt telling his first officer all about how exciting it was to get off the ground in less than 1,000 feet, fly over the Florida peninsula low and slow, and land an airplane that keeps its third wheel at the opposite end of the aircraft.
There’s a lot of enjoyment and personal satisfaction to be had up there.
Whether you’ve been away for years, or just haven’t flown a particular aircraft before, experiencing your own personal adventure is a great reason to head out to the airport this weekend to watch, and make a new friend, and maybe even expand your horizons by going flying. You might find you and your logbook have something in common with everyone else who flies, no matter how big, or fast, or modern their mount might be.
This flying stuff is a real kick. I’m going to make a point of trying to remember that a little more deliberately from now on. And with that, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to head to the airport for a little jaunt around the neighborhood. Really, it is.
I’ll tell you all about this flight and the airplane I’ll be piloting, later. I promise.