A thin wisp of fog clung to the surface of Runway 9 at Jack Edwards National Airport in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Only waist high, it didn’t present a significant issue for departing aircraft. The thermometer inched up to 49° as I completed my pre-flight. By the time I made it to the hold short line, it warmed to 50.
I advanced the throttle, checked my tach, and enjoyed the gentle acceleration typical of the charming but somewhat anemic Lycoming powerplant pulling my Cessna 152 forward. Rotating briskly, the airplane departed, leaving Gulf Shores behind.
The unfolding of that simple chain of events, a series of actions and reactions that are so familiar to pilots all over the world, would have been mind-boggling to the pioneers pursuing powered flight just 115 years ago. They could dream it, but as of Oct. 31, 1903, nobody had actually done it. Not once. Not anywhere.
A century later the challenges that seem insurmountable to potential pilots may be the cost, or the complexity of the machines, or the time required to earn a pilot certificate, or an unclear vision of how they’ll use their certificate should they be fortunate enough to earn one.
How can I say this, politely? None of those concerns are valid.
Not really. Not when you consider the benefit that comes with the achievement – both anticipated and unanticipated.
When I began learning to fly I was a long-haired musician living in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. My only goal was to earn a private pilot certificate so I could occasionally escape the big bad city — maybe flying as far away as Block Island or Nantucket. That was it. That was my full set of expectations.
I certainly had no intention of flying professionally, or doing any of the aeronautically oriented things I’ve been doing with such satisfaction for the last three decades.
In truth, I didn’t have the slightest idea what opportunities and adventures might await me out there in the big blue. I thought I did.
In fact, like most prospective flight students, I thought I had a pretty darned good sense of what I would do with that pilot certificate I’d been thinking about for so many years. I was totally wrong on all points, too.
Like anyone today looking at learning to fly, I found the price daunting. Based on my calculations of the time, it appeared that a private pilot certificate would cost me nearly as much as a good, used car. I was wrong. It cost me more, because I was a lousy student who chose lousy flight instruction for my first few dozen hours. My private pilot certificate cost more than my first new car.
That seems bad, doesn’t it? It’s not. That first new car was parted out, the remainder crushed and recycled, long ago. But I’m still flying.
Truth be told, I’m enjoying my aeronautical exploits more than ever. The car is now worth absolutely nothing. My ability to fly has become priceless.
You can train to fly in the newest, fastest, most complex machine on the market. Or you can train in a small, slow, basic trainer, just like I did. Just like so many hundreds of thousands of pilots who came before me.
Fast is expensive. Complex is expensive. Small and slow is far more cost efficient. That’s just one of the many reasons I still fly a moderately lethargic, inexpensive to operate Cessna 152 today. It’s a great airplane. It’s tough. It’s resilient. It gets the job done and still gives me a thrill doing it.
What is slow, anyway? Slow compared to what?
The last time I visited Gulf Shores I was on a motorcycle. It took something like nine hours each way. This trip took only a fraction of that time.
At 3,500′ above the beach, headed East with the warm rising sun on my face, I caught a bit of a tailwind that drove me along at 110 knots. That’s nearly twice the speed of cars motoring along Interstate 10. I was happy.
As the coastline turned South at the Big Bend, I followed the geography, climbing to 5,500′ for the second half of my trip home. The tailwinds picked up, pushing my little flivver up to 125 knots. Those are nearly Cessna 182 speeds, with a Cessna 152 fuel burn.
During those early flight lessons on Long Island it never occurred to me that one day I would be a mile above the surf, squinting back as the sun reflected off the Gulf of Mexico, moving at nearly 150 miles per hour, in complete control of my destination and my destiny.
General aviation has proven to be much more than I ever believed it could be. For me, and for so many pilots, it’s provided a whole new lease on life. A bigger life. A more adventurous life. A more fulfilling life.
This morning at the coffee shop, as I took a seat beside my usual crew of caffeinated cohorts, one of them, a very successful businessman, asked, “Hey, could you fly to Cuba if you wanted to?”
“Sure,” I answered.
“How about the Bahamas?”
“How long would it take? I mean if you wanted to fly to the Bahamas with your wife?”
“Maybe two hours,” I answered. “It depends on which island we’re going to.”
His response came in the form of a long, low whistle. “That’s amazing.”
Yes. Yes, it is amazing. And it’s totally within the reach of the average man or woman on the street, too.
Yeah, my pilot certificates cost me more than a new car. But what’s a new car worth 30 years later?
I can’t even begin to tell you what my certificates are worth. The value is far too high to be measured in dollars.
I suspect Orville and Wilbur, Glenn Curtiss, and their peers would feel similarly.