Although I am a huge and unrepentant advocate for general aviation, my first exposure to flight involved a big aluminum tube powered by four round engines.
Eastern Airlines was the carrier. Bradley Field in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, was the departure point. Gainesville, Florida, was the destination, with a change of airplanes in Atlanta. I was 4 years old, traveling in the company of my older, wiser, more responsible brother. He was 5.
This was in the pre-Beatles era when air travel was largely restricted to the well-to-do. Or in my case, the families of airline employees.
Until I was in my late 20s, I traveled exclusively as a non-rev passenger, an airline term that denotes a seat being filled by someone who is not contributing revenue to the airline. I am the son of a Pan Am pilot, and the former husband of a TWA flight attendant.
Standby was my method of travel, which means I have been left behind at least as many times as I’ve gotten on board.I recall one particularly unpleasant summer day in Atlanta when I was 13. More than a dozen flights came and went, while I cooled my heels at a revolving series of departure gates. Ultimately, I got out on the last flight of the night, with a hitch.
I’d been there so long the gate agent fell into the habit of ignoring me until the airplane pushed back, when she would return my ticket and wish me better luck on the next flight.
On this last flight of the night, the airplane pushed back, the gate agent gathered her things, and only then realized there were open seats on the airplane. My little pre-pubescent self was hustled off to a pick-up truck fitted with a stairway, driven out to the airplane at a taxiway intersection, and boarded like a celebrity who was running late.
The golden age of air-travel was never trouble free, but it was significantly different than it is today. You’ve heard the stories. Men wore suits and ties. Women wore fashionable dresses. Children were few and flight crews were cheery. Terminals were wide-open gathering spots for the whole family as they saw off the departing passengers. Adventure permeated the air.
By the 1990s that had all changed and I no longer enjoyed flying commercial. Not a bit. So I stopped. My last commercial flight was a TWA round-trip from Orlando to Chicago. That was in 1992.
I was an active GA pilot and had no regrets about my decision to avoid commercial air travel. None.
A few months ago, on a whim, I booked a flight for my wife and I to visit Austin, Texas. We’ve been married for 27 years.
Whenever we’ve been in an airplane together, I was the pilot.
I love to fly. My wife puts up with it. She’s not afraid of piston powered airplanes, but she doesn’t seek them out, either. She’s comfortable in the commercial environment. Her interest is in the seat, the snack, and the destination. The flight itself is something she tolerates as a necessity.
The commercial air travel experience I loved so much as a boy no longer exists. The air carriers I enjoyed as a young adult are gone, too. What remains is a bus station like atmosphere that bears little resemblance to the old days.
Today, passengers are treated with disdain or disinterest by pseudo-security automatons who appear to have little regard for the magic happening at the departure gates behind them.
Passengers are blasé about the personal invasions they suffer, even with the knowledge that it is a largely ineffective theatrical display intended to approximate an actual security screening process.
We line up like cattle, we board without joy, we take our seats with low expectations, and we get exactly what we paid for.
Yet, with all that said, I revere commercial aviation. This no-frills methodology may rankle some, but it offers real benefits even to cranky old codgers like me.
For a shockingly modest price I get to sit beside my wife, travel 1,000 miles in less than three hours, and enjoy a cocktail on the way. The flight is safe, quick, and efficient.
It’s no longer a great adventure, it’s simply a well established service. It works.
Still, not one kid peered wistfully into the cockpit. Nobody showed the least bit of curiosity about how the airplane worked.
They didn’t gaze out the window in wide wonder as the wing changed shape and size with the deployment of flaps and slats. They didn’t perk up with excitement as the pilots throttled up. Not a soul asked what our cruising altitude or speed might be.
They sat, they strolled, they generally ignored the crew, they endured. Amazingly, they showed no appreciation or interest in the art or science of flight.
Yet, I am comforted by something my fellow passengers apparently missed. In the front of that airplane, there are two individuals who love to fly as much as I do. As much as you do. They sit at the point of the spear, hands poised on the yoke and the throttle. They measure our airspeed as we race down the runway, rotate with grace, and lift that giant hunk of metal into the air.
Those two may be flying heavy iron headed for the flight levels. But there’s an excellent chance they both got their start flying something with two or four seats. A piston-powered airplane that bumped on the breeze and climbed like it was dragging a cement block behind it while their instructor reminded them to get their eyes outside.
Many still fly a piston-powered something or other just for fun. Because flying anything is challenging and awe inspiring and fun.
I came to general aviation via the airlines and I came back to the airlines to find general aviation playing an important role in keeping those big boys staffed and flying.
It ain’t what it used to be, but it’s still the most amazing thing most of us will ever experience. It’s just a shame so few recognize each flight for what it is — a miracle of human endeavor.
Thank goodness, you do.