As a participant in the American system of general aviation, no one needs to tell you how utilitarian or beneficial the smaller, quieter airports in our system are.
These fields that sit serenely on the edge of town give users the ability to fly directly in to the destination they choose. They offer an efficiency that often can’t be matched by the bigger, more familiar facilities.
Small non-towered fields offer a significant advantage over flying into the big international airport an hour or more away. Especially when considering all the traffic and transit issues included in trying to get from that major facility to the town you actually wanted to get to.
This is a big part of the reason I recently found myself standing in front of approximately 30 representatives of the Civil Aviation Administration of China. My job for the day was to explain how non-towered airports work from the pilot’s perspective.
It’s a concept that is common in the U.S. and works well. But it is a type of facility that doesn’t exist in China. Yes, it is one they are coming to realize they’ll need to understand and adopt in some form if their aeronautical dreams are to come true.
The audience was young for the most part. And although men were in the majority, women were well represented both in number and in their willingness to participate.
I explained the basics of how we enter and exit the traffic pattern at a non-towered airport. The model I used is the one stipulated by the Aeronautical Information Manual. One way in. Two ways out.
Unlike when I teach this material to older, American audiences, the Chinese were intensely interested. They asked questions, good questions, about how the system would work in day-to-day conditions.
“What if there are two airplanes entering the pattern at the same time?” one asked. “What if there are multiple aircraft in the pattern, and one needs to declare an emergency, but does not have a radio?”
The discussion was entirely about how the system works. Nobody interrupted to object and forcefully share their feelings on the subject. Who has responsibility, how do we assure safety, which airplane has the right of way?
Great questions, but not once did anyone suggest the system is non-regulatory, as American audiences so often do. No one implied they could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted because there was no rule saying they couldn’t.
It was an interesting dynamic. A room full of aviation professionals discussing how to operate in such a way that safety is paramount, but with no controlling agency on site, and at least the possibility that some, or all, of the pilots involved would have no radio to broadcast their intentions.
It may seem impossible at first blush, but when you walk through the process, it’s apparent that the system works. It works well.
I loved the experience and so did they. Everybody came away having made some real progress.
Two days later, and 14 miles to the west, something equally exciting was happening. Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, the home of SUN ‘n FUN’s annual Fly-in and Expo, was taking a major leap forward.
The U. S. Border Protection General Aviation Facility opened for business on the field, meaning general aviation aircraft can clear Customs locally now, rather than making a stop elsewhere to handle paperwork on their way to Lakeland.
The first aircraft to utilize the facility was a Cessna 182 manned by local pilots Donovan Richards, Layton Bracey, and Phillip Herrington. They flew out to the Bahamas early, grabbed a bite on the beach, then headed home again.
Mike Zidziunas was with them, proudly filling the role of back-seat passenger. He points out with glee that he never touched the controls on the whole flight.
Mike and the three young pilots piling out of that Cessna last week illustrate a point much larger than is apparent at first glance.
Mike is the president of the Lakeland Aero Club, an organization dedicated to the proposition that young people can be successful in aviation if given the chance to get involved in a meaningful way early on.
A CFI and an A&P with Inspection Authorization, Mike runs a tight ship. He guides high school students through the paces of restoring, maintaining, and flying the aircraft in their hangar. Whatever they’re doing, they do it right. If it’s not right, they do it again. Learning takes place on a very high level.
Yet, as if in a throwback era, the Lakeland Aero Club kids fly taildraggers almost exclusively.
So far 61 private pilot certificates have been issued to students who’ve been associated with the club. The three who were part of the first international flight to clear Customs at Lakeland are all members of the Lakeland Aero Club. They learned to fly there. They’ve launched their careers there. And even as young adults, they all remain active in the club to the degree their work and life allows.
Herrington is a first officer flying for an airline today. Richards is vice-president of the club, working hand-in-glove with Mike Z on a day-to-day basis.
In China, general aviation is struggling to find its place. A totally new concept to a very old culture, aviation represents a leap into the future, and a grasp of the current potential China offers its residents.
Lakeland Linder International Airport is stepping up to become a place of real education and commerce, where even a high school student can learn to fly, depart the U.S. and return, and discover a whole new way of life in the process.
Who knows, perhaps some of the students learning to master general aviation here in the U.S. will one day fly over the horizon to China where they will help blaze a trail that will open up the whole world to everyone, everywhere.