Believe it or not, there was a time in my career as an aeronautical nut when I couldn’t wait to get out of the little spam cans I was flying.
My plan was to move on to bigger, more capable machinery. Multiple engines were calling my name. Oh, to be operating airframes of much greater weight and capacity than the simple trainers I flew so often.
I regret that shortsightedness now, although under the circumstances I believe my rush to transports was completely understandable. Shortsighted and wrong, in many ways. But still, understandable.
Quite a few of my friends from flight school went on to fly those turbine powered transport category aircraft. More power to them, literally and metaphorically. They’re good at what they do and their contribution to the workforce has improved the world we live in, undeniably.
I, on the other hand, continue to fly some of the smallest, least awe-inspiring aircraft available – and I love it.
Yep, after a few decades of doing what I do and reflecting on why I do it, I have a whole new respect for the machinery I get to fly and the reaction those machines elicit from the folks I meet.
This past weekend is a great example of what I mean. I got up early on Saturday morning, toddled out to the local airport, pulled my company car out of the hangar, preflighted it, got a briefer on the phone for a quick chat, then launched off on an 85 nm journey to the southeast.
Aero Acres, a private airport community in Port St. Lucie, Florida, had invited me to attend its annual fly-in. The neighborhood is home to a 3,150′ by 50′ runway and some of the greenest, softest grass I’ve ever encountered here on the sandbar I call home. Sixty-eight home sites exist at this little slice of heaven. All of them have access to the runway, either directly or via taxiways that run right to their homes.
As I arrived at pattern altitude a few miles north and east of the field, I fell in line with a smattering of other general aviation aircraft. We were all monitoring the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency as we flew an orderly but well-spaced 45° entry to the downwind leg for Runway 9 – just like the Aeronautical Information Manual tells us to do.
Lining up to land behind a short-wing Piper that looked like it had just rolled off the factory floor, I reduced throttle, dropped flaps, pulled on the carb heat, and trimmed my airplane for a smooth hands-off descent. Everything went like clockwork and within a minute I was on the ground rolling up to show center. The ground crew directed me to taxi up and shut down beside a regal looking Cessna 195. Standing in the shade of its wing was its owner, my old friend and aeronautical mentor, Frank Gallagher.
My ride is a bright yellow and shiny black Cessna 152 provided by my employer, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Pat Brown, my counterpart in Texas, dubbed his airplane “Woodstock” in honor of the Peanuts character. Our peer in New York, Norm Isler, named his “Tweety,” after the flightless bird in Warner Brothers cartoons. My airplane has been nameless all this time. Until this past weekend.
“Grab a chair and have a seat by the Bumblebee,” Frank called out.
The name works. My company car, which is in reality an airplane, is now officially known as The Bumblebee. I get a kick out of that.
By the time lunch was served, aircraft filled the grass from one end of the runway to the other. A couple building lots at the eastern end of the field were packed full. According to organizers, 108 aircraft flew in for the day, and virtually every one of them looked like a museum piece. Within a stone’s throw of The Bumblebee and the C-195 were an SNJ-5, a Waco, and a Stearman — any one of which I would have been proud to fly.
A walk in either direction down the flightline would put you face-to-face with a Swift that was just as pretty as any you’ve ever seen, or a Navion that reflected sunlight so brilliantly from its buffed aluminum finish it was hard to look directly at it.
There were fabric-covered dream machines and aluminum monocoque speed demons. There were even a handful of homebuilt experimental aircraft that turned heads in the air and on the ground.
This is where the magic happens. Down on the ground over a BBQ pork sandwich, in the shade of a Live Oak tree, with a cold drink and a good laugh between friends. It’s found in the big eyes of small children who came out to see the sights with parents who know how impactful a day in the sunshine beside an active runway can be.
You can see it in the genuine admiration the owner of a beautifully restored classic shows someone who flies in with what you might consider to be a run-of-the-mill trainer – only to realize the owner of the classic soloed in that type of trainer decades before.
A couple years ago AOPA famously gave away a C-152 that looked remarkably like The Bumblebee. As I sit 10′ away, enjoying the shade of the C-195’s wing, a parade of smiling folks point at my ride and ask, “Did you win it?”
“No,” I answer them, wiping a blob of tangy BBQ sauce from my beard. “It’s my company car. I use it to get around the state to visit events like this, or conduct Rusty Pilot seminars, or to meet folks who want to start a flying club.”
“Wow,” they gush. “That must be pretty great.”
Yes, it is. I have to admit, it’s amazingly great.
And once again I’m thrilled to be spending the day flying around in the same type of airplane I learned in all those years ago. A simple, low-powered, surprisingly affordable airplane that gets just as much of a reaction from folks as it got from me when I first stepped aboard with the intention of flying it.
Thirty years into my career, I’m proud to say I’m a general aviation kind of guy. No regrets. Not a single one. And I’m enjoying the heck out of this life.